I remember getting ear-steaming mad at William F. Buckley, Jr. As much as I loved his magazine, “The National Review,” I muttered mild oaths every time I read one of his articles. He seemed incapable of writing a paragraph without at least a dozen million-dollar words to slow my reading and fog up his point.
This was back in the eighties, when I was fresh out of college and both my brain and vocabulary were at their best. (For those of you who would dare count back and calculate, let me save you the trouble. I was probably the oldest one in my graduating class, okay? Quit snoopin’.) But I still had a hard time following a Buckley article.
I wasn’t the only one either. Someone else sent a letter to the magazine and asked why Buckley couldn’t write more reader-friendly articles. His response, which struck me as the height of arrogance, was along the lines of: “If you don’t know the word, look it up.”
Sure. Let me just grab my Latin dictionary.
Although not all of Buckley’s readers were as bright as he would’ve wished, they aren’t as dumb as today’s writers seem to think they are, either.
I’ve been reading William Brohaugh’s Write Tight. After several chapters of teaching us how to streamline our writing, he tells us when not to streamline. One of those times is when tight writing reduces clarity. No one can argue with that, but this is his example: “I put the ball on my nose and spun it.”
Everyone knows what the “it” is–the ball. We know it’s the ball because noses don’t spin without the aid of a cartoonist. Still, Brohaugh suggests we write: “I put the ball on my nose, then spun the ball.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, either. It’s just unnecessary.
Or try this one, from Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love: “Sarah watched her mother speak with him while Sarah played with her doll near the fireplace.” Unless there is another Sarah in the room, this one is more distracting than if she’d simply written: “Sarah watched her mother speak with him while she played with her doll . . . .” We know Mom isn’t the one with the doll.
These examples border on insulting, as if we the readers aren’t capable of understanding unless the author spells things out for us. As much as I hate to admit it, I find such pronoun allergies in Christian fiction more frequently than in non-Christian fiction. In secular fiction, I often find the opposite: confusion resulting from just plain sloppy writing.
There has to be a happy medium. A place where common sense rules over writing guidelines, but the guidelines are still golden.
Rules are good. Breaking the rules is also good. Sometimes it’s just figuring out when to do which that’s difficult. 🙄
Oh, you’re not the only one, gal. I just got a craft book a few weeks ago and am a little surprised at some huge mistakes left in the book. A book on the craft of writing and it had mistakes.
I totally agree with using words where people have to stop and look them up. I’m really fond of my hubby’s statement, “keep it simple stupid.” I have a large vocabulary, but if I don’t know the word and I have to think about it, be pulled out of the reading, then pooey on the author, cause I probably won’t read them again.
Oh, the joys of the publishing world. Rules, rules, rules, oh and you can break them if you’re really good at it. Ha!
You can break the rules if you’re really good at it? Honey, I think you can only break them if you’re already a big name in Barnes & Nobel.
But you and Katie both are great writers, so you know what I’m talking about–rules are the most valuable, irritating, restrictive tools we writers have.
Then again, you haven’t witnessed the spinability of my proboscis . . . um, nose . . .
Looks like I may have to come up with a different example when I revise Write Tight, but I otherwise stand by my advice to weigh pronouns carefully and remove doubt as to what they refer to when such doubt is possible. I agree absolutely that context and previous setup (and, in this case, physical likelihoods) can and do clarify pronoun connection. Establishing such elements so that you don’t have to spell everything out is one of the core points of Write Tight. But consider in the case of Sarah and the doll that the reader can fully understand who has the doll and still be momentarily distracted by the amusing image–yes, while understood not to be true–of mom reverting to childhood. Rivers may have been working to preclude that momentary distraction.
Sometimes such balancing is even trickier that spinning a ball on one’s nose . . .
I am truly humbled. I never thought anyone other than my friends stopped by this little place.
If you have doubt, Mr. Brohaugh, of how much I enjoyed your book, you have only to look how deep into it I was before I found something to pick on.
Thanks for dropping in!