Thursday, February 9, 2012

So-Called Writing Rules - a great post from Pat Wrede

Back about a month ago, Patricia C. Wrede wrote an excellent post which began with the following:

"Once again, I have been driven to frothing at the mouth by a would-be writer-and-critiquer’s thick-headedness in regard to both the construction of the English language and the so-called rules he’s trying to apply, and you folks are going to have to put up with the resulting rant."

I just came across the link again, and I thought I should pass it on, belated though it may be.

Misunderstanding Grammar

The problem here is that the attitude which drives poor Ms. Wrede to frothing is inevitable, I think. People don't notice how much they use the verb "to be" or how much they use passive voice. Then, once it has been drawn to their attention, they become hyper-attentive to it. (Note to anybody learning anything: become aware, not fixated.)

The other thing that makes people misunderstand the rules about passive voice is that passive voice is the bane of institutional memo writing. At work, you feel the pressure not to offend or blame anyone, so you use passive voice. "The ball was dropped," we say. "The decision was made to do this harebrained thing."

And so the first rule of business writing is to break this cowardly habit. Hunt down passive voice and kill it! Find some other way to be diplomatic! And one short cut to hunting down passive voice is to search for all instances of "was" or "is."

When we write fiction, we do not have that prime directive "do not blame the boss" hanging over our heads. So when we use passive voice it's for a different reason. It is no different than any other wordy or indirect construction. There is no reason to single it out for special treatment.

Anyway, for those who are getting hung up on arbitrary writing rules, read Ms. Wrede's post. Here it is again:

Misunderstanding Grammar

See you in the funny papers.


Tom Johnson said...

I love this. I have one editor that hates "ly". I want to show the reader that my character turned "slowly", or "swiftly", but it will end up "He turned." or "She turned." This editor even removed "finally". I think she does a spell check for "ly", and deletes every word she finds ending in "ly". Any good suggestion how I can make her see I need the "ly" once in a while?

The Daring Novelist said...

Does she work for you, or do you work for her?

If you work for her, sorry, you'll have to put up with it. She's the customer. All you can do is make a case for each and every individual one of you adverbs. Or, if this is a junior copy editor, you can appeal to your real editor.

I found that older, more experienced editors generally don't ask for things which aren't necessary. But young editors (even if they've reached a position of authority) make tons of absurd and unnecessary edits, and you can usually get about half of them restored to what they should be.

But if you've got a bad editor, stop submitting to them. IMHO.

If she is a critiquer who is doing you a favor, tell her to mark it (not delete it), and then you just ignore her when she goes overboard.

If she works for you? Tell her just what you told me. You're not paying her to blindly delete adverbs. You may find that her other work makes her worth keeping on -- you can just ignore the adverb edits -- but if you have to just keep restoring your prose, fire her.

Sarah McCabe said...

My big beef with the "adverbs are evil" and "absolutely {(see what I did there?) no passive voice" people is that no one seems to be able to give a very good answer to exactly why these things are bad. The best reasons seem to be something to do with reader reaction, but this of course assumes that all readers are alike and all readers viciously critique the books they read. I just can't buy that.

The Daring Novelist said...

They're bad because... because... because they're bad! They're just bad. Take my word for it. They dilute your good prose with badness. That's why they're bad.

Seriously, the reasoning behind the rule about adverbs and "to be" verbs is mainly Fewer Words = Better.

But the difference between "gargantuan" and "really big" is voice and clarity. That's all.

Tom Johnson said...

Thanks, good advice. She's also the publisher, but very inexperienced. I've submitted one more story to her, which is under contract, so I'll probably have to deal with her a little while longer. I have spoken to the lady about this, but she won't listen (sigh).