Wish there were more contests for novels or parts of novels! If you have lists of these, please share!
Tag Archives: creative nonfiction
Found this terrific piece on cadence and beats at the sentence level on Writers in the Storm. I especially like the rhetorical devices guest blogger Margie Lawson provides. As a rhetorician, I’ve encountered many of these in my research, and I’ve used many, even if only intuitively, in my writing.
I’ve written about some of these in my Novel First Lines series, and in my post on the effects of commas on cadence. Meter and rhythm are powerful lures in the first lines of a book or story. For a wonderful discussion of rhythm and cadence as persuasive devices, check out Martha Kolln’s textbook (find used copies), Rhetorical Grammar.
See if you use any already—and what you can learn to use.
I’m picking up on my last post, in which I discussed Joe Williams’s “Phenomenology of Error,” published in College Composition and Communication in 1982, where he ably demonstrates that even the most erudite language mavens only find errors when they are explicitly looking for them, and thus miss bunches, even in their own work.
Williams developed his own rather complicated categories of errors. Of course, he’s an academic writing for other academics, and the essay is more than 30 years old, so his examples may not be the ones we’d pick today if we wanted to duplicate his categories.
But a couple are.
Briefly, his categories are
- Rules we notice and respond to with a shriek when they’re violated. (“Shriek” is my word, equivalent to the reactions from experts Williams notes in his introduction, people who label such things as “OK,” “hopefully,” and “He invited Mary and myself to dinner” as examples of an “atrocity,” a “detestable vulgarity,” and “garbage.”) In this category of noticeable rules, Williams places basic violations of Standard English structure, such as “I seen” and “He don’t.” Note that these locutions don’t impede understanding. They’re perfectly clear, and perfectly acceptable in many contexts. (In some dialects, such as Black English, ways of talking that violate Standard English are actually rules of that dialect, with their own influence over such matters as time and continuity of action. See the resources here and here to understand this point better.)
- Rules we really don’t notice even when they’re violated—despite knowing that the rule exists. Williams specifically offers the that/which distinction, which (see, I used it right) even such eminences as Jacques Barzun cheerfully violated within a page of telling us not to. Later I’ll have a little to say about this rule, since it falls clearly into one of my own categories.
- Rules we notice when they’re observed because they call attention to themselves, a small class. His example is “It is I,” which is indeed “correct” but which jumps off the page at most people. I suspect that “between you and me” is rapidly becoming such a conspicuous instance of correctness (yes, it is correct) for many. I actually heard someone say “between he and I” this morning on a news show. Looks as if the subjective case after a preposition is coming into its own.
- Rules that, when violated, actually elicit a favorable reaction from individuals. Williams offers an example of a rule he actually prefers to see broken: using “than” rather than “from” after “differently” when what follows is a clause and not a noun. I think there are more rules like this, rules that, if broken, improve prose. I’ve already pointed out one possible candidate: choosing to start a sentence with “but” (assuming you think this violates an actual rule). I’ll propose more soon.
This is possibly the best place to remember that languages change. Effort like those the French have made to freeze the language are flung down and stomped on on every street corner, in every hostel. All you have to do is read something written in the 1700s—oh, say, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal“—to appreciate how punctuation, spelling, and diction have shifted since then. Students required to read such texts complain mightily about how badly written they are. English is, as we speak, in the process of losing the apostrophe (a vagrant and an intruder to start with).
I actually regret this loss; I’ll horrify my college-writing colleagues by siding just a little with Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, agreeing with her that it might sometimes be helpful to know how many people we’re talking about in a sentence like “The travelers bags will fit in the overhead bins.” A simple apostrophe would tell you, and this Wikipedia article gives more examples of useful clarifications an apostrophe can make. But I am not going to emulate the folly of the French.
I’m approaching the task of establishing my own categories of errors. My main concern is to keep things reasonably simple, and not to get tangled up trying to explain things handbooks or sites like the Purdue Owl explain pretty well. I’ll set up the categories here, and then clarify and defend them in upcoming posts:
- Rules you really don’t need to worry about
- Rules you absolutely must obey
- Rules that are actually judgment calls. Breaking one of these rules (like starting a sentence with “but”) is a gamble. If you absolutely hate what following the rule does to your prose—well, you pays your money and you takes your chance.
From brittneysahin, who reposted it from Nicola Prentis. When you click through Brittney’s site to the full piece (Prentis), BE SURE to follow her link to the Dean Wesley Smith argument for self-publishing over traditional publishing. I’m really rethinking all this. I think we get caught up in the fantasy of that six-figure advance, when the reality is going to be much different. And just having retrieved the rights to my earlier novels from Bantam, I’m appalled at the “Life-of-Copyright” language that Smith says is now standard in contracts. If so, that’s a deal breaker, and it should be for us all.
