If you have the idea that I was/am an academic pedant, you would be wrong. At least I hope you are wrong. I am a romantic. I am ardent and persuasive and passionate. I began writing love-letters to a girl I met at a summer cottage in my 16thyear. She lived in Scranton Pennsylvania. To my distress she didn’t write back. After 3 – 4 missives, I abandoned the relationship. But then I met a girl at my old high school in Welland during Grade XII Graduation. By then I lived in Peterborough and while the beginning of this long-distance pen-pal relationship was tender and sweet it also was tentative, and petered out.
And then I met Marlene, my future wife, in Grade XIII. How could I resist when she whispered in my ear sitting behind me in a spare class, ‘I think I’ll write on your neck.’ She never did write on my neck but a lifetime of teasing and pursuing ensued. Come to think of that, she never did write to me very much. I should have known then that we were not compatible though she did cover my wall for 50 years. I moved to Queen’s University in Kingston and she to Wellesley Hospital in Toronto. I wrote her thirteen-page 8 ½ by 11 lined paper letters weekly, or even daily, declaring my love and my plans for the future. She replied with one or two ordinary letter pages, mostly about the weather. I was living in my head; she was living. She finally agreed to marry me, perhaps to stop having to apologize for not writing; or perhaps it was easier to talk than to write.
As I progressed professionally I became more and more aware of the need for a readable writing style: academic abstraction, convoluted construction, and multi-syllabic vocabulary may have impressed some people, or even intimidated a few, but it eventually dawned on me that I was probably using that style for my own petty ego needs. I wonder now how many people saw through my shallowness? Wince. Pedantry does not impress, and neither is it an effective communication strategy. The point of communication, in writing or otherwise, is to be understood. And hopefully keep them reading.
Good writing should both educate and entertain. But even if you are entertaining, you need three fundamental elements: good structure, good vocabulary, good ideas.
Good structure (piece, paragraph and sentence) is essential. The piece needs to start with an attention grabbing proposition and progress logically to a clear conclusion, but not at the expense of ‘flow’. Too many asides, and asides on an aside, lose the reader. On the other hand, I do not agree with Hemingway to limit vocabulary to two syllables, and sentences to eight words.
My paragraphs tend to be too long. I keep thinking of more things to say that are still in context with the point of the paragraph. A century ago readers were not intimidated by long paragraphs; paragraphs might carry on for pages even. Modern readers with apparently short attention spans (though they would argue it’s not ADD, it’s that they don’t have time for long passages) may not even attempt the read if the paragraphs are more than three lines long. I’m not always happy about it but to accommodate them I revise and shorten paragraphs, and break them up, but I don’t like it. And I can be stubborn.
Fowler’s has long been my friend, but I don’t slavishly follow his rules, or anyone else’s; I’m sure this is part of my dual personality – conventional on the one hand, and rebelliously independent on the other. If it ‘sounds better’ (to the ear) to split an infinitive, split it; if it is more comfortable to end a sentence or phrase with a preposition, so be it.
I use conjunctions freely, some would say too freely. But I don’t care. I like buts and ands to make a strong connection, or contrast, from one sentence to another. And I’ll use them when I want to.
I believe in proper punctuation, to a point. My favourite book on the issue is Eats, Shoots & Leaves (Lynn Truss). I pay attention to where a comma is needed, or not needed. (I’m sure you’ve noticed the modern tendency of youthful writers to drop a comma, into the text, randomly.) I am fond of semi-colons (English commas?) and use them frequently. I prefer them over ‘and’, often; a semi-colon creates a better sense of pause when an ‘and’ makes the sentence feel run-on. Or I’ll use a semi-colon when there are two closely related ideas that feel more connected with a semi-colon than if broken into discrete sentences; sometimes I’ll even use a semi-colon and an and. I also like colons. This is a much underrated device in my view. If you are making a logical argument, a colon connecting the two arguments is much more powerful than a period dividing the points into separate sentences. I also favour the long dash – separated by spaces! – as a device for reinforcing the point of the previews phrase. It’s more segregating then a mere comma, but not as precise as a colon. I overuse exclamation points!
I do think good vocabulary makes for more interesting reading. There is nothing wrong with high level vocabulary – write to your erudite audience, if they are; no need to assume a grade six reading level. I expect my reader to have enough vocabulary to follow me, or the resourcefulness to look it up. My vocabulary is not vast but I do like to use a $2 word where a ten cent word might do. There are times when I am sure the word I am using exists, and when MSWord doesn’t know it, and I can’t find it in my digital American Heritage Dictionary, or Collins, I will resort to the internet where almost any word can be found. And then I might still use my word anyway. If Shakespeare could …
But these idiosyncratic usages still do not account for my personal writing style. And I am out of space in today’s blog. So we shall continue tomorrow. (I know, overuse of ‘so’, and redundant to boot.)