Language is the material out of which the artwork is made
from Get Started in Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy by Adam Roberts
There are a number of kinds of bad writing – but the first is simple incompetence
Of this kind of bad writing, we can say these three things:
- Bad writing is ungrammatical. Maybe you feel yourself to be a rebel, a Joyce, somebody to whom the rules don’t apply. But you can’t break the rules if you don’t understand the rules and most of the time those rules will inform everything you write. Your sentences should contain at least a subject and a verb, which should agree in number (so ‘the alien battleship were larger than the moon’ is ungrammatical). Don’t slide queasily from past tense to present and back.
- Bad writing is poorly punctuated – use full stops at the end of your sentences; be very sparing with exclamation marks and never use more than one at a time!!! STEER CLEAR OF SHOUTY CAPITALIZATION! It looks foolish and immature – and beware the excessive use of italics for emphasis, because like capitalization it very quickly becomes annoying. Don’t keep changing your font, just because there are a thousand different fonts available on your computer: it doesn’t look lively and emphatic, it looks lame and distracting. Don’t underline things.
- Bad writing is poorly spelled. This is more than just using your computer spellchecker to make sure to get your ‘i-before-except-after-c’ ducks in a row. It means getting clear in your head the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’; the difference between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’; the difference between ‘who’ and ‘whom’. (This latter seems to puzzle a lot of people, although I’ve never understood why – everybody understands the difference between ‘he’ and ‘him’, or ‘she’ and ‘her’, after all; and it’s the same distinction being drawn. Would you write a sentence like ‘She gave the ray gun to he’? No. No, you wouldn’t.) If you think these sorts of things are pettifogging and pedantry, then you’re in the wrong business. Using language correctly is the baseline skill upon which all other writerly achievements – including those that muck around with the conventions of language for comic or experimental reasons – are built.
In all these things, your best guide is the good practice of writers you admire. Not all published writers exhibit good practice in all this, but the overwhelming majority do, not least because their work has been through the filter of error-correcting editors and copy-editors.
Your best ally is a willingness to get it right. I’ll be clear: it is possible to believe, as many people do, that the ‘rules’ of grammar are arbitrary constructions, and that they are changing under the influence of things like text-speak. Once upon a time, writers all sounded like Dr Johnson. It’s possible that in the future we’ll all write like LOLcats. People who study grammar insist that their discipline is descriptive not prescriptive; that they’re not laying down unalterable commandments. As a general attitude to language use, this seems to me quite right. As a strategy for improving your writing, though, it is less helpful. Working through ‘rules’, however arbitrary, is a way of forcing yourself to think about your own writing practice. Learning how the rules work is the necessary first step to knowing how and when you might want to break those rules.
I’ll give you a couple of examples of what I mean. You may have heard the following ‘rules’:
- Avoid split infinitives.
- Use the subjunctive for an unfulfilled wish or condition.
- Never end your sentences with a preposition.
The interesting thing here is that plenty of people, including esteemed linguistic and grammar experts, would deny that they are ‘rules’ at all. People break all three and are still readily understood by others – and that, surely, is the crucial test of communication. When William Shatner speaks his voice-over segment during the Star Trek: The Original Series credit sequence, claiming that their five-year mission is ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’, we understand him even though he has split his infinitive. People all the time say ‘If I was …’ (‘If I was going to write a novel, it would definitely be about a telepathic brain slug’) without being misconstrued – even though the grammatically correct form is ‘If I were …’ And as for ending sentences with prepositions: well, structuring your sentences so as to avoid ending them with prepositions (‘to’, ‘of’, ‘with’ and so on) very often results in forced and artificial constructions. Winston Churchill famously mocked the kind of person who insists upon this grammatical rule: ‘This,’ he declared, ‘is the kind of thing up with which I will not put.’ Implicitly he was saying: but surely it feels more natural to write ‘This is the kind of thing I won’t put up with.’
But here’s the thing, for me at any rate: ‘This is the kind of thing I won’t put up with’, though communicative, strikes me as bland, whereas there is a rather splendid elegance in the supposedly mocking ‘This is the kind of thing up with which I will not put.’ The advantage of writing with a sense of the rules of grammar in your head is that it often forces you to think more carefully about what you want to say than might otherwise be the case. The point is not blindly to follow the rules; it is to think about what you want to say, about how you want to arrange your words, and about the effect you are going to have. Language is not a transparent medium through which readers will view the motion picture running in your head. Language is the material out of which the artwork is made.