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Friday, February 8, 2013

Improving Our Writing

One of my biggest beefs with the Harry Potter books (all of which I read faithfully, voraciously and repeatedly) was J.K. Rowling's fall back to capital letters and multiple exclamation points when she needed to demonstrate that Harry was going through yet another stage of angsty teenage torment. See book five in particular. This is symptomatic, I believe, of a big problem we're currently facing in our language, one that I point out because I notice myself operating in such a manner far too frequently.

Symbols such as smiley faces, frowny faces, worried faces, hearts, and excessive punctuation in the realm of exclamation points, questions marks, ellipses, quotation marks, dashes, and the masterfully constructed and oh so expressive $%*$!?!**#*&^*!? all point to one sad fact: we've forgotten how to express ourselves with eloquence and artful decorum. We fall back on the quick fixes. Yes, they do communicate our thoughts, and people do understand what we mean when we leave it like this.... But if we never take the trouble to say it, instead of trusting that it can be communicated without our saying it, we'll fall so far out of the habit of precision in diction that we'll forget how to be precise, how to choose our words carefully, how to communicate with style and grace. That has, of course, already happened to a large degree, as evidenced by the comparison of writings from a hundred or even fifty years ago to the writings of our present day and age. Don't get me wrong. Or, pardon, I beg you would not misapprehend my meaning. I read through the first book of The Hunger Games as quickly as the rest of you, and appreciated the sensation and suspense I suffered on behalf of the young heroine. But I also noticed a few misplaced commas and run-on sentences. Surely we can do better than that.

When I read back through things I've written, I get annoyed with myself for not having enough variation in style or word choice, making careless punctuation errors, and often taking the weak way out of the corner of sentences. Perhaps, one might say, a writer develops a certain style, works within it, and there's nothing wrong with having a distinctive style of writing. Indeed, that's what it means to say you have found your voice. Well, what if that voice you've arrived at is pedantic, trite, repetitive, inelegant, parroting and unimaginative? Then it's time to make some conscious changes and definite steps to improving your skill. There's nothing wrong with coming to terms with the fact that you need improvement, that your current voice is weak, or at least not all that it might be. This is what we call development. And the contentment of staying within an unrefined surrealist self-expression is what we call egotistical bosh.

Yes, language progresses. Language develops. Language moves with the defining philosophy of the times in order to allow people to converse in a medium necessary to their understanding of their world. But conscious decisions to shape a language can, I believe, positively affect the development of the mind to certain philosophies of being. If you nurture your mind on Netflix re-runs (I am proclaimedly guilty), you will soon forget how to enjoy the classics. We've got to exercise our language muscles, our thinking muscles (I think another name for that is the brain) if we want to have a prayer of making the world around us a lovelier, more rational, peaceful and gratifying place to be. Elegant turns of phrase are pleasing to the ear; the order inherent in them communicates a feeling of evenness, calm and order. One might argue, yes, but Ellen, you're one of those word people; not everybody wants to be an English major; not everyone cares about poetry and grammar. Naturally, I can't argue with that. I'm very glad that some of my classmates have gone on to be soldiers, policemen and doctors. But we're all word people. We all use language everyday. It surrounds us and brings us together in a way that nothing else does. So shouldn't we make a concerted effort to make it beautiful, ordered, pleasing to ourselves and those with whom we communicate? Surely this sensible care in our day to day commonplace exchanges with each other could only have a positive effect on our entire experience and thus our judgment and understanding of the world as a whole. If then, language moves with the defining philosophy of a given time, surely we should at least try to help direct that philosophy to something clean and well thought out by consciously exercising a language that will contribute to such an end.

I have, of late, been called progressive in my views of language (on account of arguing that there are times that it is licit to logically split an infinitive). Horrifying, I know; I have been called many things before, but never progressive. However, based on the admonishment of Andrew Osborn, I remember that one must be conversant with and in the language of their own time. Despite my call to return to carefully chosen words and fine language, I am certainly not advocating that we begin speaking in Shakespeare's iambic pentameter with the floridity of the Romantics, the eight syllable words of Dickens and Henry James, and the seemingly endless sentences of the 1700s. Clarity and pleasing form can both, however, be retained in minimalist writing. And this is what I am advocating we strive to keep alive.

Thus, I have decided over the last few weeks on a number of concrete steps I will take to achieve this in my own writing. They are:
  1. No more smiley faces or emoticons of any kind. The Egyptians wrote with pictures, but luckily for us we have an alphabet. Let's use it.
  2. No more exclamation points. There are adequate ways of expressing hyperbolic emotion without recourse to this overused punctuation mark. It's only a matter of getting over my laziness and taking some time to write things well.
  3. Avoid the word "rather." I like this word. The problem is, I like it much too much. I use it everywhere and all the time. No more.
  4. No more ellipses (except when they're legitimately used to indicate a break in a quotation). I've already said my piece on these, but to reiterate, in brief, they are lazy and unimaginative.
  5. Avoid Dashes. Why am I so hell-bent on avoiding these? This comes in response to the semi-colon being taken out of mainstream usage and replaced with the em dash. I strenuously object, and am therefore taking a stand on the soap box in the corner of my cubicle. That'll show 'em.
Of course, nothing improves your writing so well as reading good writing. We are formed and influenced by what we take into us, so make sure it's something good.


  1. "Refute these calumnies," cries Kate from Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby. "Say it ain't so, Joe!" laments a nameless immortal boy from the colonies. Both saying the same thing, of course, but we probably wouldn't remember an American urchin calling out, "Refute these calumnies, Joe!" Each has its own style, proper to its own place. I still maintain there's a place for the "low speech," and even for (very tightly leashed) obscenity in literature, just as there's a place for the High Speech and (extremely sparing) homiletics. It strikes me that the real problem arises when a writer becomes too comfortable in one zone or the other, and begins lapsing into the extremes of profanity or pomposity merely in order to avoid the exertion of plumbing the depths or climbing the heights to find the perfect way of saying what he or she desires to say. In short, I'm not sure there's anything *inherently* wrong with dashes and emoticons, but I absolutely agree that they're an abomination insofar as they allow us to shirk the labor of putting our own thoughts into our own words, as opposed to molding our thoughts to fit the vessels provided by another. Speaking a language is like taming a lion: it's never truly safe, but you can survive it as long as you remember who's in charge.

  2. Thanks, JBT. Yes, I agree with you. There is no intrinsic evil in a smiley face, thank goodness. I probably should have clarified that these measures I'm taking need not and probably will not be permanent. Rather, wait, no, shoot, gah. It's my way of restructuring, redefining and rebuilding what you term as High Speech and purging the haphazard looseness of low style back to the place where it belongs. Since I can't even allow it there for the time being without it insidiously creeping back into the realms in which it has no business, it's got to go. Out out, damned spot.