Friday, March 14, 2014

The Writer as Architect, Builder and Interior Decorator: Part Two

The Writer as Builder

In this three part series I am considering the words of Ernest Hemingway: ‘Prose is architecture, not interior decoration and the Baroque is over.’ I am not so much taking issue with this sentiment, as giving it a slight twist and introducing some nuance.

In the first part of this series I talked about the writer as architect. Every writer needs some kind of plan to work from, even if at the beginning it is little more than an idea. By the end, there is a beautiful, stable, coherent structure in place. Right?

It is when we actually begin to build this structure that words appear on the page. Words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters—these are the bricks and mortar of the writer as builder. This is where we draw upon our skills as an artisan. The writer as builder is the writer as craftsperson. Every craft has its technical skills, and those of writing involve the correct use of words, sentences and so on.

For many reasons people struggle with the rules of grammar these days. Perhaps they have never been taught them at school. Perhaps these rules seem petty and unimportant. The rules, if rules they are, seem fluid and unstable, particularly in this world of tweet-speak.

In fact, these are not so much rules as descriptions of accepted usage. They are descriptive rather than prescriptive, although they can certainly have the appearance of the latter. They are a gathering together of the ways in which we actually use the language. These ways change over time, and the rules can often lag behind. Sometimes battles are fought to retain a usage which seems to be facing extinction. Sometimes these battles are worth fighting; sometimes they are not. Nevertheless, these rules exist in order to facilitate communication, to ensure that we understand each other. Private languages are of little use.

The more subtle rules of grammar enable the writer to introduce nuance into his or her work. The basic rules of grammar make that work comprehensible. Using the right words with the correct spelling, structuring sentences and paragraphs correctly—this is nothing more than the process of ensuring that the bricks of the building are laid evenly and without gaps, that the window frames are square, that doors open and close. When someone looks at a building, they will often comment on the fine finish, the attention to detail—or lack thereof. Poor grammar and bad spelling are the equivalent of poor workmanship. In a beautifully designed, expensively furnished building, who wants to see shoddy tiling in the bathroom?

But the writing process is about more than just getting everything technically correct. It is also about expressing the writer’s intent as clearly and concisely as possible. The need for conciseness is not the same as the quest minimalism. It is not about eliminating adjectives and adverbs. These are often necessary and enhance the writing. But it is about avoiding redundancy, eliminating repetitious words and phrases, and using simpler constructs where possible.

Proofreading and copy editing are the ways in which an editor assists the writer in this part of the writing process. Copy editing is about more than just good grammar. It is about structuring sentences so that they express as clearly and concisely as possible the intent of the writer.

Consider these examples.

1.      ‘Do these guys think that they can get away with leaning on my friend’s son and get away with it?’

There is nothing wrong grammatically with this sentence. All the words are spelt and used correctly. Yet it clearly needs work: ‘Do these guys think they can get away with leaning on my friend’s son?’ Not only is the second ‘get away with’ redundant, but ‘that’ is also redundant.

2.      As a fellow artist, he could sense better than anyone else what his desires were.

There is nothing technically wrong with this sentence. But it is unnecessarily wordy and convoluted. This is better: ‘As a fellow artist, he could sense his desires better than anyone.’  

3.      Unlike Sarah or Geoffrey, she wasn’t as powerful as they were, or even as powerful as Michael was.’

This is better: ‘She wasn’t as powerful as Sarah or Geoffrey, or even Michael.’ After copy editing, manuscripts are invariably shorter.

The proofreader will correct obvious errors, but will not restructure sentences or paragraphs. The copy editor will. These are all parts of the building process, of the craft of writing. Already this goes beyond mere technical correctness. The line between craft and art is forever fluid.

The writer as interior decorator takes this a step further.


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