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e_moon60

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A few notes on writing [Jan. 4th, 2012|12:04 am]
e_moon60
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[Current Mood |tired]

Thanks to Twitter,  I have windows into quite a few venues where writing of varied quality may be read and--sometimes--laughed at.   Not talking about humor, here, but about writing that is unintentionally bad.  Recently, in the guise of research, I've been following medievalists.net on Twitter, clicking through to the articles that looked interesting.   Quite often these are theses or dissertations, straight academic writing...and some of these...some of these would have benefited from some editorial guidance.  The usual response to a complaint about academic writing is that it's all bad and the students are taught to write that way...but that's not true.   Having recently bulldozed my way through more than a dozen such papers, it's clear that some of the degree candidates learned to write well, and some weren't given enough time in the trenches of spelling, punctuation, grammar, and syntax.  

The same was true when I was in graduate school in biology and reading papers in multiple scientific journals.  Some were well-written (I still recall some papers by Anne O. Summers, on various ecological topics in the Chesapeake Bay area as exemplary in writing) and some were...well...sludge scraped off the bottom of a polluted pond comes to mind.   Whatever data may have been in them had been well concealed in murky writing.

As a fiction writer, I face some requirements nonfiction writers can ignore:  clarity matters to both, but the kind of data a biologist needs to convey (whether it's the change in growth rate of algae in reaction to a specific contaminant, or details of animal behavior) remains factual--appealing to the intellect, not the emotions.   Stating the hypothesis, the methods--how the experiment or observation was carried out, the results (including the logic used to arrive at the results) in language that does not obscure any of these is sufficient.  The fiction writer has more to do with the same linguistic tools: we must convey not only the "facts" (who said what, who did what, the chronological order in which characters said and did things) but the character--the psychology--of the characters, the nature of the culture in which the story is set, the effect on the characters of that culture and the physical setting (including terrain, infrastructure, weather...), the emotional tone of every interaction (or tones, I should say, as characters interacting may be--should often be--in different emotional states), the overall tone of the story, the overall "pull-through" or "impulsion" of the plot.   Just for starters.

I've read a lot of novice stories (other than my own) in workshops and in the clandestine sharing of slush pile remnants by editors with favorite writers.   The same problems I see in indifferent-to-bad academic writing show up even more vividly in fiction, because fiction demands more.   The clumsy sentence, the stacked adjectives, the participle dangling in the wind of ridicule, the paragraph that's upside down (what should be first is last) or inside out (the "meat" is on the outside, the top and bottom slices of bread--the transitions into and out of the "meat" are in the middle)--they're found in both nonfiction and fiction.  

Although I've been scolded for saying so, I still think Strunk & White's Elements of Style would help novice writers fix most of the pond-sludge-mess writing I see. 
Why? Because part of the sludge comes from the writers' attempt to be formally correct, rather than clear.   The current misuse of apostrophes and reflexive pronouns, for instance, arises from concern for formality (I know that because I've asked those who've shown me their manuscripts with such horrors as ""There is a place that is known as a place where things happen; it is called [nameofplace]" or "They gave it to myself.")   Many novice writers are afraid of "I" and "me" and use the reflexive.  Others are convinced (from signs and the growing misuse) that apostrophes signal plurals.  In both academic writing and fiction, I find sentences and passages that struggle to be impressive, intellectual, important...and instead reveal the writer's inability to express the meaning clearly.

I will agree with the linguists that many grammatical rules do not "make sense"...logically, that is.  But they do "make sense" of writing:  they make it easier to grasp the writer's meaning.   And the point of writing (unless your purpose is to shock and dismay the reader) is to convey something--be it data from an experiment or the mood of a character in a story--as smoothly and effortlessly from page to a reader's understanding as possible.   Writers who do not know most of the rules write passages that take longer to read and understand.  It's not a matter of words per sentence--a well constructed long sentence is easier to read than a badly constructed short one.   There are long, intricate sentences in Ruskin, for instance, that unroll easily in the mind, each phrase with its meaning flowing into the next.   And I've read a book designed for people with reading difficulties written in turgid short sentences of short words....reading it feels like being hit in the face with a brick, over and over.

