Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Query question: writing with style versus writing "right"

Some time ago, I saw a fascinating article on Writer's Digest online site, called something like "The Difference Between Writing with Style and Writing Incorrectly." Sadly, I didn't get the chance to read it and now I can't find it.

We've all heard of the Old West style battles between editors and writers, and it got me thinking. Is there really a difference between writing incorrectly and writing with style? The great Stephen King once said, "You must know the rules of writing so you can effectively break them." What's your perspective on writing with style vs. writing correctly? Is there a difference, and what is it? Example(s)?

This reminds me of an old New Yorker cartoon. An elderly grammar puritan has helpfully corrected Elvis lyrics: "You are nothing but an old hound dog."

Elvis had style, Grammar Lady was "correct."
Which do you prefer?

Sometime back I was proofing a client's manuscript and came across some truly dreadful grammar. Knowing my client was meticulous, I flagged it and asked. Sure enough, the "wrong" was on purpose. Not all characters speak in perfectly organized sentences and use all the right words.

Dern tootin', they don't.

You won't catch too many gun slinging moonshiners in the hollers of Kentucky asking for whom the bell tolls.

I tried to find further examples for this, but I couldn't. I'll bet the comment column will scare up some though.

And it's not so much editors who engage in fisticuffs on this topic, it's copyeditors. They've had style trained right out of them, and that's ok with me. Someone needs to know that a double Axel isn't the same thing as a double axle.

Dern tootin.

The trick is, as Stephen King points out, doing this on purpose. If it's on purpose, it fits. If it's by mistake, it's often very jarring. 


Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

When I leaf through a book, if the style makes me stop to read the text more than once, I usually put the book down and reach for another. Exception to my intollerence: the passage is gloriously written.

I don't consider myself a sofisticated reader.

Sol Stein writes in "How to Grow a Novel" that the reader wants an experience and be unaware that she is reading it. Basically, if the reader's attention is distracted from the story and suddenly she is seeing those grouchy faces on the metro during the morning commute then the writer has failed.

Colin Smith said...

Heck, pick up a Stephen King novel. When he gets into the voice of his characters, why, sometimes he doesn't even put an apostrophe at the end of -ing words! :) And yet he also writes some very elegant, grammar-perfect descriptive prose.

That's the first example that leaped to mind.

Kitty said...

Frank McCourt stretched a few rules in "Angela's Ashes." It was the first time I encountered quotes without "quotes": I have a right, he says, to stay in me own house.

Try graphing some of his pages. Talk about bounce! But it all works beautifully. It's the voice. The voice made the difference.

Thomas Andrew Green said...

John Gardner's test of breaking the fictive dream helps in deciding whether a deviation from standard grammar "works" or not. Personally, two of the worst offenses: ending a phrase with a preposition, and splitting an infinitive. Both are products of sloppy writing, because either can be easily avoided. That said, sometimes a final preposition doesn't cause quite as much of a wince as does compromising the integrity of the infinitive.

Anonymous said...

Style can equal voice, or maybe it IS voice. To have voice, sometimes you bend the rules - or break them - as the questioner points out, ala Stephen King.

One book that sticks out for me, as an example of voice over grammar, is THE HELP. Soon after it's success, in an interview with Kathryn Stockett, she said one agent wrote back "There is no market for this kind of tiring writing.” The rest, as they say, is history. When I first opened THE HELP, I had to re-read the first few sentences more than once. Then I got hold of the voice, and then I couldn't put it down. Some people may hate the book...but I loved it. I thought all of the voices within it were remarkable. Then again, I'm from the south, so maybe that has something to do with it.

Colin Smith said...

What is grammar anyway? Isn't it just the mechanics behind language that helps us communicate clearly? It doesn't know style, pace, or passion. Grammar is like the math behind a snowflake. But there were snowflakes before there was the math to describe them, so it's good to keep perspective on what's important. :)

Anonymous said...

And of course I took so long to formulate my comment, several others have already pointed out voice, making my comment come off like something fresh and new. That's what I get for playing in between sentences with Little Dog.

Susan Bonifant said...

