When Writers Can’t Write
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Maya Bohnhoff (& Clancy)

Once upon a time, alas by now a long time ago, when Indians or to be correct the aboriginal people of America where still allowed to follow the nomadic lives of their choice, there were those afraid of and maligning, rightly or wrongly, strangers who entered their settled lives.”

I often see sentences like this one (from which the serial numbers have been filed to protect the creator thereof). Too often. From people who have no idea that there is anything wrong with what they have written. They love to write. They believe they are just a few tweaks away from becoming the next JK Rowling or JRR Tolkien. They have brought their beloved creation to a writer’s workshop that I’m participating in, or they have hired me as an editor, and now they wait to hear me say, “This is magical!”

When I get this sort of sentence in a manuscript, my reflexive reaction is, “Where do I start?” There’s so much to stop the reader’s eye and ear, it’s hard to know. I could start with the cliched “once upon a time” (which, trust me, is entirely out of keeping with the tone of the story that follows), or with the passive voice, or with the nested clauses.

In this case, the starting point for a critique would be the fact that I have no idea what the sentence means. Both the nested clauses (“alas by now a long time ago”, “or to be correct the aboriginal people of America” and “rightly or wrongly”) and the passive voice (“there were those afraid”) muddle things most effectively. I’m not even sure what the subject of the sentence is. It’s not the aboriginal people—they’re only referenced to set the time the sentence refers to. The subject is “those” who were afraid. Afraid of what? All I know by the end of the sentence is that someone is afraid of and maligning (or perhaps, if “and” is a typo, is afraid of maligning) unspecified strangers.

This is the opening sentence of a story. This means it’s critical in setting tone, mood, voice, place, and/or character. Alas, this sentence does nothing to enlighten the reader about any of those things.

The question for me, as a mentor or editor is: Can I teach this person to write?

Victorian lady writerThere are two aspects to this question. Both relate to capacity. Do I have the capacity (and the patience) to teach this writer how to craft a clear, communicative sentence and to string those sentences together into a coherent story? More important, still, does this writer have the capacity to learn?

I used to believe that anyone could be taught to write if their desire was sincere and they were willing to work at it. I’m now certain that viewpoint is sweet and noble and profoundly wrong.

I’m a musician and singer. I have a keen sense of relative pitch. This means that if someone sings a melody, I instinctively hear harmonies—thirds, fifths, sevenths, ninths, seconds. Heck, I don’t just hear harmonies—they explode in my head like varicolored fireworks and then shoot out of my mouth without me thinking about it. (I wish writing were as easy.) I have long realized that not everyone can sing. For one thing, not everyone has a musical voice. Some people’s vocal cords—for whatever reason—will not contrive to let them sustain a tone.

There is a more profound version of this—tone deafness. Some people simply cannot make musical tones because they are literally deaf to the difference between the sound they are making and the sound they are trying to make. They have no sense of pitch. They cannot hear gradations in tone. They cannot tell the difference between a good note and bad one.

Over two decades of participating in writers’ workshops, mentoring would-be writers and editing folks who desperately want to write, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that desire—no matter how sincere—is not enough. In the same way that a singer or musician needs to be able to recognize notes, tones, rhythms and dynamics in order to produce them himself, a writer must be able to recognize word shapes, shades of meaning, cadence, dynamics and pacing in order to put those things on the page.

Somerset Maugham said that “Words have weight, sound and appearance; it is only by considering these that you can write a sentence that is good to look at and good to listen to.” Someone with a “tin ear” will not be able to write a “good” sentence no matter how much they want to if they cannot feel the weight, see the shades of meaning in the words, and hear the notes that are being sung.

Writer

As an editor and writing mentor, I sometimes come to the sad realization that a “student” or client can’t hear their own voice. In some cases, it doesn’t matter. The client doesn’t want to write—he wants me to bring his beloved ideas to life and make them sing and dance. I’ve had clients like that and they’re a joy to work with.

On the flip side is someone who already believes he can write well, and who honestly doesn’t understand why I keep telling him the same things over and over again. Why do I keep harping on grammar or word usage and tense? Why do I keep rewriting his sentences and “simplifying” his prose? What did I mean by saying a sentence was “awkward”? What’s awkward about it?

In the middle somewhere, is the writer who has weaknesses, knows it, wants to learn the craft and has some awareness of the gap between his prose and the prose of someone who’s really good at it.

The person who wrote the sentence at the beginning of this article could not tell the difference between that sentence and this one: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.” (The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson) Or this straightforward gem: “The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm.” (Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury)

Zen in the Art of WritingThe writer who wrote that example sentence believed he had written something magical. If he’s truly tone-deaf, nothing I tell him and nothing he reads—even by writers considered to be masters of the craft—will convince him otherwise. He simply cannot hear a qualitative difference between his prose and Jackson’s or Bradbury’s. He is sure he can sing and is not content to warble only in the shower.

