Thursday, July 9, 2009

“The End” Is Just the Beginning, Part II of Four: Two writers talk about editing, critique, and craft

Elizabeth Zelvin & Sharon Wildwind

How important are the mechanics of writing: spelling, grammar, syntax?

Sharon: Absolutely, one-hundred percent, ground-zero critical. Poor word-and-sentence-crafting skills are like saying that a concert musician can ignore finger exercises, or a painter doesn’t have to know the differences between acrylics and watercolors. Writers profit by losing the myth that an editor will fix all of that tawdry stuff once the publisher buys a manuscript.

Of the three, spelling without reference and without error is being replaced by an ability to use a spellchecker, but that’s like needing basic arithmetic skills to use a calculator. I may not remember that 6 x 7 = 42, but I need to know that the answer to 6 x 7 falls somewhere between 40 and 50, so that when my calculator misfires and tells me that the answer is 167, my brain goes, “Wait a minute.” It’s the same with spelling. If I have a choice between two closely-spelled words, I have to know which one to choose.

Unfortunately, there aren’t yet any grammar and syntax programs that can be as bang-on as spell checkers. With lots of writers, me included, the banging that goes on is me hitting my head in frustration when the computer, for the 137th time, corrects a grammar usage that I’ve intentionally chosen.

Liz: I was brought up to believe that correct spelling was not optional. I know today that spelling is not necessarily proof of intelligence—or vice versa—but I didn’t learn that from my family. We were all demon Scrabble players. I can still remember my feeling of triumph at the age of nine when I insisted—correctly—that “exhilarating” was spelled with an “a” in the middle, while my mother said it was an “i” and my father voted for “e.” To this day I don’t know if they were just giving me an easy win. My mother always said “It is I” and put “whom” in all the right places. I know where it should be, but I don’t do it in casual conversation. And I don’t mind ending a sentence with a preposition.

Do you have any particular bees in your bonnet about the use of language?

Liz: My pet peeve is the split infinitive. The Star Trek slogan—“to boldly go”—drives me nuts. So does “to better understand.” I don’t know why people think that it’s okay to split the infinitive when the word in the middle is “better.” You can write or speak a perfectly smooth sentence in which you say that you want “to understand [something] better.” Thinking “to better understand” is a better locution is like thinking it’s more aristocratic to stick out your pinky when you hold a teacup—something I’ve read enough Golden Age English novels to know no true aristocrat would do.

Sharon: Carelessness, such as split infinitives. Damn it, Jim, it’s either “to go boldly” or “boldly, to go.”

“Point in time.” The action has either reached a point (a place) or a time (a when), but not both at the same time.

Business jargon. “Uniquely recapitualize leveraged web-readiness vis-a-vis out-of-the-box information,” works fine in a Dilbert cartoon, but has no place in the real world. As an aside, if you run a Macintosh system that uses widgets, download Corporate Ipsum. You can have tons of fun with the business jargon it generates.

My biggest gripe is format.

There, I feel a lot better.

Coming on Tuesday July 14: Part III, on critique groups


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I'm with Sharon on the business jargon. Drives me nuts! I've written some things for people in the business world and I hate having to play along with all the silly phrases. :)

Mystery Writing is Murder

Sandra Parshall said...

My pet peeve is the modifier separated from the word/term it modifies. This happens most often in crammed-full, run-on sentences. Such as...

The umbrella that lay on the counter along with a stack of China, which had a bold sunflower design and scalloped edges, chipped here and there from long use, was black.

Okay, that's a dreadful sentence for more than one reason -- but I swear I've read sentences in published books that were almost as bad!

Paul Lamb said...

But what is inherently wrong with a split infinitive? To me, that's just about the very best place in the verbal construction to put the modifier. No ambiguity at all. Someone, sometime made a rule about split infinitives, I think, and everyone learned to dislike them. But really, what's wrong with them? I don't think there is anything wrong with them, not as a rhetorical device. Geez, we're creative writers, not technical writers. We're supposed to be pushing the envelope of the language, creating new and more effective means of communicating. Grammar is overrated. It's more a tool than a rule. I think most writers would benefit from studying the rules of rhetoric than the rules of grammar.

Vicki Lane said...

I'm still appalled at how many writers misuse lie and lay. And the its/it's thing -- arrgh!