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On Writing and Writhing

Wayne Scheer – All rights reserved

 

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?

Yeah, 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 prepositions dangling.

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 stories.

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.

 

About 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 (remove spaces)

 
 

         Last updated: February 19, 2007