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Thursday, December 01, 2005

 

A LETTER TO A WRITING STUDENT

Writing Rules

Some time ago, a student in one of my writing classes sent me a letter asking why writers need to follow rules. “Why can’t we simply be creative?” In assessing the issue she presented, I had no simple answer I could provide her. However, the question led me to think about writing in a historical context. We take for granted the benefits and curses of mass communication. It is only in the past century that books have been distributed widely throughout the world.

My thoughts regarding the issue she raised were the subject of a letter I wrote to her. My response was as follows:

April 22, 2002

Dear Nadine,

I hope that your increasing knowledge of writing hasn't gotten in the way of your natural, creative inclination. A deep separation lies between the creative process of writing and the structural work you need to accomplish when the main idea is on paper (or screen). Before you think about revising, first write what you feel. Allow it to come out as you imagine it. Remember, good writing didn't evolve from rules; good rules evolved from writing. When a particular sentence, passage or story proved to be pleasing, scholars examined it to determine what about it pleased the reader’s senses. Every creative and evolutionary act explores new territory. The best writing broke the barriers that preceded it, but the writer had a deep and thorough understanding of writing precedent. My own theory is that the great writers had a natural ability to choose words that opened all of the reader’s senses.

Analysis allows others to understand how a writer used or broke precedent to create her story. Great writers of earlier centuries did not have the advantage of volumes about the art and craft of writing to aid them. They learned basic grammar, spelling and punctuation in school, and had a gift of internal organization that made their words memorable. We attempt to recreate the kinds of wonders they discovered so that we may please our readers.

Few plots are original. Shakespeare rewrote the history of kings and emperors, adding fictional events and characters to the mix, to turn history into a dramatic adventure. Henry Miller depicted portraits of lust, love and the hedonistic/artistic life in Paris. But, the words they each chose to describe their stories and the dialogue their characters spoke lifted their works above the crowd.

As more people became literate, the number who attempted to write grew exponentially; rules became more complex and were given more attention. In earliest times, only academics and clerics wrote -- or read. Few others were literate. For the most part, the academicians and clergy wrote for colleagues, not the general public. Books, until a few centuries ago, were handwritten. Often, only one copy of a book was produced. Oral communication, by necessity, served the masses.

The lines separating painting and sculpture from other forms of communication are blurred at best. The single commonality is that all have rules. What makes Mr. Strunk and Mr. White experts on how words should be aligned? The answer is simple: They were students of the written language. They took principles of language structure that evolved over centuries and codified a set of rules that could be applied to the emerging field of mass communication of published writing. The inventions of the printing press, the typewriter, the computer, and rapid transmission and transportation of ideas and materials created a burgeoning market for the written word; the development of right to education laws in most countries created an informed society that cried out for reading material.

Rules of writing were never meant to stultify creativity. They were developed to organize it in a manner that gave publishers a yardstick by which they could measure new works and writers some guidelines that would help them focus their natural talents.

How do we know when a work is salable? Simple: When it sells it is salable. What do editors look for when they examine a writer's submission? At the intersection of your writing and the editor’s keen eye is where the rules of writing come into play. It is possible to measure a work against a set of constant rules when it fails to flow naturally. Rules allow us to explain why a particular work will not be pleasing to readers. For writers whose work has stood the test of time, such as: Shakespeare, Hemingway, O'Neill, Angelou, Miller (both Henry and Arthur), to name a few, their marvelous ability to organize ideas into powerful manuscripts gave them the ability to know which word or twist of plot would give their writing the meaning they desired it to have. Their writing acumen was analogous to the musical genius of Mozart; he wrote complex musical compositions at such a tender age that he could not possibly have first learned music theory. His works came out whole as if a tape recording was playing in his head.

I remain intrigued by the writing process. Learning how to write isn't about finding answers. Rather, it is about developing more effective questions. It isn't about rote memorization of rules. It is about fine-tuning writing to eliminate sloppy thinking, ineffective choices and obtuse descriptions. I couldn't tell you what many of the complex rules of grammar are off the top of my head. I'm not an English teacher who needs to express rules daily to teach them to others. Both my professional pursuits – writing and the practice of therapy call for the use of words that are specific and leave no unintentional ground for vagueness. I couldn't tell you the rules of tenses, however, an alarm bell goes off in my head when I mismatch them in a sentence or paragraph. The alarm sounds more frequently and accurately as I add daily to the sum my writing output; I am more aware of the kinds of mistakes I tended to repeat.

Learning any professional skill means accepting that there is a need to improve and grow. Writing is neither dream nor chore. It is a calling -- an old and noble one that began as an ability to create pictures that evolved into printed and spoken words. Written language is a latecomer to human evolution. A hot meal was always available for the chronicler of tribal history and the font of tribal legends. Thus began non-fiction and fiction as separate categories of communication. Now you know who to blame. The status of the chronicler was unique and revered. The knowledge carrier was exempt from hunting and war. The carrier of knowledge was as important as the fire that kept away the cold and cooked the food. Would that those early rules still applied. Today, telling stories is not sufficient to attain a hot meal. Today, a story must be crafted into a mold that allows the publisher to assess our work against a table of probabilities. He asks: Will it sell? rather than, “How well written is it?”

In the same way that the lottery has a new winning number every day, new books, magazines, journals are printed, electronically published and distributed to a world that absorbs words faster than we can write them. Like the lottery, for the many who chance to submit, few will win. However, if you remember only one think I say here, it is that good writing always finds a market. Always. The trick? Know enough about the rules of writing to be able to make an accurate assessment of what good is.

Lollipops and Unicorns,

Milt

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