The best advice for writing I know comes from
George Orwell. After listing solid, common sense rules for good
writing, he adds: "Break any of these rules sooner than say
anything outright barbarous."
Of course we writers try to follow such
wisdom. Don't we? What writer would knowingly offer his readers
"barbarous" prose in order to stay true to even the best rules
for good writing?
Me, and, I fear, most of us.
For example, the rules for writing in
complete sentences make good sense. But fragments work, too.
Sometimes better. Yet how often have we extended a perfectly
good fragment into a full sentence in order to please that old
English teacher stuck in our heads? And in the process created a
dull, wordy, ordinary, but complete, sentence.
It's a good thing William Faulkner paid more
attention to the sound of his words than to the voice of that
hag in his head. Listen to how well the following fragments from
"A Rose for Emily" capture the spirit of place and time: "And so
she died. Fell ill in the house filled with dust and shadows,
with only a doddering Negro man to wait on her." Of course, he
could have extended the first fragment so it didn't start with a
dreaded conjunction and he certainly could have added a subject
to the second one. But why? They communicate clearly. And more,
they sound right.
How often have we avoided beginning a
sentence with a conjunction like "And" or "But" because we
remember that same old teacher scolding us in the third grade
for committing this grievous sin? And we know better, right?
Like being rejected at a Middle School dance,
there are some things we never get over no matter how wise or
wizened we might be. We write, or more likely writhe, within the
narrow confines our teachers and our consciences allow. Rarely
do we follow our imagination, which would take serious nerve.
Instead, we rein it in with rules we half recall. Why? Because
we're afraid of our creativity. We don't know where it might
lead us, what back alley we might find ourselves in. We could
end up out of control, babbling incoherently, with our
But do one-size-fits-all rules really fit
all? Of course not. We know that, yet we still make up rules for
ourselves. "Always start with a smashing opening." Good advice?
Sure. But a quick glance though the books on your shelves will
find scores of less than graceful sentences beginning great
At random, I just picked up a standard
collection of short stories, an anthology used widely at
colleges in the United States. I opened the book to Herman
Melville's classic, "Bartleby the Scrivener." See how it begins:
"I am a rather elderly man. The nature of my
avocation, for the last thirty years, has brought me into more
than ordinary contact with what would seem an interesting and
somewhat singular set of men, of whom, as yet, nothing that I
know of, has ever been written—I mean, the law-copyists, or
scriveners." Although the short first sentence gets right to the
condition of the narrator, the second one would surely try the
tolerance of Orwell. All those commas and dashes, the
wordiness—"more than ordinary,' "would seem," –an editor could
make a career of hacking away at Melville, and yet, the sentence
captures the spirit of the narrator and sets the tone of the
story perfectly. The reader knows exactly what to expect—sit
back, relax, don't be in a hurry.
"A sentence should never be more than
twenty-six words long." I know someone for whom this is her
mantra. Keep it short is good advice. Orwell, himself, said, "If
it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out." But
Melville's sentence is forty-six words long. Horrors! It's a
good thing she never edited Henry James.
Or Orwell, for that matter. He begins
"Shooting an Elephant" with a thirty-two word sentence.
What about the importance of keeping a
consistent point of view? What's that about "consistency being
the hobgoblin of little minds?"
So what am I advocating? That we liberate our
writing and let our words dance naked in the sun? That we free
ourselves of the bondage of grammar and expose our participles?
Hardly. I'm a retired English teacher who knows what happens
when young writers, filled with hormones and exuberance,
experiment without protection. We need the rules, just as we
need to break free from them. It's the conflict between freedom
and control, the tension between meeting the readers' needs and
challenging their expectations that makes writing interesting.
And spirited. And alive.
the author: After teaching
writing and literature in college for twenty-five years, Wayne Scheer
retired to follow his own advice and write. His work has appeared
in such diverse publications as The Christian Science Monitor, an
anthology of stories from Slow Trains entitled Sex and Laughter,
Pedestal Magazine, Moonwort Review, Flash Me Magazine,
Art and Understanding and the Laughter Loaf. His
writing awards include a Pushcart Prize nomination. Wayne lives in
Atlanta with his wife, and can be contacted at wvscheer @ aol.com