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Birch Bay Public Market

Friday, May 10 through the end of summer, Cathy and I will be selling her hand-made soaps, lotions, and toiletries, along with my photography, note cards, calenders, books, etc.

Come see us!

Across the street from the C Shop

4825 Alderson Road, Birch Bay, Washington 98230

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I had an automated blogroll here, powered by Google Reader, but Google, in its near-infinite lack of wisdom, killed Google Reader. Prior to this murder, all I had to do to put a blog on my blogroll (or to take it off) was to place it in a Reader folder called, appropriately enough, "blogroll" (or, of course, to remove it). I use The Old Reader now for following blogs, but it seems to have no way to something similar regarding the blogroll. If you know of a way to do this, please let me know.

Four Sentences

“There was a man” is a profoundly different sentence than “There was an old man,” which is profoundly different than “There was, back when we lived in the blue house, a man down the street from us, down toward Graves Avenue.” And that last one is different than “There was in those days an elder of the village, well-respected but not well-liked.” They are all different, and yet they are all alike. Each of them says different things, sets a different tone, creates a different set of expectations.

Question:

Which sentence is better?

Answer:

It depends.

It depends on a great many things. It depends on what sort of man the writer wants to tell us about, how the writer wants us to perceive that man, what sort of voice the writer wants to use and what sort of ears we are to bring to the tale ourselves.

It depends, in fact, almost entirely on things that are choices made by the author. This is the problem left unaddressed by those who say silly things like “Never use passive voice.” “Omit unneeded words.” “Don’t use is, are, was, were, etc.” “Eliminate all adverbs and half the adjectives.” “Write with verbs and nouns, because they are more powerful.”

Balderdash. Poppycock. Absolute and unadulterated rot.

“There was a man.”

“There was an old man.”

“There was, back when we lived in the blue house, a man down the street from us, down toward Graves Avenue.”

“There was in those days an elder of the village, well-respected but not well-liked.”

Four different sentences, four different sets of goals, four sets of things to be said. Four stories, begun.

Why is any one of them “better” than any other? In all cases, in all stories, in every set of circumstances in which words can be strung together and passed on to someone else?

Why would any thinking person outlaw any one of these sentences on the basis of arbitrary “rules” or “guidelines” or strictures that would try to constrain the creativity of another person?

Sorry. An old friend of mine has announced that she has given up writing because of such “rules.” She doesn’t want to write the same story everyone else does, and she has allowed herself to become convinced that the way of the others is the “right way.” That she must take their path in order to be a writer. That she, therefore, is obviously not a writer.

(And if you think this is bad, you should see the email I sent her.)

</rant>

9 comments to Four Sentences

  • Pablo D'Stair

    Levi,

    As much as I agree with everything you say about the sentences, as examples, and even the points about the irrelevancy of rules etc. (and especially the absolute irrelevancy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ being used as descriptors of literary prose) I’m not certain what the thrust of this is. If some people believe in “the rules” they do, if some people don’t (or believe in other rules) they don’t (or they believe in other rules) and if some people want to express opinions, even aggressively, that the rules are what “makes writing Writing—or makes it good or bad” it’s all the same as another person (ahem) aggressively wanting to express opinions that the rules X people believe in are nonsense and have no bearing on writing being good or bad.

    But:

    To suggest that people voicing their thoughts and opinions about rules is responsible for your friend or anyone else deciding not to write is not only not supported by your own stance but is just bizarre. If someone decides to write, it’s because they decided to write, if someone decides not to, it’s because they decided not to –it isn’t anyone’s fault, no one did anything wrong–no one in the equation at all. Is it particularly tragic to you, this individual making a personal decision—you feel that it a slight against your abstract position, that once somebody says they are going to write they are obligated to do so forever, even if they (for whatever reason) decide they don’t want to? It’s somebody’s fault the aren’t writing, somebody did something wrong?

    What if you learned that your insistence that the rules don’t matter was the reason someone gave for saying they don’t want to write anymore “I can’t stand hearing people say that ‘the rules don’t matter’ so I don’t want to do it anymore?” Would that be an appropriate slight against you, was what you believe or voice the cause of someone else’s personal choice? Why do you insist, so vociferously, on heroes and villains? Writers write, as you say, and people who aren’t writers don’t. A person no more needs a champion as impetus to start than they need a villain as reason to stop.

    • Pablo,

      I’m not saying there are no rules or that rules don’t matter — far from it. Writing is language, and language has rules. Communication has rules.

      What I’m saying is that the so-called “rules” quoted above (and spray-painted all over the internet) are not rules of writing. They are instructions in the making of a particular thing. They are steps on a particular path. They’re a recipe.

      You can’t take the recipe for apple pie, extrapolate from that series of steps, and proclaim them the “Rules of Pie-Making.” You can’t spend years beleaguering someone who brings lemon meringue pies to the weekly bakers’ workshop, telling her that the reason her pies aren’t working is because she used too much lemon, and that until she learns to make apple pies like everyone else, she’s not a real baker.

      The writings of my friend are wonderful things, beautifully written. She has a serious problem, but it’s not the failure to follow these “rules.” Actually, she has two problems, and I’ve tried to help her solve them, but she won’t stop going to these stupid apple-pie workshops. Her first problem is that she doesn’t get enough actual story onto the page, and her second is that she doesn’t read enough.