I recently finished grammar checking a manuscript in which many conversations take place between inarticulate people. They are the hardest to set up but they're real - people really do say "I coulda went," but wow, all those green lines make you hope you're right.

As a reader, I agree with Donnaeverhart's comment about getting hold of voice. It's the sweetest thing to see AND hear a novelist's character in your head.

Jim heskett said...

Know the rules, but story always wins out over anything

Eli Rhodes said...

Wow. Wonderfully put:)

Craig said...

Colin, are you talking about the English language?

There is no math behind the English language. In certain Romance Languages, i.e. Spanish, there is a measure of math. That might be why Spanish is now Spanglish. Grammar in the English language is set by precedent and many of those precedents are regional.

Because there is no math behind the English Grammar the language can morph and change better than any other. If you push too hard on 'correct' grammar you will attempt to stagnate a living and breathing language.

NotaWarriorPrincess said...

Two words: Huckleberry Finn. And since I teach the history of literary English, as well as grammar and usage courses, I will shut up now, rather than open my word hord to release the demagoguery and stir pots. In these matters, the lower the stakes, the fiercer the fight.

K.A.Simon said...

I remember reading The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness and being horrified for the first chapter, and sometimes even, having a hard time thinking it was good. Then after a little, I got so drawn into the book, it didn't matter. It's still, in my opinion, one of the best YA's out there in regards to unique voice. See for yourself--

"Swamp Noise, tho, swamp Noise is just the birds all thinking their worrisome little birdie thoughts. Where's food? Where's home? Where's my safety? And the waxy squirrels, which are all little punks, teasing you if they see you, teasing themselves if they don't, and the rusty squirrels, which are like dumb little kids, and some- times there's swamp foxes out in the leaves who you can hear faking their Noise to sound like the squirrels they eat and even less often there are mavens singing their weird maven songs and once I swear I saw a cassor running away on two long legs but Ben says I didn't, says the cassors are long gone from the swamp.

I don't know. I believe me"

Damn right. I believe you too Todd.

Kerry Chafin said...

I think the trick is making it subtle. Weaving stylistic choices between strips of grammatically correct prose can be really effective. This is especially true for character voice. Nora Roberts is actually a good example of this with her Irish characters. By using sentence structure she manages to capture the lilt of an Irish accent without making everyone sound like leprechauns.

Dropping in pieces of an accent to create a flow that's reminiscent of a language or accent is great. Making every word and every sentence an exercise in grammatically incorrect stylistic choices can be jarring. It's all about finding the balance.

It's like description of setting. You don't have to describe every lamp and chair. Give the reader an overall feel and they'll fill in the rest.

Colin Smith said...

Craig: I'm talking about any language, and I agree with you. I didn't intent to imply that grammar is as strict and rigorous as math. All I meant was that the language of mathematics is itself descriptive, just like the grammar of English or Spanish. 1+1 made 2 long before we had the numbers and symbols to state the fact. Snowflakes existed long before we had the math to explain them. But if all you look at is the math, you miss the beauty of the snowflake. Likewise, if all you do is fret about grammar, you miss the beauty of language. That was my point.

Dana Breann said...

I recently read a horror novel (that my brain needs to assume was a self published). I HAD to share it with any friend who could possibly be interested. The book recommendation was prefaced with, "It's horrible, but I couldn't put it down. The grammar is atrocious. Several words don't quite belong to the narrator and seem to be written in the voice of the character who spoke before it, but the author has an original take on a well loved trope. If he had an editor, he could go places." All of the friends who read the book ignored the warning because it was free.
What I'm saying is, I'm in the camp that grammar < style, but style doesn't always equal bad grammar. This time, it didn't work.

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

"To boldly go where no one has gone before." As well known a phrase (with the sexism removed) as any from the '60s. And of course, the grammar police (I envision her as an iron gray, ramrod straight elderly woman with her white hair in a bun; her name is Miss Primbottom) freaks out because of the split infinitive.
But, "Boldly to go where no no one..." doesn't work, doesn't have the cadence. Neither does "To go boldly where ..." As a long ago jazz hep cat said, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." The Miss Primbottoms of the world have fooled us into believing there's a right and wrong way to write.
Writing is either effective or it's not. That's the ONLY rule that matters. Grammar helps us write effectively, but sometimes you've got to bust loose and swing.

