Good writing and bad writing advice

I read Monserratt’s first thesis chapter this week. It got me thinking about the subject of writing well, and the related sub-subject of giving advice on writing well.

The latter makes up a fairly vast genre. Good writing style doesn’t come easily. More to the point, writing makes people anxious. The demand for advice runs high, and the supply is there to match: Amazon gives about 12,000 results under the ‘Writing Skills’ category.

A lot of this advice is undoubtedly good. But there’s an insidious and perversely resilient brand of writing advice which is bad, bad, bad. I’m talking about what is politely called prescriptivism. It’s less politely known as ‘pedantry’ or ‘grammar Nazism.’

The defining characteristic of a prescriptivist advice-giver is a fixation with ‘rules.’ Not rules, but ‘rules.’ The distinction is important, because it would be wrong to say there are no genuine rules of language. For example:

Yesterday I the shops to went.

That’s an illegal sentence. The rules of standard English don’t permit the component words to appear in that order. (As far as I know, there’s no other English dialect in which they’d be correct either.)

The distinguishing feature of the genuine rules of a language is that native speakers know them already. It’s been argued that language is a human instinct; certainly in adults it’s ingrained and automatic. The sentence above is wrong at first glance. It doesn’t parse. It doesn’t compute.

Grammatical errors can be subtler than that, of course. In a long, complex sentence it does take genuine expertise to spot them. But they still have the feature that a patient native speaker can diagnose them by carefully applying their own intuitions.

The prescriptivist does not deal in rules like these. The rules they champion are the kind that make your blood pressure rise whenever you sit down in front of a blank screen or a blank page. Use ‘that’ instead of ‘which,’ excepting that you should use ‘which,’ in which case use ‘which.’ Never end a sentence with a preposition. Don’t split an infinitive. Etc, etc.

These types of rules all share a couple of distinguishing characteristics. The first is that they’re arbitrary. No user of the language could derive them from their intuitions, which is why they’re the devil to remember.

The second characteristic may well be responsible for the first. It turns out that pretty much all these rules are made up. Fabricated, invented, fictitious.

I didn’t really realise the full scale of the hoax until I started reading the excellent Language Log blog. They write a lot of interesting stuff about linguistics in general, but they also have a whole sub-genre of posts devoted to debunking and ridiculing these sorts of arbitrary, made-up rules.

Here, for instance, is linguist Geoff Pullum going to town on the ‘that vs which’ rule:

There is an old myth that which is not used in integrated relative clauses (e.g. something which I hate) and that has to be used instead something that I hate). It is completely untrue. The choice between the two is free and open. The people who repeat the old story about which being banned do not respect the prohibition in their own writing (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out a book by Jacques Barzun which recommends against it on one page and then unthinkingly uses it on the next!). I don’t respect it either — re-read that last parenthesis. As a check on just how common it is in excellent writing, I searched electronic copies of a few classic novels to find the line on which they first use which to introduce an integrated relative, to tell us how much of the book you would need to read before you ran into an instance:

  • A Christmas Carol (Dickens): 1,921 lines, first occurrence on line 217 = 11% of the way through;
  • Alice in Wonderland (Carroll): 1,618 lines, line 143 = 8%;
  • Dracula (Stoker): 9,824 lines, line 8 = less than 1%;
  • Lord Jim (Conrad): 8,045 lines, line 15 = 1%;
  • Moby Dick (Melville): 10,263 lines, line 103 = 1%;
  • Wuthering Heights (Bronte): 7,599 lines, line 56 = 0.736%…

Do I need to go on? No. The point is clear. On average, by the time you’ve read about 3% of a book by an author who knows how to write you will already have encountered an integrated relative clause beginning with which. They are fully grammatical for everyone. The copy editors are enforcing a rule which has no support at all in the literature that defines what counts as good use of the English language. Their which hunts are pointless time-wasting nonsense.

Prescriptivism shits me. The truth is, there are plenty of genuine ‘gotchas’ that unhoned writers are prone to. The use of words that are too informal or non-standard to suit the register being aimed for. (Putting ‘The experiment got messed up’ in an academic paper.) Using phrasing that sounds ok in spoken English, but looks awkward on the page, because we read differently than we hear. (Writing ‘The title of the book was called Crime and Punishment,’ rather than ‘The book was called…’ or ‘The title of the book was…’) All the more reason, then, not to further burden writers with imaginary rules.

But there’s a bigger issue. ‘Following the rules,’ be they real or imaginary, is not even the hardest part of writing, and far from the most important. We write because we have something to say. But we rarely know quite what that is until we say it. Thoughts are messy, nonlinear, elusive, sometimes illogical. They submit with the utmost reluctance to transmutation into linear prose. Sometimes they don’t even survive the procedure. Have you ever looked at a finished piece of writing, with a vague sense of sorrow because it doesn’t quite capture what you had in mind when you started?

That’s the real challenge of writing: discovering what we want to say, and saying it. All the rules are ultimately secondary.

Soon, I’ll talk about some more concrete writing advice that’s been useful to me.


3 thoughts on “Good writing and bad writing advice

  1. Nick Oliver

    I wouldn’t want to be categorised as a pedant, but doesn’t pedantry refer to an abnormal concern with all rules?



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