Are you struggling with your NaNoWriMo project? The Storybundle collection of books on writing for National Novel Writing Month is still available.
Book View Cafe anthology Brewing Fine Fiction is part of that deal. In addition, Judith Tarr’s Writing Horses and Marie Brennan’s Writing Fight Scenes are part of the bonus books. It’s a great time to build up your e-library of writing advice.
As a teaser, here is one of my essays from Brewing Fine Fiction:
Strunk and White: Fifty Years Is Long Enough
The Elements of Style – better known as Strunk and White for its original authors, William Strunk and E.B. White – is fifty years old. The publisher has brought out a 50th Anniversary Edition. Newspapers and magazines have waxed elegiac on the subject. Famous people say they can’t write without it.
I have a confession: I don’t use it. Never have.
And I make my living as a writer. Not only do I write fiction and essays, I also write on legal and governmental issues for a large publisher of books and notification services for professionals. I’ve even worked as an editor, charged with the enforcement of company style rules. But I don’t use Strunk and White.
I think I bought a copy once, when I read somewhere that every writer should have one. I may even have read some of it. I don’t think I threw it down in disgust – I’d remember that. I just didn’t pay much attention and lost it along the way.
But then, I didn’t learn to write from studying grammar. I learned to write the same way I learned to talk: from my mother.
I was lucky. My mother, Marie Peterman Moore, was an editor, a very good editor. She taught me to write by editing the papers I wrote for school. Along the way I developed an ear for writing that trumped all the nonsense the grammar-focused English teachers tried to shove down my throat. (The literature-focused English teachers were a different matter; some of them introduced me to great things.)
I don’t remember my mother ever mentioning Strunk and White, though she was a New Yorker reader and knew the work of E.B. White. I wish she were still alive, so I could call her up and ask her what she thought of it. Every time I come across something that I know my mother would have an answer to, I realize just how much I miss her.
My mother was the person who taught me something all writers must learn: Everybody needs an editor. Whether you’re writing a paper for school or a book for millions, you need to have someone else look at it before you turn it loose.
My mother often observed that Charles Dickens needed an editor.
Of course, you also need to learn to edit yourself. I don’t have an editor available for my blog posts, so I have to try to comb back through them and figure out if I said what I meant to say the way I meant to say it. And it’s rude and unprofessional to turn in sloppy work just because you’re to lazy to look at your story again.
But all writers get too close to their work. A fresh pair of eyes can tell if you’ve missed something important, fix the awkward sentences, and catch those mistakes you just never saw.
You do have to learn how to apply English grammar rules – notice I don’t say memorize them. It’s impossible to communicate effectively if you stray too far afield, and, besides, you can’t break a rule creatively unless you know you’re breaking it.
But English –a hodgepodge language that has happily adopted words from a variety of other tongues, not to mention making them up – English is not a language for prescriptivists. (And yes, I know English is not a person or group of persons and therefore cannot adopt or make up or probably even be; see the previous paragraph on breaking rules creatively.)
Prescriptivist is a term I picked up reading Language Log, a delightful blog run by professional linguists, some of whom – Geoffrey K. Pullum in particular – delight in bashing Strunk and White. In fact, Pullum and a few other people bashed it quite nicely recently in The New York Times. Before I read Language Log, I just called prescriptivists nit-pickers and laughed at some of the nits about which they obsessed.
I don’t think writers need Strunk and White. Writers need to read lots and lots of other writers – both good and bad ones – to get an idea of what works and what doesn’t. They need to write as much as they can, and experiment with their own styles. And they need to find good editors and readers to give them feedback (I think “feedback” is one of those words that prescriptivists abhor, but I find it very descriptive).
There are times when rules have to be followed. Newspapers, magazines, publishers – all have style rules so that their publications will be consistent. But you don’t need to study Strunk and White to work for them; you just need whatever style book they use – AP, Chicago, MLA, or their own compilation.
Just don’t mistake any style book for the Gospel. (Actually, maybe you shouldn’t mistake the Gospel for the Gospel, but that’s a topic for another essay.)