Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Five Writing Mistakes You Shouldn't Fix

If you're writing for a scientific journal, then your English should be perfect. But if you're writing a novel, there's such a thing as being too perfect. Here are five rules of perfect English that you should usually break when you're writing fiction or casual nonfiction:

  1. Don't use contractions. Contractions are perfectly acceptable in creative work, and it's your choice as the author whether to use them or not. As we write, each of us settles into a unique voice, and if yours is rich and musical, your readers will look forward to hearing it in their minds as they read each of your books in turn. For most of us, forcing the contractions out of our prose gives it all the grace of a love song full of hiccups.
  2. Don't start a sentence with a conjunction. This is an old rule that's obsolete now. If you pick up a book written in Victorian times, you'll find a lot of very long sentences, their many clauses often joined together by conjunctions, and unless the book uses incorrect grammar on purpose (Huckleberry Finn comes to mind.), you won't find any sentences that begin with conjunctions. And there was no need for it: the thinking was that if you needed a conjunction, then the new clause related somehow to the clause before it, and therefore they both belonged in the same sentence. Modern English values shorter, more concise sentences, and tacking on clause after clause just because their concepts are all related is no longer considered good writing. But a conjunction can still be useful to show how a new clause relates to the one before, even though we no longer stuff them both into the same sentence.
  3. Don't split your infinitives. This rule never did make much sense in English, as Steven Pinker explains:  
  4. Don't dangle your prepositions. The concept behind this rule is that since every preposition has an object, we may as well place each preposition neatly in front of its object to avoid confusion. That sounds good in theory, but in practice it tends to produce a lot of awkward
    Real people don't speak with
    perfect English, so your
    characters shouldn't either
    ... unless they're this guy.
    sentences and may even cause as much confusion as it prevents. But if you want your stories to be full of to whiches and for whats, then have at it.
  5. Make every sentence perfect, even in dialogue. There's just about no more sure way to mark yourself as a dilettante - and provoke your readers to put your book down - than to follow this rule. A good writer creates characters who feel real, and yours won't feel real if their speech sounds pompous or recited. It has been my experience that even most well-educated people make mistakes frequently in speech, even linguistics professors at prestigious universities. But there are a few rules you should be careful to follow in dialogue: the ones that help the reader clearly see what the speaker said. Be diligent with your use of quotation marks, keep your punctuation as it should be, and be careful with your spelling. But don't correct your characters' grammar. How they speak is an important part of who they are.

But whether we are following them or breaking them, rules are not what's important. When our stories finally make it in front of our readers' eyes, all that will matter is whether we have communicated.

No comments:

Post a Comment