Don’t do everything blogger/columnist/book author John Scalzi says.
In response to a reader’s query, Scalzi posted ten suggestions for nonprofessional writers who’d like to “write better.” He offers a few good tips, such as “when in doubt, simplify” and “learn to friggin’ spell,” which really means “use the friggin’ spell checker.”
But he leaves out a couple of key guidelines, and his grammar and punctuation suggestions will create more chaos than they’ll clear up.
What he forgets
Scalzi omits one absolutely vital
guideline rule: Use the active voice. Instead of saying, “The running back was tackled by the linebacker,” say, “The linebacker tackled the running back.” The passive voice moves the actor (subject) away from the action (verb) and makes it seem like the whole world sits around waiting for something to happen.
Use simple, strong verbs (not simple, weak ones, like “use”). For example, instead of saying, “The linebacker tackled the running back,” say, “The linebacker torpedoed the running back,” or say, “The linebacker flattened the running back.” Vivid verbs appeal to the reader’s senses and help make sentences more memorable. (A little alliteration doesn’t hurt, either.)
Sleep on it. In these days of blogging, breaking news, and instant gratification, it’s hard to give our writing what it probably needs the most: time. Before you publish, try to put your piece down and come back to it a day or two later. You’ll end up thinking about the piece while you’re away from it, and when you come back, you’ll look at it with a fresh eye.
Get feedback from at least two people. One, a member of your target audience and the other, a more experienced writer than you. Unless you’re Emily Dickinson, you shouldn’t write in a vacuum. During the drafting stage, a reader’s impressions or another writer’s advice can help you shape your piece or even take it in a new direction. Post-publish comments on your blog may provide some insight, but when people know you’re looking for help while you’re still writing, their feedback tends to be far more constructive.
What he nails
When he says:
Front-load your point: If you make people wade through seven paragraphs of unrelated anecdotes before you get to what you’re really trying to say, you’ve lost….Now, sometimes people write to find out what their point is; I think that’s fine because I do that myself. But most of the time after I’ve figured out my point, I’ll go back and re-write.
That’s like the old rule of thumb that recommends writing your article and then, when you think it’s finished, deleting the first paragraph.
I also like Scalzi’s point about writing as a thinking or discovery process. Writing is thinking, after all (where else would gems like this post come from?). I can think things through more clearly if I’m putting words down somewhere, and I eventually figure out what I really want to say. So the endings of my early drafts often become the openings of later ones.
With that in mind, I would just switch the order in Scalzi’s advice. I’d say: Write to figure out what you want to say, and then edit to make sure you’re quickly getting to the point.
What he gets wrong
Aw, hell, nobody’s perfect, and Scalzi’s imperfections show when he gives punctuation and grammar help. Go ahead and follow his rules for the colon and exclamation point, but venture not into the land of the period, comma, semicolon, or grammar. For these, he offers some seriously bad advice.
Mistakes in grammar and punctuation are usually, as Mina Shaughnessey said, errors of thinking by people who don’t know the rules. They guess or make up their own rules based on some vague memory of the actual rules. They can tell you why they put that comma, semicolon, or period there — because they honestly thought about it — but they’re usually wrong.
Scalzi is a professional writer, so he probably knows the rules but doesn’t have the time or inclination to write a handbook in a blog post. Or maybe he’s a porno-grammarian, someone who can’t define a proper sentence but who knows one when he sees it. Either way, he’s made up his own rules for other people to follow, and they simply won’t work.
Scalzi says: “When you’re writing down a thought and you’re at the end of that thought, put a period.”
Scalzi could mean one of two things here. He could be repeating the layman’s definition of a sentence as a complete thought, in which case Scalzi is telling us what a sentence is and where it ends. But contrary to popular belief, a sentence is not “a thought.” Like Homer Simpson, for example, I have lots of thoughts that aren’t sentences. Plus, a sentence can contain more than one thought, and if you put a period after the first thought, you may actually say something other than what you intended.
Or Scalzi could be saying that we shouldn’t worry about whether or not we have a complete sentence. When we’re done with that idea, we can just plop down a period because sometimes a thought should stand alone. Even if it’s not a “legal” sentence. If that’s his meaning, then he’s right, but it’s bad advice for budding writers.
When you know that you’re breaking a rule and why you’re breaking a rule, you can do it effectively. But writers who don’t know the rules break them accidentally and poorly, especially when they’re applying a nebulous guideline like “just put a period at the end of a thought.” It causes all sorts of chaos for the reader: choppy sentences, fragments, and syntax oddities appear everywhere instead of only where they’re most effective (if a syntax oddity can ever be effective).
So the rule for developing writers should be: When you’re writing down a sentence and you’re at the end of that sentence, put a period.
Now, what the hell is a sentence? That’s the problem, isn’t it?