Craig said...

Sorry Colin. I had no right to aim that rant at just you. I have read enough of your posts to know that you are not a member of either the Grammar Police or the White Tower Squad. Those are who that shotgun rant was aimed.

The English language has not gone to hell in the last five hundred years even though Mickey Spillane and his ilk tried. There is a type of math in language and one big thing about making a novel work is to keep that math consistent in a story.

Do not over think it and do not keep a grammar book in you lap while writing. Let if flow in a way that the pacing pulls the reasder along.

Colin Smith said...

Craig: No offense taken, so no apology necessary. We're cool. :)

Dane Zeller said...

Writing is a creative act. Rules can't possibly rule.

NotaWarriorPrincess said...

Five hundred years, Craig? You are generous. Englisc ongeanath farran heliscweard qhan tha Guillaum Conquier Harold thonne Hardacanut onfleagan!

(This is how to deal with language purists. Use REAL English, and see how far it gets 'em and their cute eighteenth century "rules" transfixed from Latin and Greek onto a proud Germanic spraec!)

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

OMG you mean there are rules. I'm screwed.

Judy Moore said...

Think Different. Or, Think Differently.

DLM said...

Carolynnwith2Ns: hee.

Craig, John, Colin, and NotaWarriorPrincess - do any of you read Arrant Pedantry? It is a marvelous (if seldom updated) grammar blog which does to FREE us from rules and resurrect the delicious flexibility of English than any other anything I have ever done read. Mmm-hmm.

They also have bitchin' tees for sale.

DLM said...

"does more to FREE us" ...


Colin Smith said...

DLM: Excellent site! Thanks for the tip. This article especially speaks to today's topic, I think:

I would add that learning grammar helps us talk about our writing in the same way that learning music theory helps musicians talk about their music. It's not essential, but it helps.

Terri Lynn Coop said...

As time goes on, I am really about structure. If anyone is crazy enough to ask me for writing advice, I say that in a house you wouldn't hang the wallpaper until you install the wiring.


The grammar police can be quite a group. The following is the closing passage from my very first published-for-pay short story. The line editor was having kittens over the phrase "has been kicked" without considering the context. Luckily, the project editor got the joke:


"But, I made the deal with my demon. He said as long as I was in my spirit ring I was safe."

"No, he said that as long as you remained in your precious spirit ring, that he wouldn't take you. Well, the matter has been kicked downstairs to management. I've reassigned your demon. You deal with me now."

"No!" She cried in real fear.

"Stop blubbering and face your destiny. I also need to tell you that this last year has been a loan and there's interest due. Because when you make deals with Death, there's Hell to pay."


Yes, my name is Terri and I not only wrote a passive voice phrase . . . I liked it and would do it again (I also used an exclamation point! HA!)

Jed Cullan said...

Sorry, Terri, but using an exclamation mark is just unforgivable. How do you live with yourself?

Carolyn Haley said...

In response to, "And it's not so much editors who engage in fisticuffs on this topic, it's copyeditors. They've had style trained right out of them," please note that's a feature of unprofessional copyeditors. Professional ones are trained to recognize that style trumps "correct" unless it interferes with reader comprehension -- especially in fiction -- and to understand the difference between doing something wrong intentionally and accidentally. Yes, we can get into fisticuffs over the fine points, but that's among ourselves. Pro copyeditors are trained to recite the mantra "It's not my book, it's not my book" when the temptation arises to tweak more than necessary.

Christina Seine said...

I have one foot squarely planted in both camps. Outside of fiction I'm a grammar Nazi, inside - well all bets are off. My heroes are Raymond Carver, Will Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Harper Lee, so there you go.

Because I homeschool, it's sort of my job to patrol sentences. YET, the inevitible response from my younger kids any time I ask, "What have I told you about that in the past?" is always (quoting Mater from Cars) "to not to." It just sticks. Do I correct that? Nope. I just say, "Yup" and that's that. If they wrote it that way in an essay though, I'd be all over them.