As it's late at night and I've been writing through a migraine--and I began this with no clear end in view--this is another example of faulty writing.   A ramble with no goal, idle comments on the roadside briars and flowers.   As a writer of quite a few books and stories and articles over quite a few years of publication, I know my own imperfections.   (I'm finishing a book which once again revealed--as I plowed through the layers of revision--where I go wrong, which is exactly where everyone who writes goes wrong, more or less.  Sentences out of order, clunky phrases, less-than-perfect word choice, idiosyncratic punctuation where standard would be more effective. )   When healthy and first-drafting in the daytime, I automatically avoid some mistakes I used to make--that many make.  That reflexive thing?  Not happening.   Apostrophe abuse?  No.   Passive voice where it doesn't belong?  No.  (But--weasel-active verb forms that pretend to be active?  Yes.  They sneak in. I catch them in revision.)  
When stressed, sick, worried, overtired (and after midnight, which it is now)  everything but the habit of clicking on the keys may go awry.  

Clarity. Simplicity.  Directness.  Good things.   Bumbling around piling adjectives on adverbs.  Bad things.

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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2012-01-04 02:34 pm (UTC)
Interesting. The scholarly articles I've seen via medievalists.net Tweets were all accessed by link to the online archive involved and correctly attributed when the article's abstract was on site.

Perhaps my curiosity leads me more to that kind of thing. I haven't actually explored the site itself.
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[User Picture]From: msminlr
2012-01-04 11:26 am (UTC)
I disagree that this ramble had no goal.
Maybe it did not have a conscious one, but it got there anyway.
There are lots of wannabe writers reading every word of yours they can get hold of, to see how it's supposed to be done.
It is enlightening when, every now and then, you produce some musings on the "back side" of the project.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2012-01-04 02:43 pm (UTC)
In case you're not aware (or know interested novice writers who aren't aware) I have nine essays up on my main website about writing (mostly about writing fiction) and more will eventually go up when (hollow laughter) I have time to polish the rough versions now in the computer. That's www.elizabethmoon.com
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2012-01-04 02:29 pm (UTC)
Ah...you see the dangers of being unclear. I found a sentence very similar to that in a nonfiction academic paper. While it might be a character's utterance, or a song lyric, it's a wordy, clunky sentence in nonfiction writing. (And I should've put square brackets around [things happen] to show that it was a placeholder for what actually happened.

"There is a place that is known as a place where roads come together; it's called Fiveway." (I actually live near a real place locally known as Fiveway.) If you're writing a history of this county, a better way of saying that would be "Fiveway is the local name for the intersection of FM 138, County Road xxx, and County Road yyy" (I don't remember the numbers of county roads; no one does, except perhaps the county commissioner for each precinct.) Both forms have 17 words (counting road numbers as words) but the second gives much more information (you can find the place on a map even without the name Fiveway) and fewer filler words.

Good nonfiction writing packs in the information. Every word carries its share of the meaning. Bad nonfiction writing dilutes the information with filler words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs. "There is..." often signals unnecessary filler words. For instance, the original sentence could be shortened to "Fiveway is the place where [things happen]." Ten words gone. "Things happen" is still blurry/foggy/unclear. WHAT things happen? Trivial things? Important things? Maybe "Fiveway is the place where five roads come together" or "Fiveway is the place where executions take place once a month" or "Fiveway is the place where the market sets up every Tuesday." Now the extra words filling the bracket [things happen] convey more information.

In fiction, as you pointed out, the situation's trickier. Characters need not speak grammatically or even clearly. Still, if they're too wordy too often, readers will get annoyed. I've been dealing, in this book, with some very loquacious characters--they talk and talk, if other characters interrupt them (because I know four pages of one person talking will unbalance the chapter), they go back to the beginning and start again. Revision has meant chain-sawing out large chunks of their speech, and breaking the remainder into short sections with other characters acknowledging--at least in thought--their annoyance that the long-winded characters are STILL rattling on. Yet the characters have information to impart, and the easiest way to be sure they said the important bits is to let them talk, then isolate and trim down to those bits during revision. (That's how I do it, at least, and it's why my first drafts are longer than the final version.) So my character in a novel set in an SF universe, having been asked where to find out some obscure and possibly dangerous bit of information, might say "There's this place called Fiveway, off the main trade routes. You want to watch yourself--don't walk alone--but if you're looking for information, every secret in the sector is for sale in the Big Dave's on Cash Street. Don't tell Dave I sent you." The skilled reader will learn something about the character, including that he/she has backstory at Big Dave's.

I hope this helped.
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[User Picture]From: shockwave77598
2012-01-04 04:00 pm (UTC)
Only you can prevent apostrophe abuse. :)

I like hearing you talk about the craft. While I'm not a pro, I struggle to get good enough to pretend to be one someday. I put my pen down when my second daughter was born and have only touched it halfheartedly since then, as the fanzines are now history. But a pair of stories are demanding completion, so I'm going to resume work on them soon. Hearing you talk about it makes me believe I can pick it back up again.

