“Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing.” – Robert Benchley
The world is filled with critics. Critics of appearance, critics of beliefs, critics of taste…but there’s one especially devious creature that stalks the Internet, lurking in forums and constantly scaring would-be contributors from sharing ideas. This beast is a hunter that can smell a wounded sentence from miles away. That’s right. I’m talking about the Grammar Nazi.
Now before you pick up your run-on sentences like clubs and bash your fifth-grade English teacher to death, be cognizant that much evil is rooted in noble intentions and that grammar exists for a reason. It serves as a universal translator, channeling a person’s thoughts into a form that others can easily digest. It keeps us from becoming babbling monkeys who might better communicate by flinging poo.
Jokes aside, the fact is that most writers have written and read enough to recognize when the waters are being muddied.
“So long as a man’s writing is itself clear and accurate and specific, no holds are barred. And anyone who needs instruction in the traffic laws of the English language has wandered into the wrong field.”
Swain tries to break down the issue into four key points that all writers need to know. They’re basic, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve discussion. It’s too often we find ourselves lost in a forest of text and forgetting the basics; the little things that could pull us out of a bad situation.
Choose the Right Words
What’s involved in finding the right words? You need to ask yourself some questions. The answers will point you in the direction you need to go:
- Who’s being viewed? All the way from the general (“woman”) down to the specific (“raven haired beauty with cankles and a sweet smile”).
- When are these characters being viewed? Again, from the general (“as a teenager”) to the specific (“while they’re writing an angst-filled poem about their P.E. teacher”).
- Where are the characters? Living abroad? In one cubicle surrounded by hundreds?
- What are they doing? Working? Making love? Crying? Scrubbing the floor? Forgetting through a chemical substance? Also, what do you want to reveal to your reader as the character is doing these things? Is the character entranced by the perfume of his co-worker? Does the character cringe at the sight of her mother pulling into the driveway?
- Why are these details important to your reader? What makes them meaningful in the story.
- How does your reader see all this? Through who’s point of view? In what order of events?
“Order does make a difference. Show a gun, then a coffin, then tears, and you put your focus on heartbreak. If coffin comes first, then tears, then gun, the issue may be vengeance.”
By answering these questions, you give yourself a frame through which to view your story. You hone in on what matters and try to choose the words that best express what you see.
Make Copy Vivid
So you’ve thought about the above questions and are ready to write your scene. What words do you choose to make your text come alive?
Think about how you experience the world — through your senses. If you can describe what your character senses with preciseness and a sense of movement, you’ve won the war.
What tools are available to help you here? If you can bear with me for a moment, let’s get back to basics — verbs and nouns.
Nouns are words that name something. The more specific the noun, the more vivid the picture. A parrot flashes a sharper, more meaningful picture than does bird. And bird is better than animal. And animal is better than life form. You get the idea.
But remember, be judicious and don’t overdo things. It’s all about balance, though if you’re going err, err in the direction of the specific.
What about verbs? They’re words that tell what happens. I’m sure you’ve all heard the ‘rule’ about avoiding passive verbs and using the active form. Why is this so often repeated? Because passive verbs tend to be static, especially in the case of to be. The story doesn’t move. It just ‘is’. Do this enough and your reader grows bored or anxious. Both can result in them putting down your story and doing something else. I don’t know about you, but I overdose on this stiff prose at my day job. I want to avoid it during my pleasure reading if at all possible.
As before though, use common sense when reviewing your copy and eliminating your passive verbs. Sometimes they serve a legitimate purpose.
Adjectives and adverbs? Try to be even more sparing with these. Overdoing them makes you seem amateur, and even if you are an amateur, do your best to hide the fact.
One last device to help you express yourself – comparison. That is, metaphors and similes. To make sure this stupid horse never gets up again, I repeat that these should be used frugally and with good judgement.
Vivid description is a requirement for good fiction, but as with any suggestion, it can be taken to the extremes. If you find yourself in an abstrusely concocted spaghetti-like, yet enigmatic, conundrum of verbiage delivered in post-modern parlance and in gargantuan proportions, well, you might want to look into turning things down from 11 — maybe back to around 5.
Be careful with your individual word choices as well. Words have both denotation and connotation. Denotation being the dictionary definition and connotation being an implication. Though your character may literally be a citizen of Oklahoma, calling him an Okie is likely to carry a negative image in the minds of many people.
Where do we go Wrong?
Swain points out a few specific issues that he’s run into over and over again with his students:
- Sentence structure grows monotonous. Here, there is a need to introduce variety. Beware variety for variety’s sake though. That can create a distraction in and of itself.
- Subject and verb are separated. Don’t try to cram too much into one sentence or ‘who’ did ‘what’ can get confusing.
- Adverbs are placed improperly. If you must use them, you want to place them at the beginning or end of sentences for the most part. This typically provides the effect you’re seeking.
- Words and phrases are repeated inadvertently. A common error and often missed after even several read-throughs. If you do this, make sure it’s intentional and for effect.
- Correct grammar becomes a fetish. It always comes back to the Grammar Nazi. If proper grammar gets in the way of manipulating your reader’s emotion, then break the rules. Again, make sure you’re not doing this on accident.
- Meaning isn’t made clear instantly. Unless your goal is to exhibit your mastery over the obscurities of the English language, you want to get ideas across clearly to your reader. Why make things difficult for them? If you’re writing about a heady subject, they’ll have enough difficulty without you intentionally throwing up roadblocks because you feel a need to show off your literary intellect. As with most writing, too much or too little is a matter of taste, but always take your audience into account.
That sums up Swain’s advice on the basic mechanics of words and sentences. The next piece will focus on using these mechanics to manipulate your reader’s emotions. I would love nothing more than to hear your feedback and thoughts, so please don’t hesitate to disagree (or agree) with any or all of the above.