Final blog post for Ploughshares, 4.11.11:
Because several of my preceding posts have been very earnest, and also, possibly, a little depressing, I thought that it might be nice to end my tenure as a Ploughshares blogger on an upbeat note. With this in mind, I recently asked a group of anonymous literary authorities to comment on some of the writing rules many of us learned in school.
Part I – All Things Junior High
1. You should never end a sentence with a preposition. We’re not sure why this is a rule, but we like it very much and take issue with that know-it-all Winston Churchill who opposed this directive, and about it once said, “That is such pedantic nonsense, up with which I shall not put.”
2. You should never split an infinitive. Infinitives are sacred objects, on a par with golden chalices, fragments of the Berlin Wall, swatches from Jesus’ shroud, and the last chocolate éclair at the bridal luncheon.
3. Elegant variation is the exalted state. Oh yes, rather than repeat a word too often, we advise you to consult your thesaurus. Study your thesaurus. Take counsel from your thesaurus. Have recourse to your thesaurus. Call upon your thesaurus. Pick your thesaurus’s brains.
4. You shouldn’t begin paragraphs or sentences with conjunctions, especially “but” because it is a) an unsightly word, a verbal plug of great indelicacy, and b) it is as peremptory as the maitre-d’ who last week stood within inches of our table, trying to flush us out of his mediocre restaurant so that four supposedly more desirable patrons would be allowed to take our places.
5. Like bad breath and lying, exclamation points are unacceptable. Martin Amis needs to rein it in. The nerve of that guy. (Aren’t the British supposed to be stuffed shirts? Clearly he has never been afflicted by this malady). When we read The Information, we thought he needed to be committed. Seriously, doesn’t he know how exhausting this punctuation mark is? It’s like a poke in the eye! Sorry.
Part II: Generally Good/Sound/Possibly Scintillating
1. Don’t get carried away with ellipses… …we can’t see why anyone would take issue with this rule. It’s largely unassailable, in that it eschews vagueness, mannerly writing, and lazy thinking. If you’re writing an email, you’re excused once or twice, but with a story, a poem, a letter, a last will and testament, please be direct. (Unless you’re secretly smitten with Martin Amis who along with the ! has been known to use …).
2. Rhetorical questions are annoying. Yes, they are. Need we say more? Okay, maybe just a little. If our writing students aren’t particularly interested in their readers, more likely than not they have splashed rhetorical questions all over their papers, especially in the introduction and conclusion. How many times must they ask us if we are aware that Americans are obsessed with violence or skinniness or buying things they don’t need? O, how many more of these essays must we grade before we are freed from purgatory?
3. Clichés are annoying too. If only Rome had been built in a day, then nothing would remain between the devil and the deep blue sea from now on. If only pigs could fly, then we would finally see that nothing is fair in love and war. Still, you risk being accused of running a dog-and-pony show or playing it to the hilt. (What in God’s name does that last one mean? And that one about the devil and the deep blue sea? We’ve never been able to figure them out. Which we guess underscores a fundamental problem with clichés – few of us actually know what is being said when they’re used).
4. Vary your sentence structure. Use compound-complex along with interjections. Use the long and the short of it. Because the truth is, even Henry James, with his impressive sentences that sometimes took naps in the midst of their unfurling and woke up on the next page, even he used a short sentence after a long one from time to time. He was a fine writer, Mr. James, known for his incisive observations about wealthy Americans living among aristocratic Europeans, members of the two camps sometimes falling in love, which was especially problematic for the sickly heroines who populated a few of his florid tomes.
5. If you’re an American writer, writing about Americans for an American audience, it is probably unwise to pepper your work with British English. Even though it’s rather charming that our friends across the Atlantic wear jumpers instead of sweaters and ride lifts instead of elevators, it sounds pretty silly when someone in Milwaukee writes “Chuck headed to his flat to meet his pal Tom. The poor chap was having car trouble and needed to get under the bonnet to check things out, ASAP.”
I suspect that you have other rules to add to this list. I hope to hear from you if you do because two heads can – take it from the horse’s mouth – be better than one.