So, thanks for the stories, and thanks even more for the letters from the trenches.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2012-01-04 07:49 pm (UTC)
Good writing isn't a matter of pro v. amateur writing, but of practice and attention to the purpose--the audience and what you're trying to convey. The more you write--and then rewrite at least twice before going to the next thing--the better you will write. The better prose you _read_, the better you will write. (And incidentally, I think a lot of highly-praised literary fiction is not outstandingly good writing. If I had time today, I could give examples and dissect them.) Read top-quality nonfiction--I will be recommending John McPhee on my deathbed, probably: there are passages in McPhee that cannot be bettered. For a fiction writer, his ability to entwine the character of real people with landscape, history, event is a textbook. You can usually ignore (in my opinion) currently fashionable literary fiction, in favor of quality commercial fiction (in any genre.)

I wish you luck. Whether your stories reach publication or not, there's satisfaction in finishing a story, giving yourself that jolt of both story-resolution (which hits every writer and reader) and story-completion (which hits only writers who finish their stories. As someone who did not finish stories for years...the difference is enormous.)
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[User Picture]From: xrian
2012-01-05 02:36 am (UTC)
I'll second the motion on John McPhee. If he wrote a dictionary I'd read it.
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[User Picture]From: harvey_rrit
2012-01-05 03:41 am (UTC)
His prose style is wonderful.
Accuracy, not so much.
There's a passage in The Curve of Binding Energy where he gives a recipe for an A-bomb which, if implemented, would kill you about five different ways.
--That being said, my own pet peeve in writing is wasting time, whose most agonizing form is not knowing the difference between suspense and stalling. (A variation of this is overdescription, e.g., "He was garbed over all but his hands and face in an ensemble of black with white accents, clearly modeled after the markings of a jellicle cat of superlative elegance," rather than, "His tux looked great.")
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-01-04 09:07 pm (UTC)

Clarity and directness

Hi! My name is Karen, and I don't do any of the things that allow me to not be anonymous, but I once had the great pleasure of teaching budding scientists to write about their work in English (as opposed to using formulas, which, one student informed me, were better because they could only mean one thing, whereas words could often mean many different things at once :-D).

Of all of the flaws I saw in academic writing, I think the failure to appreciate the importance of clarity and directness, as you have so nicely pointed out, is one of the greatest dangers to otherwise brilliant scientists.

I can't tell you how many students had to be told that a scientific paper was not a mystery novel. The importance of their research should not come as a surprise at the end; instead it should be proclaimed loudly and actively, in terms that grab the reader by the throat and shake the very foundations of their existence; creating an urgency that the rest of the paper must work to reconcile.

This is my only complaint against the admonition to "read, read, read". I found that many students simply didn't understand that great writers of fiction (especially) will frequently withhold important facts for dramatic effect. There may be the occasional academic who has a big enough linguistic and descriptive toolbox to play with the reader's expectations, but such Greats are rare indeed.

I resorted to giving students advice to tell the simplest story form they knew -- the sort that begins with "Once upon a time...." I don't know if this advice resonates with you (since you regularly start that way, then things get complicated), but I often found that giving students permission to write a simple, direct account was the best way to free them from the desire to use more advanced literary forms. In the process, suddenly their grammar got clearer and they were able to employ tools they had already mastered to put the focus back on their research.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2012-01-04 10:18 pm (UTC)

Re: Clarity and directness

You're right! Agreed, agreed, agreed. I like your way of giving them explicit permission to write a simple narrative.

The science papers I've read over the years that I remember did exactly as you said--grabbed me by the throat, making it clear what their work was and why it was important.


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[User Picture]From: nmissi
2012-01-05 02:57 am (UTC)
I haven't written for pleasure (or hopeful publication) during the last four years. In order to perform in college, I had to "unlearn" much of what I'd learned already- I'd had excellent teachers in high school, who beat the passive voice out of me, and weren't terribly impressed by 5.00 loanwords when a discount Anglo Saxon option was available. In college, I picked up terrible habits: extending paragraphs and padding out papers with useless fluff and big words. I sometimes wonder if the As on my papers were due to the work, or whether the professors were just impressed with my ability to generate huge papers. Mayhap they didn't actually read them all. (Also? It seems that Anthropology is the one place where the passive voice is actually preferred. That, or else anthropologists are just bad writers.)

I'm going to try working on a couple unfinished pieces on my hard drive this spring and see where they go. But I really, really hope I can unlearn some of these new bad habits.
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