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Maybe If We Tried Writing Well

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Bath’s Prior Park in England’s West Country features a rare Palladian bridge in a landscape garden devised in the 18th century by Alexander Pope and Lancelot “Capability” Brown. Photo: iStockphoto / Eric2x


I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say.

— Marshall McLuhan


I’ve been putting together some thoughts recently on our collective readership.

Not us when we read. Not our delegation here of Unboxed Writers.

And not even the wider community of writers, local and offshore, national and intergalactic, the diaspora-digital, and where it stops, nobody knows. That’s still us. We who read wee bits of each other and say we loved it. That’s just us chickens.

No, I mean the real readership. The end user. He who hurls your book across the room. She who reads fanny fiction and imagines she’s having a literary experience. The reader.

As writers, what do we ask of that reader? Literacy. That’s what we need. We need someone who is literate — per Merriam-Webster Unabridged [2]:

Characterized or possessed of learning…able to read and write…versed or immersed in literature or creative writing…dealing with literature or belles lettres.

We ask that our customer, our consumer, our windsurfer, come to our creations with a few drachmas in hand. The currency we accept is literacy. The reader must not leave home without it.

But that reader is not expected to be in the business, as we are. We who do the writing. We who build the bridges and the mansions. We who want them to like us, to really, really like us.

The reader, while literate, can expect to be served by us with a greater level of literacy than she or he must attain. This is the unspoken covenant.

If everyone in 16th-century Venice had been Andrea Palladio, then Palladio would be nobody. Instead, that small, exquisite bridge at the foot of Prior Park in Bath, England, means something — it’s a prized architectural example of Palladian genius, one of only four such bridges left in the world, according to the National Trust [3]. Prior Park, itself, was designed with the help of the poet Alexander Pope and a then-famous landscape-garden designer called “Capability” Brown.

Today, we’re the “Capabilities,” the ones who can bring Palladian order to human nature. We’re the ones who design with words for a living. We’re the experts, the snazzy guys.

So why don’t we use the language correctly for our readers? Why do we have our characters say such things as these?

In your speech and, worse, in your writing, are you using such formulations? If so, do you necessarily agree with what you write? If no, what’s your favorite excuse?

Excuse #1: It’s conversational

At television news networks, anchors and correspondents complain when corrected by the control room that the wrongly worded phrases they’ve just uttered on-air were “conversational.”

This is always rubbish. It’s completely possible to speak the language correctly and still be conversational. And here’s how to test this yourself:

Say to the largest gathering of people you can find, “I’m now going to lie out in the sun.” Then report to me how many of those people rise up and accuse you of being non-conversational because you used the correct form of the verb.

Excuse #2: It’s accepted usage nowadays

By whom? I do not accept “the media is.”

But let’s say it is accepted, by everybody, even that boorish Porter.

So what? Why not be better than mall-speak?

Let’s get very specific with this one: Why do we need to make a plural word singular? What possible good does this do us? We have the singular form, ready and waiting: medium. And that’s my message. Or massage if the famous McLuhan typo strikes me silly as I write this.

Are you genuinely unable to spare enough mental space and linguistic grace to offer your readers one medium and two media? Are you so poor of intellect and miserly of vocabulary that you can’t summon up the simple distinction between one phenomenon and two phenomena? If a painter doesn’t know his amparo blue from his gentian blue, that painter is a fraud, don’t buy a canvas from him. And if you can’t find it in your heart to distinguish one bacterium from two bacteria, why should anyone pay for your work?

Excuse #3: My characters talk that way

Then your characters are as lazy as you are.

If you’re working in genuine dialect or accent (they are not the same, do you know the difference?), then there may be a reason to utilize some substandard English. But if your reader at any point is unsure that substandard speech was put there deliberately — if she wonders whether you just didn’t know what you were doing — then you’ve screwed up.

Excuse #4: The reader doesn’t know the difference

Oh, yes, he does. One of the most compelling things about the readership is that it tends to be peopled by folks who are surprisingly good at the tools of our trade. Sometimes I think this is because they don’t write: these lessons in school were harder for them to grasp, thus they retain more vivid memories of them than we do.

Liz Bureman [4] recently wrote a bit of guidance titled Stop Saying “Literally.”  [5]She led with a few lines about Rob Lowe’s character in the NBC show Parks and Recreation [6], no relation whatever to Prior Park. Lowe’s character misuses “literally” in the popular way, using it as a general intensifier. He means “figuratively.” This is a running gag on the show, set up with ridiculous clarity by the way Lowe delivers it. The audience-at-large knows it’s wrong. They’re laughing at him, not with him.

Your readers know you’re wrong. They’re not laughing with you.

Excuse #5: Language is supposed to serve us, not hobble us

Great. So why have your work edited? It’s just language. Lets throw out all the rules every one of them and maybe in fact I won’t even use periods or commas or any other punctuation to divide this drivel I’m writing into sentences I might just keep going with it like this for as long as I damned well please because the language serves me sweet cheeks and whatever I need it to do is more important than some old maids rules and regulations from the 1920s when they still had time to sit around and make up inane grammar laws that now are like OMG just too much trouble you know to fool with and they cramp the development of my personal form of expression

Excuse #6: I don’t know the language well enough

Ah. Thank you. And that’s not an excuse, that’s a reason, a very valid and respectable one as soon as you admit it. If you’re not sure you can tell correct usage from the Bieber-fed babble of the moment — and if you’re willing to learn — then you’re the one kind of badly spoken writer I like.

There are books. There are podcasts. There are courses. There are tutors. There are many ways to get the training you need to handle this essential aspect of being an authentic writer. If you’re sincere about writing, this is a step you can’t skip. I’m using the term “essential” deliberately, as in indispensable.

We don’t necessarily agree with ourselves

I believe that one of the reasons we’re seeing so much badly written material these days is that honesty is not considered agreeable. So we don’t say, “You know, you’ve got five gaffes in that first chapter, my friend, you may need to get some more eyes on that thing.” Instead, we say, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever read.”

Have you noticed how rarely the term “talent” comes up when we discuss writing? It’s not considered nice to talk about talent, “Capability.” Same as intelligence. Someone who doesn’t have as much talent or intelligence might be hurt, right? We act as if everybody’s at the same level, although we know they aren’t.

Look, I want you to forget that stuff your mother taught you about “If you can’t say anything nice…” Chances are your mother wasn’t in the business, either, and it was fine for her to speak as if she were a fad on legs.

We need to honor each other with truthful exchanges of corrective information. It’s possible to be both forthright and supportive, truthful and kind, firm and gentle.

Such collegial friendship exists only among those who are working to be the real things. To build bridges, raise villas, design piazzas that will make people, 500 years later, say our names, Palladio, and admire our “Capability.” Our work won’t be revered because we used language as if we were skateboarders.

So happy holidays, and you tell me: Why don’t we have more emphasis these days on writing the language well? Have you found yourself over time accepting less rigorous standards — either in your own writing or others’ — than you’d have agreed to before?

About Porter Anderson [7]

@Porter_Anderson [8] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [9], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [10] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [11]