I spend a lot of my life writing, whether for work or for pleasure. Both as a critic of other writing and someone often frustrated by the task myself, I feel that I can definitively say that writing is just plain hard. But why? Let’s take a look.
Language is one of humanity’s most complex inventions. Words are symbols for things, not the things themselves. As representatives of things and ideas, there is necessarily some amount of slippage between the word and the thing itself as we try to use words to capture meaning. The study of symbols in language is called semiotics; the field combines statistical research, philosophy and a number of other approaches to investigate how we use language to transmit meaning and ideas.
Readers of the “Faith” section of the blog likely know that I’m very interested in the importance of ambiguity. In terms of language, we ought to recognize that there is ambiguity inherent to any use of words to communicate ideas, because the idea must be translated to words and back to ideas between two otherwise isolated consciousnesses.
I feel like I could really stop right here, because this, more than anything else, is why all use of language is difficult. But, wait, there’s more…
Even those writers with natural skill and a unique voice may find themselves confused by the many rules of grammar and syntax.
Partially this is the fault of history and the credulity of the masses. English, at least, has a number of arbitrary rules that some slavishly seek to enforce without knowing their origin or purpose. For instance, the command never to use a preposition at the end of a sentence (famously mocked by Churchill) comes from Bishop Lowth, writing in the 18th century and following the example set by the author John Dryden. The two felt that sentences terminating with prepositions were less graceful than those that placed prepositions antecedent to the sentence’s conclusion.
This is an excellent example of proscriptive rules about language—do this; don’t do that. Grammarians of the 17th and especially 18th centuries loved to create rules about the use of language in the haughty expectation that they were improving the language over past usage. We have collectively forgotten the reasons for such proscriptive rules while still obeying many of them.
Other rules of language are descriptive—the way English speakers convey this idea is through this language, though technically correct, people don’t say that. The issue we run into here is that usage naturally changes over time, and arguments are bound to ensue between “progressive” language theorists and “traditional” language theorists. I think that there may be something instinctual about taking a traditional stance here, something about preservation of unity of tribe or something—think about how often we groan when we hear what new words (that we’re all using) have been added to official dictionaries.
Even when we’re not arguing about rules and the reason for them makes sense, there’s a lot to remember. Does that comma go inside or outside the quotation marks? Do we just add an apostrophe or an apostrophe and “s”?
K likes to tese me that I have “three degrees in reading and writing” (which I suppose is mostly true), but I still have to look up rules of grammar on occasion, and I certainly still make mistakes (much to her delight).
Add on to this societal judgments based on a person’s mastery (or lack thereof) of the arcane vagaries of outmoded rules of structure in writing—and the nervousness that comes along with our understanding that, whenever we write, people will judge us for the quality of our writing. Usually when they do this, they’re not judging us as writers but as people. What’s your social class? Where are you from? How educated are you? How traditional? All of these things (and more) come out in our use of language, both confusing the way our words are received and pressuring us to conform to expectations in the use of language.
Substance and Style
There is, overall, an illusion that substance—that is, the subject and material of a writing—and the style of a piece of writing are separate and distinct categories. I used to have the thought that “I’m a good storyteller, but not a very good stylist” and believed that that would be passable in success as a writer.
Nothing is farther from the truth. Great storytellers are those whose mastery of style facilitates the story that they tell, matching the substance and enhancing it.
Good style in writing is a mysterious thing; part science, part art, part soul of the writer. We must combine study and practice to discover our own personal style, but this style must also be objectively effective for us to successfully reach an audience. This, I’m finding, is a slow and painful process, because we must make mistakes, suffer mediocre results and push through disappointment on the long road to developing that style.
Further, our style must be adaptable—no one style fits all manner of writing, even within the same “type” of writing. My professional style of writing (as a lawyer) must adapt based on the purpose of the writing, my audience and the circumstances. As a fiction writer, my style must change based on the dramatic and narrative needs of the story being told.
So how do we develop style that blends with and augments the substance of our writing? Personally, I’m trying a shotgun approach—a little bit of everything below to see what sticks. We can study the Greco-Roman categories of rhetorical techniques (many of which you studied in high school, like metonymy, its sister synecdoche and the more obscure apocope). We can read great writers and find ways that we can emulate them in our own voice (but we must beware “maverick theory”, see below). We can read books and take courses on writing style and techniques, whether seeking an MFA or reading books like Bill Walsh’s Lapsing into a Comma. We can read essays by successful authors for useful advice. We can simply practice until we find what works.
Audience, The Unknown Variable
Unless your writing for someone you know very well, and perhaps even then, it’s impossible to predict exactly how a reader will interpret your words. One certainly can’t account for all readers taking your intended meaning, though we can probably hit the majority by playing probabilities with style and dramatic effect. Still, it’s rare that you have information and skill enough to tailor your words to a specific audience in the way that will have the maximum effect.
For some reason, I only here people talk about this with text messages. Perhaps it’s because no one writes real letters any more or because people treat emails like text messages (even in a professional setting). Most likely, it’s because our text messages are so often use as surrogates for face-to-face (or even phone) conversations. No aspersions here; I’m one of the worst offenders on that front.
That said, it’s difficult to convey intent and tone with words, because we are conditioned to react to vocal patterns, timbre of voice, gestures and other body language and a whole host of other clues as to the meaning of the spoken word. That’s simply not available in written language, which is not necessarily a bad thing from the standpoint of fostering a reader’s imagination. On the other hand, it makes conveying meaning especially difficult as we must not only attempt to convey actual intent but also actively avoid misleading messages of tone and intent.
This one’s particularly about fiction-writing.
Particularly in the United States, we have this cultural idea that people who are good at things can get away with stuff that wouldn’t be tolerated in those of lesser skill. The idea is prevalent in our stories; I’ve named the idea for Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in Top Gun, but you can find it in many genres: Axel Foley and John McClaine, Sherlock Holmes (and, of course, Dr. House), Jack Bauer, Ferris Bueller, Doc Brown, etc., etc.
Here’s the problem. Being really good at something doesn’t make it forgivable to be a jerk and to treat yourself as entitled to things that others aren’t simply because they’re not as good as you. I’m sure that you have personal examples of this in your own life, where people expect special treatment because of a particular process or reputation.
There are writers who flout the rules, refusing to use quotation marks (Cormac McCarthy) or capital letters (e.e. cummings) or preferring an abstract, almost nonsensical stream of consciousness (I’m looking at you, Joyce), to name a few.
Combined with this cultural idea of the badass who breaks the rules, there’s a temptation to believe that one has to make some defiant stylistic choice to mark one’s genius to others. Maybe I’m just not that kind of risk taker, but I typically find it obtrusive and petty to see the rules (such as they are) of writing snapped—it’s far more fun to see them bent.
That’s certainly not an exhaustive list of obstacles to overcome in writing, but it does hit some high points. At the end of the day, there are few truly good writers in the world, even amongst published authors. This is partially because the craft is so difficult, but also because we don’t really devote enough time or respect for those who write well (though we’re happy to lament how many do not). Writing well takes a lot of practice, and we seem to think that our time is better spent elsewhere.
For many of us, perhaps it is. But imagine a world where everything—everything—that is written is written in the most precise, complete, concise and informative way. Think how much time and confusion we’d save, how much better ideas would be expressed, how much easier it would be to learn new things, how much better our stories would be. In short, think how much more alive life would be.