I love words. I love the subtle differences between azure, cerulean and turquoise. I love the way words come together to paint a picture I can see behind my eyes. I love how sentences flow like the music of glittering water over stones. One of my favorite writing exercises is to open a dictionary to a random page, choose a word I’ve never read before, then try to write a story based on that word. I love language! Because of that love, I hate the way it’s misused in conversation, even when I do it myself. I try not to be rude about it, of course. If we’re talking, and you say something like “Me and him had went to the store to buy them apples”, I won’t say a word to correct you. My nerves will draw up into a tight, indignant tangle, and I’ll wince ever so slightly. I’ll keep it to myself – it’s not my place to correct you, who should already know better. In a conversation, I’ll forgive much. In writing, I won’t. If I can’t understand what you mean, we’re guaranteed not to communicate clearly. The point of language is to facilitate communication between people, and when the rules are ignored, comprehension is lost.
Reading is all about comprehension of the story, and writing is all about communicating the story in a comprehensible manner. I was reading a young adult book last night, and by the second chapter, I’d already grown tired of trying to figure out who was speaking at any given moment. The writer was leaping from one point of view to another within the same paragraph, forcing me, the reader, to stop and reread in the hope I could find where the change occurred. It was as if two people were talking to me at the same time, about two completely different subjects, and both wanting my full attention. I couldn’t concentrate on the story, and I eventually put the book aside. As writers, it’s part of our job to use the rules of language properly. Yes, books are edited once they’re out of our hands, but that doesn’t mean we have the right to expect the editor to clean up a sloppy mess. Part of honing the craft is learning how to manipulate grammar, how to communicate your ideas clearly so that the majority of your readers get your meaning.
Have you ever been at a writer’s group meeting or working with a beta reader and found yourself saying “what I meant was”? (Hands up, now, come on…. I’ve done it myself, so don’t be shy.) Sure you have. Every writer does it at some point. Maybe you became so immersed in your world it didn’t occur to you that everyone else wasn’t seeing what you saw, that they needed to be shown. Maybe you were being too subtle, or relying on a cultural reference that wasn’t as common as you assumed. One of the best rules I learned along the way is this – if it isn’t on the page, it isn’t in your story. What you meant has to appear on the page somewhere, somehow. In the same way that poor grammar limits understanding, leaving out the details of what you meant also limits understanding. So use your words, your wonderful, glorious words, and use them correctly. Follow the rules to tell me a story that will draw me in and never let me go until I turn the last page.
EDIT: Hey, at least I’m only wincing…Scalzi’s threatening you with a hammer! 😀