After twenty years of coaching writers, I still can’t bring myself to tell someone, “You can’t write.” And I’m still searching for that magical something—an exercise, a reading list, a turn of phrase—that will enable the tone-deaf writer to hear the melody he’s trying so hard to sing.

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When Writers Can’t Write — 24 Comments

    • It is passive. There’s no subject; just a blank “there were,” followed by a predicate.

      The active form would be something like “some were afraid.”

      I’ve never figured out how to tell clients they can’t write, either. Ultimately all I can do is find an approach that helps them to write better than they did before.

      Maya, have you noticed that the least talented are the ones with the biggest ambitions? In one writing class, when I asked the students to tell me what their goal for their writing was, most talked about finishing a story or novel, learning how to do this or that better, or getting published. One answered, “To win a Pulitzer.”

      He was the least talented writer I’ve worked with in three decades. No one has ever taken the title from him. He was singular in his inability to put together a coherent written sentence, let alone string sentences into a coherent narrative.

      Very nice man. Very good intentions. But couldn’t write at all. I steered him away from fiction and toward short essays, and he improved a bit over the two years I taught in that program, but he had plateaued by the end.

      • That’s not a passive. A passive is defined as when the object of an active sentence is moved into subject position. This is a simple expletive-there construction.
        Expletive-there’s are very natural as first sentences, because they’re used to present new information.
        #Linguist
        Check this out.

  1. I don’t know if it is ever possible to turn a bad writer into a great one, but I really don’t doubt that everyone can reach some level of competence. Part of it is just being aware of the details. The writer you quoted above is clearly hearing cadence and connotation in his/her head, but hasn’t grasped the form well enough to convey it correctly. It’s like a painter, attempting to capture the figure of a raven, and putting a blob for a head and some sort of beak over there, and a undersized scribbled body below.

    When I’m teaching essay writing I keep on telling the students to figure out what they mean and then say exactly that in as short a sentence as possible. Logic and analytical thinking can make an essay sing. For fiction I give the same advice. Know what you are trying to say. Know what effect you want to have on the reader. Some people may expect that writing should be easy, should be fluid and mystical, but it is a task like any other. Most of all, it’s an engineering task. We don’t expect engineers to start out building cathedrals, they start with huts. But a well designed hut keeps off the rain and doesn’t fall down. If a writer can be taught to build a sturdy hut-sentence, cathedrals may come in time. If they don’t, there will be more sturdy huts in the world, which is not a bad thing at all. Better far than a cathedral that falls on your head.

    • People often label something “passive voice” when it’s merely a sentence using the verb “to be.” I don’t think very many people understand the concept; I’ve never wrapped my head around it and I spend quite a bit of time reading the smart linguists on Language Log on the subject.

      So I don’t think labeling a sentence “passive voice” is very useful, even when it’s accurate. Better to point out that a phrase is boring, as Sherwood says, or lacks detail. Give the person something to work with.

      • I think “There were those afraid.” could be interesting if it weren’t for the rest of the sentence. (Although I’d probably be tempted to write “There were those who were afraid.” and make that an entire chapter unto itself which is almost certainly bad writing. 😉 Too many modernists at an impressionable age.)

      • Passive means done to, and often omits the subject altogether. The governmental two-step is often quoted here, “Mistakes were made.” We have the verb, and the object, but no subject making the mistake.

        The prisoners were dragged into the dungeon by the guards.

        Active:

        The guards dragged the prisoners into the dungeon.

        That use of ‘were’ up there is where people get confused, but it’s just a tense matter.

        • Of course, one problem with the passive voice advice is that it’s not vigorous enough. You want to be wary of any auxiliary verb, including the progressive voice (speaking of things confused with passive voice), because generally you need more strength, not more subtlety, in prose, and auxiliary verbs are all shades of meaning.

      • I’ve run across a number of people who think “passive voice” means “nothing is happening.”

        Though as the most common grammar error in critiques, it has a lot of competition from the souls who think that “run-on sentence” just means really long sentence.

      • Yay for LanguageLog!

        Passives really aren’t that hard to understand if you know the basic structural properties of the sentence.

        Verbs take one or more arguments.
        He ran. (1)
        John hit Bob. (2)
        Dave threw the ball to Jim. (3)

        Verbs that only take one argument can’t be passivized, but they can be inverted. So you can transform:

        The car sped down the street.
        into
        Down the street sped the car.

