Friday, September 12, 2008


I am appalled when I troll sites on the Internet at the lack of good style--indeed, at the lack of even basic compositional skills, let alone proofreading. Some of my favorite sites deal with fascinating topics and some are ferociously researched, but many seem to have been written by inept sixth-graders or to have been badly translated from Urdu (not to malign that language or any other; have you heard Persian spoken?--it's lovely). I am vaguely aware of a "trend" in virtual reality and the e-world towards comressed, simplified style. I remember an interview with the imminent fantast Gene Wolfe I read many years ago. It was published in a science-fiction fanzine: Algol, I believe. Wolfe (about whom more in a later post) specified some of the tools any writer needed to communicate with his readers effectively. Among them were a good grasp of English grammar and punctuation. He felt that readers would be repelled by clumsy construction, erratic syntax, and inconsistent punctuation. It erodes a reader's confidence when a writer bungles these basic skills. Here we must differentiate between skill and talent. A good writer is born with--or at least acquires early--the talent that makes him unique. This encompasses musicality, diction, juxtaposition, and many other qualities beyond the scope of this piece. Skill, though, is what the writer learns so he can handle his language clearly and precisely. An English lady had a book called Eats, Shoots and Leaves published a few years ago on the topic of punctuation. It is a hilarious primer on the peculiarities of the marks that organize our words. The point is that these skills can be learned. You should know the rules and traditions of your medium before you begin fracturing them.

Style, then, is a combination of talent and skill that makes a journeyman writer different from all others. A masterful writer is one who is emulated. Gore Vidal wrote an essay many years ago in which he vivisected the top ten bestselling novels of that period. The results were hilarious and horrifying. Some writers have a gift of storytelling, often combined with a great deal of research, that makes them almost compulsively readable. They sometimes sell an astonishing number of books, despite a lack of one or more of the skills I have been discussing. Some of them seem, as I said above, to have been poorly translated from a foreign language. Science fiction and fantasy (to a lesser extent) was rife with these half-literate storytellers not so long ago. Stylists like Sturgeon, Bradbury, Budrys, and Aldiss were the exception, rather than the rule. To sum all this up: You can learn the skills that will bring your talent to its fullest pitch. Even if the readership is degenerating into electronic Newspeak, you have a duty to express yourself as well as possible. Words live and have power; be wise in their use. Tomorrow: Said-bookisms. Siempre viva!


Jon said...

Hi Dan, You're enrolled in my subscription list. Keep writing. I will be reading it all and commenting as I feel called. Clicking on my name will take you to my profile. There's a link to my blog at the bottom of the page.

Jon said...

By the way. I'm aware of the fact that my writing is, technically, quite bad. The best I can hope for is saying what I mean. The idea is that writing something is better than writing nothing. It can only get better.