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Friday, September 2, 2016

Writers and the Dunning-Kruger Effect - Part 2

Why is there a Part 2 I hear all you cute, fuzzy new writers ask? Sure, I listened to you last week, Suzan. I know I'll run into the occasional crazy reader who thinks they know more about a subject than I do. But it doesn't really matter, does it?

Yes, it does. Because we writers can be just as guilty of the Dunning-Kruger Effect as the readers, especially when we are first starting out.

Lots of us think that because our English teacher gave us a chocolate bar for winning some essay contest in fourth grade, we can write professionally.

Oh, Goddess, how I wish that were true!

I've done several types of writing professionally over the last twenty-eight years: tech writing, legal writing, magazine article writing, and genre fiction. The rules and purposes for each are radically different. If I tried to write fiction in the same style as a technical manual, it would be as boring as hell. If I wrote a complaint the same way I write fiction, opposing counsel would demand a resubmission of the complaint, saying that I didn't state an actual issue of fact or law to be decided, and that's assuming the judge wouldn't also chew my ass out for wasting her time.

I assume all of you reading this blog knows the basics, but let's start there with a few examples just in case:

- Spelling

You'd think this would be the easiest part, but it's not. Most of us have forgotten more vocabulary and spelling words since junior high than we remember. And it's okay. Keep a dictionary and thesaurus next to you or on your browser tabs for quick look-ups.

If you're like me, and you read a lot of Canadian and U.K. books, sometimes you can flip between the different spellings for the same word, e.g "gray" versus "grey". Some readers don't give a flying flip because technically both are correct spellings. However, you will get an occasional person who throws a fit about "grey" because "'Murica!"

All I'll say is the best idea is to stay consistent in your spelling and terms. If you use "grey", make sure that an elevator is a "lift" and a cigarette is a "fag".

- Grammar

The best word of advice is to know the rules before you break them. If you're writing a magazine article, you're generally going to use more formal grammar than you would writing teen dialogue for a fiction novel.

Two of the best places to review grammar rules are Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and The Chicago Manual of Style. A few things to keep in mind:

- Elements of Style has an originally publishing date of 1920, Chicago Manual of Style 1906. While both guides have been updated, they were written for more specific purposes than prose fiction.

- English is a constantly evolving language. New words are constantly being added as new things are created, and old words are discarded as they fall from common, every day use.

- These are guides, not the Fifteen Ten Commandments carved in stone. Or if you're talking to Captain Jack Sparrow, they are merely suggestions. The truly important thing to remember--keep your meaning clear to the average reader.

That said, here's some examples of breaking the rules:

"She drove around town. She couldn't decide on a restaurant. And she ate my candy!"

I'm sure your grade school teacher beat it into your heads that you should NEVER start a sentence with a conjunction. Bullshit! This is an example of an arbitrary rule forced on English by a bitter old priest who decided that English HAD to look just like Latin. Uh, no, it doesn't.

"Who did you give my puppy to?"

There are two items here.

First, the "to" is hanging out there by itself. The dreaded dangling participle goes back to that same bitter old priest and his obsession with Latin. So feel free to let your participles dangle if your sentence makes sense.

The second issue is "who". Since it is the indirect object, the proper form should be "whom". However, just like we no longer use "thee", "thou", and "thine" as pronouns, the use of "whom" has fallen out of favor--except for a few English majors with broomsticks firmly stuck up their asses.

- Homonyms

This is one area where you do need to follow the rules because if you don't, you can totally change the meaning.

"There over the hill..."

"They're over the hill..."

Do you mean something or someone is on the other side of the hill, or are you insulting someone for their advanced age?

- Punctuation

Again, follow the rules unless it involves an Oxford comma. My personal feeling is you only need the Oxford when confusion may arise.

Good Example: "At the store, I bought carrots, celery and chicken broth."

Bad Example: "He brought his dogs, Miles and Jim."

Are Miles and Jim his dogs or are they his cats? Friends? Brothers?

- Possessive forms

Again, this one where you do your damndest to get it correct, and if you're confused, go to your preferred style guide. The real problem I see often is whether to use -'s when a proper name ends with an -s.

Example: St. James' townhouse or St. James's townhouse

Technically, both are correct. The only thing I would say is whichever form you decide on, use it consistently through your work.


There's a lot more to writing basics, but I'm trusting that you know them, or you're smart enough to brush up as you write.

Good luck!

1 comment:

  1. Oh, lordy, if I had a buck for every two-bit "editor" I've run into who thought they could do the job because they paid (way too much) attention to their freshman comp instructor, I'd... well, at least be able to take my husband out to dinner. :P

    My first rule is, before you listen to an authority, figure out what the authority's purpose is. S&W and CMS were written as style guides for academia and journalism. They're not definitive when it comes to fiction, for the reasons you pointed out above, plus others. Your English teachers, again, were probably trying to get you to write proper academic papers -- term papers and such. Most English teachers make lousy fiction writing teachers, even when they're trying to teach fiction writing, and usually they're trying to get you to turn in a decent term paper.

    On "whom," well, first, I have to admit I use "whom" fairly often. In speech, even. [hides under keyboard] But yeah, if you're writing something with an informal tone, and certainly if you're writing dialogue for anyone who isn't either me or a rather crotchety old English professor, you're better off ignoring it.

    Linguist John McWhorter points out that at the time "whom" was in common use, a few centuries back (exactly how many I don't remember and don't feel like looking up, but I think it was Renaissance-ish and earlier) there were similar forms "wham" and "whem" in use. (For wham do you seek?) Those two had just phased out of the living language at the time it started to "set" after the proliferation of the printing press. "Whom" was still hanging in there, but probably would've dropped out soon if it hadn't started appearing in books and pamphlets and newspapers all over the place. It was an accident of timing that preserved "whom" while letting "wham" and "whem" fade into the mists of historical linguistics.

    About the possessive, my personal rule is that if you say it, you write it. If not, then not.

    So the house down the block belongs to John Jones. It's John Jones's house. If he has a family, then the Joneses live in that house, and it's the Joneses' house. You'd never pronounce it "Joneses's" so you don't write it that way. But nobody ever calls it "John Jones' house" out loud, either, so you writing it that way is kind of silly. IMO anyway. :P

    Angie

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