        Both are fine. Neither one is more exciting than the other.

        With 2 arguments, passive voice moves the object into subject position.

        John hit Bob. > Bob was hit (by John).

        This can make a sentence better and fit better into a paragraph if the old or familiar information comes first and the new or complex information is moved to the end.

        3 argument verbs are fun because you can put either the object or the indirect object into subject position.

        The ball was thrown to Jim by Dave.
        Jim was thrown the ball by Dave.

        Passives are only when a non-subject argument of the verb is in subject position. Everything else is a different construction.

        There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. = There-expletive cleft.
        It was the cat who sat on the mat. = It-cleft
        Now John, he’s a good fellow. = (Subject) Topicalization
        Beer? I like it. = (Object) Topicalization
        Butter spreads easily. = Middle Voice (Why is this not passive? Because it doesn’t have passive morphology – no auxiliary verb. It also means something different. Don’t write stories in middle voice! Middle voice understands poorly.)

        Using passives because it makes you sound more academic is awful. It confuses the reader to no end. Using passives because you want to make your sentences flow coherently into one another is fine.

        • There is a great deal of Middle Voice in Jane Austen, and lit of that period. I’ve seen people trip over it.

        • Another use of passive to preserve parallelism

          Joan danced all night, was greatly admired, lost her shoe, chased after her coach, was scolded by her stepmother, and decided to run away before the prince arrive.

  2. My idea is that if it isn’t written clearly, it hasn’t been thought out clearly. Clarity of thought inevitably results in clarity of words. (Frequently this cloudiness is merely ignorance or confusion.)
    If it is impossible for the writer to get to clear writing, then he has a muddled head. Nothing the humble writing teacher can do about that, since we are not licensed to practice medicine.

  3. My instinctive response would be to read to where the story actually starts. Then figure out what to do with the stuff cluttering up the beginning. But we can’t phrase it like that. “What are you trying to say?” is an excellent question.

  4. Whattt??? I’m still stuck on that first sentence. What??? When, where, who?

    I would tell the author to cut the sentence out as Little Father Time did to himself and his siblings in Jude the Obscure. Regarding the words, it should be “done because they are too menny.”

  5. I assumed that the passive sentence Maya referred to was “…the aboriginal people of America where still allowed…” — folks might be misled by the misspelling of “were” as “where.”

    But folks are certainly correct that many people assume any use of the verb “to be” means the sentence is passive, which is just plain wrong.

    For my own work, I always try to revise sentences beginning with “There were” into better sentences.

    V.

    • “There were” is opening a sentence with two words of dead wood. I always try to revise it out, if I ever let it in.

  6. This is one of the reasons I’m uncomfortable with the “Dare to write badly” meme seen on so many writing-advice lists. I’ve been trying to condense some of my own thoughts on writing to bumper-sticker length; one of those pithyisms is “Don’t ‘dare to write badly’ if you can’t recognize bad writing.”

    • Sometimes it’s wisest to try to do one thing at a time in the beginning. Getting the story on the page and then rephrasing it may be wise. Especially if the thought of writing wrongly induces paralysis.

  7. What you really need, in any craft, is a vehement passion for detail. It is said of knitters that they are the devil to go on a walk with in the city. They’re always spotting a fascinating sweater and annoying people by walking very closely behind trying to figure out how that cable twist on the left shoulder was worked. And you know the knitter’s handshake, right? (Grab arm and cry, “Is that a new Lopi colorway?”)
    If a writer is not absolutely nutbar about word usage, correct tense, and yes, whether that is passive voice and whether it is OK or not, then it is hopeless. Knit, instead.

  8. Wow, this strikes a chord. Not that I am a bad writer, but I deal with “them”. Inasmuch as my superiors are trying their very best to drill in my tough head that I deal with writers with MAs and PhDs and those achievement are enough to make them better than me in every angle, I am just not that convinced. My sentiments, you have to think clearly and have that special knack to express things in words in the simplest and most direct to the point way (except if you are writing literary where poetic or idiomatic is a style).
    Inasmuch as I want to help the writer to make improvements in his or her writing, if he or she is not listening, much more is not welcoming ideas from someone his/her junior because he/she is putting too much value in his/her precious ego and pride, we will be just working our a**es off with the same old material without making it “better”. Thus, producing a mediocre (I cant even consider it a little bit above average) material.
    >frustrated editor working with people tapped to be authors but can’t write<

  9. “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.”

    From my perspective this sentence is almost as lumbering as the original example. Unfortunate, that one has to stumble through the awkward (and clinical) phrasing of the first part to get to the poetry of the rest. I guess even pros are sometimes prone to weak prose…