A sentence is a structure, rather than a series of words. The most basic grammatical sentence is the one-word imperative (“Go!”). But most sentences have at least a subject and a predicate (“Jesus wept.”). Once we get past those two simple structures, the trouble begins. Writers need to learn all the pieces available for constructing sentences. If we can’t identify them, we’re going to have a very hard time figuring out if we even have a sentence, never mind if we’ve punctuated it correctly.
The only way to know where to put a period is to know where a sentence ends. And the only way to know where a sentence ends is to learn the parts of speech, usage, and sentence construction.
Scalzi says: “Put these in your writing in the place where, in conversation, you’d arch your eyebrow or make some other sort of physical gesture signalling that you want to emphasize a point.”
No. Not at all. That explanation has absolutely nothing to do with reality. It’s completely made up and entirely wrong. There’s just no other way to say it. In fact, it’s so far off the mark that I read it through a couple of times to make sure I wasn’t misreading.
Semicolon rules are very simple, which makes Scalzi’s explanation even more perplexing. Why make up your own rule when the real rule is, for once, very straight forward?
The real rule: Semicolons are like periods. You use them at the end of sentences (complete, grammatically correct ones). The distinction between when to use a semicolon instead of a period: When the next sentence is very closely related to the one you’re finishing and you want to illustrate that relationship with your punctuation.
Example: You can put a period or semicolon here; it’s really up to you.
Notice what’s on the left and right of the semicolon: complete sentences. That’s because (repeat after me) semicolons are like periods. They go at the end of sentences. In order to use a semicolon, you put it at the end of a sentence and then begin another sentence right after it. The only weirdness is that you use a lowercase letter to start the sentence after the semi-colon. Other than that, when you use a semicolon, you have nothing more than two complete sentences separated by a semi-colon instead of a period.
Now do you see why it’s important to really know what a sentence is? Once you do, you’ll know exactly when and where to use periods AND semicolons.
If you’re still not sure where semicolons should and shouldn’t go, then don’t use them. You could live your whole life without using a semicolon, and you’d never be wrong. (Unless you needed one to set off a series, but that’s another ball of wax.)
Scalzi says: “When you’re writing down a thought and you want to take a breath, whether mental or physical, put in a comma.”
This is how we get comma splices (commas placed where periods or semicolons should go), sentences dripping with gratuitous commas, or sentences with commas missing from important places.
First, what in the world is a “mental breath”? And second, if you have to concentrate so much on your breathing, please see a respiratory specialist. But whatever you do, don’t stick commas in your sentences to coincide with your breathing patterns. In fact, ignore your breathing as you write. (Luckily for asthmatics and their readers, English grammar books say nothing about commas and breathing.)
The real rule: Use commas only where they must go or can go and no place else. If you want to breathe, breathe some life into your prose with the active voice and some daring verbs, but resist, resist, resist the urge to sprinkle commas in your writing as you would oregano in a saucepan. “Need a little more flavor here, need a little pause there” doesn’t work. It confuses the reader.
If you want to learn how to use commas correctly, you have to learn the rules and keep a grammar reference nearby. You’ll understand the rules best when you understand sentence structure. (Is the horse dead yet?)
And yes, we have a lot of comma rules. Sorry.
Scalzi says: “Grammar matters, but not as much as anal grammar Nazis think it does.”
If he’s reading this, Scalzi probably thinks I’m a grammar Nazi. But give this post a close proofreading, and you’ll see otherwise. First and foremost, I believe writers must figure out what they want to say and then organize their ideas in a logical way. Then they can worry about checking grammar and punctuation and revising for style. But I think I think grammar is more important than Scalzi thinks it is. (Ya think?)
Scalzi also says: “The problem with grammar is that here in the US at least, schools do such a horrible job of teaching the subject that most people are entirely out to sea regarding correct usage.”
Okay, now we’re talking the same language. But Scalzi seemingly believes that new vague guidelines will help writers better understand the old vague guidelines they “learned” in school. They won’t.
As I’ve tried to illustrate, punctuation and grammar are intertwined. Once you learn the parts of speech and sentence structure, it’s much easier to learn punctuation rules. The shortcuts don’t work, unfortunately. You have to do the time and learn the rules.
(Finding an editor doesn’t hurt, either.)
If that makes me a grammar Nazi in some people’s eyes, so be it. But I’m really not. I’m not even a grammar zealot. Seriously, I’m sure someone will find a mistake or two in this post. I just don’t think writers should muddy the waters for aspiring writers or imply that the real rules are too difficult or not important enough to even try to learn. After all, look where not learning the rules has gotten us in the U.S.
So when it comes to improving your grammar and punctuation, and therefore your writing style and readability, there’s really only one rule: Sit down and suck it up, people.
Also posted at Educated Doubt.