Editing, Editors, Style and Whim.

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July 6, 2012 by jcfarnham

Recently I’ve been involved in a lot of discussion with fellow writers on punctuation, grammar and the “rules” of good English. It has served if anything to solidify, for me, my own view on the matter and how I intend to work from now on (until someone changes my mind of course. I’m humble.)

I hear so often that narrative should be invisible, that it shouldn’t pull readers out of their enjoyment of the story, but to that I have some to say that I thought was rather obvious. In those cases of distracting narrative we’re not talking about our own preferences are we? No. We’re talking about the preferences of the almost intangible “readership”.

From this you should take at least one thing. Listen to your alpha and beta readers, but not to the point that you rewrite your writing the way they would have done it. 

One thing in particular spoke to me in these discussions. Speech tags. And there seems to be a few camps here (or two extremes and a gradient between shall we say):

1st) Those who will only use said because “it’s the most invisible and arguably the best tag”,
2nd) and those who will pepper their manuscripts with what ever tags they feel like.

 Interestingly, to me, neither is 100% correct and what follows is why:

(The following is a post of mine lifted (and edited) from a writing forum. I think I made my point well once, so whatever, may as well c&p right 😉 haha)

Whether or not it’s easier just to use said, whether or not an editor may hate it, know your reasons. Find out how current English will allow you use these things, and decide if it’s right for your book. There is nothing wrong with said, just as there’s nothing wrong with demanded and tags like it.

In fact I’d say it’s not even a matter of successful authors versus unpublished writers versus beginners.

– A beginner will never learn for themselves how to use a tool if they don’t try it. I don’t care in the slightest whether it’s easier to go with a generalised “rule” in those cases. I would personally want to help them understand it properly in the first place so I didn’t unknowingly foster the bad habits gained from taking something too seriously later on.

– A professional with credibility behind their name will get all kinds of leeway a newbie wouldn’t and not for any reason other than the publishing houses in question know the author and trust them (and their editor) to do the right thing for the book and what sells at present. Earning that level of trust doesn’t come from erring on the side of caution. To me it comes from first honing your craft and then taking risks and proving to nay-sayers that you can do it.

All I’m trying to do here with this post is motivate okay? There is no “I can’t do such and such because of x, y, z and I’m not an acredited author yet”, there is only practice, do it well, and get it passed any publisher not because of their preferences but because you did it well. Any editor worth their salt should be able to go “Well, I don’t usually like x, but right here? You did it very convincingly so I’ll let it slide.”

As writers, frankly, we can do what we please, as long as you understand the whys, and understand that when your time comes there may be some what unprofessional head-up-their-own-arse editors who try to rewrite your book how THEY want it to be. It was Brandon Sanderson who said that a good critiquer or editor shouldn’t do this, they should work to make the book the best it can be on its own merits, not anyone elses.

It’s all a matter of your own personal style, preferences, and tolerences. Do whatever you think is best in any given context, because there is always a chance that someone will come along and say “Yeah, actually, you’ve changed my view on that.”

This is seemingly a massive contradiction to what I’ve just said, but most of all, be humble (because I do think you can write by the above code and still be humble).

Some people just have more experience. Thems the breaks.

A slight aside: This modern style of invisible narrative can arguably be credited to one source. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. This style isn’t a new thing, it’s became ingrained in us over time, by teachers, by fellow writers, by just about everyone you would possibly listen to for advice on writing, not for any reason other than it worked then. Often history teaches us that things that once worked well perpetuate, but we have to remember why Fowler wrote his guide. It was in all likelihood a comment on writing of the time. I imagine it was purple, and full of stylistic choices and things that he personally didn’t like.

But here’s the thing (and I may be over stating my point here, but I think I’m allowed because it’s so damn important by my reckoning) that was a legitimate style, just as invisible prose is a legitimate style, just like anything that comes in the future will be.

A summary: Let’s, instead of worrying about what people may think about our style, just write it. You never can tell what may become popular in a decade or two. I’m obviously not advocating waiting until a trend you like comes around though, as the quoted post of mine (above) should show you.

Above all else don’t listen to me. Practice, read, humbly listen to the advice your alphas and betas offer you and make your own decision.

There is no one way to write. There are only ways that fail in context.


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