Rampell’s Rules 5 and 6

Last time, I borrowed a column from the Washington Post opinion writer, Catherine Rampell. It was a marvelous, fun, insightful commentary on grammar and writing. In that post, I covered the first four of her six rules. They’re on-point advice on mechanics and process. I said I’d comment on the last two rules in the next post. Then, I wrote, rewrote, trashed, wrote again, and finally came to this:

Rampell’s Rule 5 is: You must be willing to write, say and even be things that are unpopular.

  “Writing well,” she says, “takes moral courage.” Bret Stephens, the New York Times opinion page writer, digs deeply into this idea in a piece called “The Encroachment of the Unsayable” (10/19/20). “Our compromised liberalism has left a generation of writers weighing their words in fear. (…) The result is safer, but also more timid; more correct, but also less interesting. It is simultaneously bad for those who write, and boring for those who read.” Both Rampell and Stephens are commenting on reportage, not fiction. But Stephens’ “boring to those who read” is a knife in the heart of a novelist.

When do a few trenchant words become the rhetorical slap on the sunburned shoulder of a reader’s sensibilities? And when does that matter? What do I do about the fact that I am being told, usually politely, to worry about things that may offend readers? (And why the hell would they be reading a novel if they didn’t agree to risk being offended?)

My first draft of this post was a long response studded with examples of comments made on my writing. It sounded a lot like whining, so I cut it. Currently, I’m using the operating rule that if the criticism requires an assumption about the person writing (as in me, an old, semi-priveleged white male), I ignore it.

So we can pass on to Rampell’s rule 6, which appears like the hope that was last to escape Pandora’s box:

Rule 6: Be kind, even when you don’t need to be.

We could all do well to follow that, couldn’t we?

Grammar Resplendent

Marvelous opinion piece by Catherine Rampell in the Washington Post on Christmas day.

The whole article is a great read—it’s Rampell’s lessons in the language and writing from her sixth-grade teacher. Its first three points were a gift of confirmation, the fourth a gift a recognition of reality, and the fifth a source of pain which will be subject of the my next post. Here are the first three:

  1. Learn all the rules of language, even the stodgy-seeming ones. You will find freedom in structure.

In particular, of her teacher, she says “He taught us the masonry of language. Now we could build whatever we liked.” One of the finest defenses of grammar I have read.

  1. If you must break a grammatical rule, do so on purpose, not out of sloppiness. Do so only if it serves your audience. 

“The best excuse for a grammatical error … is clarity.” Perfect.

  1. If a reader doesn’t understand what you are trying to say, that is your fault — not the reader’s. 

I need to have a sticky on my computer reminding me of this every day.

Then I hit the fourth rule:

  1. Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. No piece of writing is ever done; it merely meets a deadline. 

I suspect that #4 is true for Rampell because her deadlines are weekly or biweekly; she probably never gets above rewrite five or six. For me as a novelist, cycles of rewrite begin to wear down the prose, and the hard question is when to stop.

And on to the agony of her point #5 … next time