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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Why I Love Language Log

They often demonstrate how unbearably stupid are many pieces of popular writing advice. For instance, today, Geoffrey Pullum notes how many adverbs are used in a pop-writing piece advising everyone to remove all adverbs from their writing. Similarly, most pieces condemning the passive voice repeatedly use it, and so on.

One learns how to write well by reading great writers and emulating them, not from following a bunch of made-up rules devised by inferior writers.

5 comments:

  1. Gene Callahan, anti-IP warrior.

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  2. In all my years as an editor, I don't think I've ever encountered a writer whose prose was too economical. Individual sentences that could be improved with an extra modifier or two, yes. But most people err on the side of prolixity, and rules are aimed not at the exceptional few--the well-off 1 percent of literary talent--but the many who make common mistakes.

    By the way, the mustachioed anti-Gene of some strange parallel universe presumably makes the same criticism of Gene's advice about "emulating" great writers that our Gene makes of oversimplified rules in this continuum. Emulating Hunter S. Thompson, H.L. Mencken, or any number of distinctive stylists has wrecked many a young writer. And what would you think if some kid turned in ornate gibberish in one of your classes and claimed your objections were philistine because his monstrosity was modeled on Faulkner or Joyce? Good writers have the art to pull off stunts that would cripple the work of anyone else.

    You'd be surprised how even very intelligent people can benefit from rules as crude as the one Pullum discusses. I've edited someone who had a tendency to repeat, say, the same two themes in two consecutive paragraphs but with different information each time. It occurred to me that the advice this writer needed to hear was that each paragraph should represent a single idea or theme. That's the kind of pedantry that, in the abstract, I would react against as strongly as Gene or Pullum, but it turns out that most people aren't like me, or Gene, or Pullum: they need something we already have.

    All of this is a prolix way to say that rules suck, but they're rules for a reason.

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    Replies
    1. Dan, I'm not against rules, I'm against made up rules, like don't end a sentence with a preposition.

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  3. A writer's style can be recognized, but never really acquired. The call to "emulate" good writers is still useful, though, if not taken too literally. The real point is to pick up some of their tactics by osmosis.

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    Replies
    1. I learned to write imitating H. James and... wait for it... James Joyce, and Conrad, and Flaubert, and so on. Imitation is the primary human learning mechanism, and there is no reason that is not as true of writing as of anything else.

      Huff, shall we have a bet? I can pick some passages from Joyce, and write some like them, and you won't do much better than chance guessing which is which. Game?

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