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

The Mutable OR

As a writer, one often gets the question, “Are you an Plotter or a Pantser?” Do you write from an outline or just go ahead and let the plot and characters come to life as they flow onto the page?

The question usually gets presented that way—as a binary choice—in the many books and articles on the subject, and the author goes on to explain the advantages and pitfalls of each approach. The Plotter approach can get detailed and complex … I have a book called Story Engineering that has spawned dozens of downloadable spreadsheets (see illustration). On the other hand, as a Pantser, one can end up pretty deeply in the plot weeds. I wrote my first book, Fatal Score, as a Pantser and published the thirteenth rewrite.

A Pantser at work

The whole damn issue is the definition of OR. If I’d remembered my symbolic logic, I’d have become comfortable with my natural writing mode a lot sooner. To most people, OR means alternatives. One or the other. You go downtown this way or that way. Not both, right? That’s the Exclusive Or in logic. The Inclusive Or says one or both alternatives are okay, more like ‘either/or.’ We most frequently use ‘or’ in the exclusive sense.

Is all this going somewhere, Rogers?

In a Sisters in Crime webinar, the pantser/plotter question was raised to Walter Mosley, the author of the Easy Rawlins mystery series and plenty of other stories. He got the weary look that denotes a person who is about to explain the obvious for the nth time. He said, “Both.” There was a short pause while the interlocutor figured out that he should ask the next question. Always the gentleman, Mosley explained that if you’re writing commercial fiction, you need something like a broad outline or you’re going to have to do a lot of fixing (see thirteenth draft, above). But characters have lives of their own. They grow. They develop. As an author, you had better let that happen or your book will be boring.

So here I am, nearly a decade into the craft that I love, learning an essential truth that should have been obvious all along.