      I’m not saying there are no rules. I’m saying Standing Order Number One, life’s First Rule of Everything, is “Identify the problem.” Her problem is a lack of tension. Her problem is a lack of “I want, but…” Without someone who says “I want, but…” there is no story. There is no reason to read on except to bathe yourself in the luxury of her sentences. (No, she won’t let me quote them here.)

      I’m not saying rules don’t matter. I’m saying those aren’t the rules of writing.

      Those are the rules of writing one form of prose, and nothing more.

      Levi

      • Pablo D'Stair

        I do see what you mean–I made the mistaken I so often do of pigeonholing my own perspective and investigating from there–I get where you’re coming from.

        While I have you, just because you brought up something a lot of folks do that I find interesting (the notion of ‘not reading enough’ being trouble–and going from there to the expression of this as the suggestion that Writers need to Read) I want to ask you: What is, specifically, your stance on that coming at it in the following way: They need to read, continually, as an ongoing thing? Or they need to ‘at one point have read’ at least a respectable amount of material? I ask because my gut response to this often mentioned necessity is that ‘I’m not really so keen on reading, don’t do a lot of it, but I do write, passing well if I flatter myself, and I am deeply invested in philosophical dialogue on literature across a broad spectrum both in print, in conversation, and in correspondence’–that is, literature is a living presence in me, but I don’t so much come as it from a reader’s point of view but a writer/philosopher’s only. But, I have to admit that in days past I did read (not extravagant amounts) and so maybe when my knee jerk reaction is to say ‘Writers don’t need to read’ I am coming upon a fallacy based on a misperception of myself as reader.

        If any of that makes sense.

        And, just for fun, it’s one of my favorite conversational rhetorical: If reading is integral to a writer writing well, would it not be only appropriate to say that writing is essential for someone to be able to read well: that is, if they are not privy to what writing is, from the stand point of what actually goes into creating it, are not their thoughts as observer somewhat coloured—in the same way it could be suggested that a writer who does not read is at a deficit for truncating that perspective from their activity?

        • First question: Read everything. Read always. Read. Write. Repeat.

          I admit, that may be only a recipe, only a series of steps to some particular place. But I think it has to be a place most writers should want to get to.

          Second question: Hmmm… Does a reader have to write?

          Certainly a valid question, but not one I can say I’ve ever pondered before. I began both reading at writing so far back in my history that I can’t remember the beginnings, so I don’t know which came first. And I’ve never thought about this before, so these are preliminary ramblings, but here goes:

          First off, I think it’s abundantly clear that attempting to teach is the best adjunct to learning. There’s no clearer way to see what you didn’t quite get than to try to tell someone else what you’ve just learned. Those who have had to endure my harangue on the modern educational system know that I think everyone should have a tutor two grades ahead of them and everyone in third grade and up should have a tutee two grades behind.

          And it certainly seems to be defensible to observe that the best readers are the ones who talk about it a lot, meaning book-bloggers (oh, bummer — I just thought of literature profs, and that doesn’t bode well for my theory at all, now does it?)

          I think what it comes down to is this: Reading is a private venture. Whether someone is reading as well as they can be or not doesn’t really matter much to anyone else. But writing tends to be more public. You can keep a diary or journal and never show anyone, or, for that matter, write The Great American/English/Brazilian/Mandarin/Whatever Novel and never show anyone, but the ones who want their writings to be read are passing them around. Thus the question of how much better it might or might not be if the writer studied other writers is also passed around, so to speak, which is simply to say that we tend to care more about whether a writer is good at it than we do about whether a reader is good at reading.

          I submit that regular writing will make you a better reader, but that it is quite possible no one will notice or care except yourself.

  • Small update: She’s saying she “may have over-reacted.” If she stays away from that workshop, maybe she’ll be ok.

  • I used to think like your friend until I replaced the word “rule” with “suggestion”.
    Now, I understand readers do not want boring, repetive words, so I don’t start every sentence with “The” or “He” or whatever. Variety is needed. I can use adverbs, or adjectives, or discuss the weather if the action is hindered by weather. Etc. Make the description interesting and readers will read my stories.
    I also understand there are no controlling bodies for the writing industry, that set up the “rules” only learned examples of what is selling well. No ruling body is also why so many authors are getting short changed. There are no rules, only suggestions. If you friend understands that she may be more comfortable writing what she wants, then editing to remove boring or repetitive words. Hope this helps. :-)
    Diane´s last blog post: Important Parts of Covers

    • The problem, though, isn’t how she thinks about these steps/rules/suggestions, but rather how to get her pried away from what those who feed them to her call them. Which is “Rules.” With a capital R, as in The Rules Of Writing. If you use adverbs, you’re not a Writer. So her assignment right now (yeah, that’s right — assignment. Come to me with your writing problems and I give you assignments.) is to go through a book, any book, by Stephen King, one of the great proponents of the “stomp on all adverbs” “rule,” and highlight every adverb she finds.

      Pretty enlightening. Everybody should try it.

  • What a waste of time! :-)

    • Oh, no, there’s actually a method to my madness. :)

      If you read what Mr King says about adverbs in On Writing and look no further, you come away with the belief that he thinks adverbs are evil. But if you go through one of his books, and find adverbs on every page (I’ve seen four in a single sentence), then you realize that he, as well as every other good writer on Earth, uses an adverb everywhere it’s appropriate, and never when it’s not. In other words, there’s nothing at all wrong with them, and to avoid them when they’re appropriate is just as silly as to use them when they’re not.

      In fact, corpus searches for adverbs typically show that the only type of writing with a significantly reduced proportion is newspapers. Which is not the ideal I’m striving for!