Friday, January 20, 2012

Tips for Writers: Invest in Style


Tips for Writers: Invest in Style

And I’m not talking fashion here (although take a look at the article in The Atlantic about Joan Didion and her early years at Vogue having an impact on her writing, particularly on the details about clothes and accessories). No, I’m talking about style as in: Usage, Grammar, Punctuation.

I have come to expect errors in Freshman Composition classes—kids don’t seem to get the kind of education in grammar that they used to—but in published writing, or even writing submitted with the hope of publication, I don’t want to see mistakes. In published work, editors should catch these problems. In submitted work, writers should realize that editors have better things to do than fix their punctuation. As an editor, I’m likely to reject a piece that has errors. I’m busy. I’ll just move on to the next story to find one that won’t be so much work to get ready for publication.

But of course we’re not all born with innate knowledge of grammar, and I confess that my understanding of punctuation changed dramatically when I began teaching Freshman Composition. In order to teach the students, I had to master the subject myself, and I discovered a number of things I’d been doing wrong. So now, if I’m in doubt about a question of usage, grammar, or punctuation, I look it up. And I can look it up because I have acquired reference books where I can almost always find the answer. I’ve got three to recommend.

The first is Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. Get it. Read it. Keep it handy. (I have the Fourth Edition, which I think is the latest.) It has several parts: Elementary Rules of Usage; Elementary Principles of Composition; A Few Matters of Form; Misused Words and Expressions; and An Approach to Style. This is more than just a guide to grammar; it’s also about writing more clearly. And it’s written in a way that even Freshmen can understand. For example, under “Misused Words and Expressions” is the entry for Lay: “A transitive verb. Except in slang (‘Let it lay’), do not misuse it for the intransitive verb lie. The hen, or the play, lays an egg; the llama lies down. The playwright went home and lay down. Lie, lay, lain, lying. Lay, laid, laid, laying.” Under “An Approach to Style” is guidance on the use of figures of speech: “The simile is a common device and a useful one, but similes coming in rapid fire, one right on top of another, are more distracting than illuminating. Readers need time to catch their breath; they can’t be expected to compare everything with something else, and no relief in sight. When you use metaphor, do not mix it up. That is, don’t start by calling something a swordfish and end by calling it an hourglass.”

The second is the Chicago Manual of Style. I suppose there are some who read CMOS like a novel (as my mother used to claim she read cookbooks), but I keep it within reach for reference. It’s so thorough that it has a massive and somewhat confusing index, but it’s worth digging until you find exactly the right entry. (I have the 15th Edition, which is not the latest, but it’s an expensive book and so I’m not inclined to replace the one I’ve got. If you don't have an older one, spend the money to get the latest.) Here is the entry on the lie/lay distinction: “Lay is a transitive verb—it demands a direct object. It is inflected lay-laid-laid. Lie is an intransitive verb—it never takes a direct object. It is inflected lie-lay-lain.” (Examples are also provided.) That’s the same information as in Strunk & White, although in plainer terms. As for figures of speech, it appears that CMOS doesn’t care about scrambled metaphors or floods of similes.

The third reference book I keep handy is Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage. Garner is actually one of the CMOS authors, so this guide is generally consistent with CMOS, but it’s organization is a little more user friendly and it’s text less sterile. Plus, it goes into more detail on matters of usage such as the lie/lay distinction, which takes up an entire page. It not only discusses the distinction, it also examines the main ways in which writers incorrectly substitute one for the other. The entry begins: “Very simply, lie (= to recline, be situated) is intransitive—it can’t take a direct object. But lay (= to put down, arrange) is always transitive—it needs a direct object . . . To use lay without a direct object, in the sense of lie, is nonstandard. But this error is very common in speech—from the illiterate to the highly educated. In fact, some commentators believe that people make this mistake more often than any other in the English language. Others claim that it’s no longer a mistake—or even that it never was. But make no mistake: using these verbs correctly is a mark of refinement.” [The real mark of refinement, in my opinion, is editing. I can’t edit what I’ve said, and so I may make this error in speaking, but if I also make this mistake in writing, then I’ve made an error in editing.] I’ve got the Second Edition; a new one came out last year.

I also have a few other reference books, including an MLA style guide and a compact grammar guide, both of which occasionally come in handy, but I generally check Garner first and then CMOS if I have a question.

A writer should definitely make the investment in style. It's important.