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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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
Although some of my best writing is in rewrite, some of my worst is as ll, so I agree that there is a point of diminishing return.