Saturday, November 1, 2008

Basic writing tools

Many years ago, I was fond of the work of a highly successful fantasy author. He was successful not just because he told a good story but because he wrote supremely well. However, he once ventured an opinion that knowledge of grammar and spelling was irrelevant to the writer’s craft. If memory serves, he offered the metaphor that one didn’t need to be an engineer to drive a car. The metaphor is true enough as a stand –alone statement but is it apt?

The idea that grammar is for fuddy-duddies has taken root at all levels in society. I used to supervise science PhD students with first class honours degrees from elite universities. Some of them were illiterate. Recently, an English academic professed the view that he was fed up correcting his student’s English and drew the conclusion that we should ignore bad grammar and spelling even in ‘arts’ degrees, such as English literature.

But is it true? Can an illiterate write stories?

Actually, the car metaphor was quite apt but close examination shows that we should interpret it differently. You don’t need an engineering degree to drive a car and you don’t need to be especially literate yourself to read and enjoy a book but you had better have access to some decent engineers if you want to design and manufacture a car.

I bought a forty pound SF book recently. The graphics were stunning but the accompanying text was so appalling that I could not bear to read it. You have to have some nodding acquaintance with the tools before you can master any craft. Writing is no different in my opinion.



Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Hi John,

After 40 years of 'new age' English teaching, they are reintroducing grammar in Australia!



Dave Freer said...

Hmm. There is a fine line here. I suspect the right place lies somewhere between grammar-grundy and free-for-all. As an example: I was brought up to regard 'alright' as a flogging offence (medium weight flog, with broken glass on the lashes). Starting a sentence with 'And' or 'But' could send you straight to hell. Sentence fragments were a thing so evil and unclean as to send you immediatly to that layer of hell otherwise reserved for genocidal mass murderers, where demons flay your genitals with white-hot scorpions for eternity, while reading aloud to the sinners. (According to different sources they may read Hegel, Health and Safety Regulations or possibly Wuthering Heights. It is possible that it merely feels like eternity.)
Quite frankly, that's drivel. There is a time and place for all things (even Hegel). A writer -- just like a skilled painter, needs to know the rules, know when they're outdated and not applicable, and when breaking them is effective. To extend your car metaphor, if car designers did not understand how the combustion engine worked and how to make a standard vehicle, they'd never make Formula One racing cars. But if they stuck rigidly to the rules for making Model T Fords, all racing cars would be black and, er, really fast.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I agree Dave.

I believe you have to know the rules to break them.

I keep finding official signs and manuscripts with 'your' instead of 'you're'. And don't get me started on plural apostrophes!

Cheers, R

Pati Nagle said...

Why would any professional refuse to provide himself/herself with the best tools available? This is what I don't understand about the "grammar is unimportant" attitude.

It may be part of the prima donna trip, i.e., "I'm too important to worry about small details. Some flunky can fix that for me." Trouble is, that is placing one's fate in the hands of the flunky. It's not the flunky's name on the book, so it's not the flunky who will be blamed if the book reads poorly.

All in all, I think it's really just laziness.