In which I continue to make my case that we may not need as much as we think:
In 1982, the late Joseph M. Williams, then a professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Chicago and author of the book Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, played a trick on his academic colleagues in English. In an article in a major journal for writing teachers, he challenged the idea that there were sacred grammar rules that every educated person recognized and blasted when they turned up in other people’s writing.
- There are several categories of “error”: the ones educated English speakers definitely would recognize and avoid, but also those that even the most well-trained among us read right over—even in our own writing!
- Whether you are likely to see errors that you and other people make depends on why you’re reading: If you’re specifically looking for mistakes, as teachers tend to do when reading student papers, you see them, but if you’re reading for content, you gloss right over them.
- Most of us are all too likely to accept something as a rule because some supposed authority said so, not because the rule actually matters in communication—or even makes sense!
- And many supposed rules DON’T make any difference in communication, which is why we read right past them (and I just made one of those errors in this sentence).
To support his claims, Williams looked at rules from many of the “language mavens” of the time, including some revered experts like E. B. White of Strunk & White fame, William Zinsser, author of the perennial classic On Writing Well, and George Orwell, whose essay, “Politics and the English Language,” has been a staple of many an English classroom since it was published in 1946. In each case, Williams shows that these authors broke their own stated rules with apparent abandon.
Particularly delicious is his takedown of Orwell’s rule that we should avoid the passive voice. As Williams illustrates, “Orwell, in the very act of criticising [sic] the passive, not only casts his proscription against it in the passive, but almost all the sentences around it, as well.” What’s interesting to him, Williams says, is not that Orwell made this egregious stylistic “mistake.” What’s interesting is that he and his editors never noticed it! Nor have the legions of English teachers who’ve praised Orwell as an example of good writing for eons. None of these experts have ever noticed that he was wallowing in the very slough of error he told us to avoid. (I just inserted another one of those mistakes that I would argue we tend to read right past.)
At the end of his article, Williams challenges his readers: In the article, he says, he’s made more than 100 of the kinds of “errors” his colleagues swear they would never commit and never tolerate. How many, he demands to know, did you spot on first reading (no cheating, going back and doing an error hunt)? He filed a marked-up copy with a respected college-writing professional to document that he really played this trick.
His point again: to document that many things we think are wrong are only visible if we’re actively looking for them.
Where does that leave us lowly query writers? Just possibly, our readers (agents and editors) are reading for mistakes. After all, with thousands of queries to slog through, an error is a good excuse to move on to the next letter in the stack.
I agree: Agents and editors reading queries and pages are likely to be much more sensitive to error than many of us are in our casual reading. But here’s the rub: we can’t possibly know which errors he or she will recognize, let alone which ones are likely to kill the deal.
- How many passive-voice constructions am I allowed? One? Three? None? Or is she like the woman who once critiqued some pages for me at a conference. She told me to stop using the passive voice so much. Turns out she meant I was overusing the past progressive. (She was right, however, that I was relying on the past progressive too much —as just now?).
- Or does he care about the difference between “that” and “which”?
- Or what is her stance on “hopefully”? On split infinitives? On ending sentences with prepositions?
- Does he want me to say “Everyone ate his or her lunch,” or is he okay with “their”?
Sometimes we just have to make tough judgment calls. I started a sentence with “but” a few lines back. Is she the kind of editor for whom that is forbidden? But what if that capitalized “but” works beautifully to illustrate the contrast and transition I want to make visible? Should I edit my prose to follow a rule that I may not even think is valid, or should I take a chance?
I agree with Williams that there are different levels of error. In the next post I’ll share his categorizations and begin making the case for my own.
In the meantime—ain’t this fun?
Put Your Editing Nightmares to Bed!
Across the online landscape for writers, there’s a lot of anxiety about producing that error-free query, synopsis, or draft. With reason—the first letter in “professional” is “p” for “perfect.” There’s no wiggle room on this one, is there? It’s got to be capital-R Right.
As someone who taught college writing for 25 years and as a published novelist, I’ve been on the front lines of the effort to spread “good grammar.” The fact is, the whole question of what’s Right is more complicated than you think.
In the next few posts, I’m going to make an argument that we don’t need to obsess quite as much as we do. In fact, there are some “grammar rules” we can even trash!
Yes, You Have to be Able to Edit Your Work. . . .
I’m not for one minute telling you that your command of English syntax and usage is not important. It’s vital. But writers can all too easily get bogged down on trivia and even on myths (“OMG! I ended a sentence with a preposition! :-0”). One common cause of writer’s block is thinking that every comma is radioactive, ready to explode and destroy the known universe if mishandled. So for us writers, a little bit of a reality check is a good thing!
Today’s topic: What is good grammar? Answer: Depends on whom you ask.
(Yep, whom you ask. Why? Because it’s the object of the verb “ask.” Eeek! Relax. Nine times out of ten, “who” would be just fine in that line. Hang around; later I’ll explain why.)
Linguists, people who study how languages work, generally agree on three things: Continue reading