Why do we pay any attention to apparent ‘rules’ for writing?

elmoreleonardrulesofwriting2

Elmore Leanoard on writing rules: illustration by Joe Cardiello 

If there is one feature of humankind that clearly defines our civilisation, it is, perhaps, the written word. All of human imagination can be found within the walls of our libraries – the perfect sanctuaries for books – as written language has emerged as the perfect means of cataloguing our thoughts, our discourse and our histories.

While other species of animals have been shown to communicate with one another, it is our ability to form complex language that sets us apart. This in itself is one of the things that unifies us and brings us together as human beings, regardless of our background or birthright: Everywhere on earth, human languages use the same kinds of grammatical machinery, such as nouns, verbs, auxiliaries and agreement.

Yet despite these defining features of our language, the way in which they are used has never been fully formalised. Of course, there have been prescriptive rules of how to “write well” and “speak properly” for generations; yet how each individual writes and speaks is unique to them.

Despite the obvious idiosyncrasies innately tied to the way one writes and expresses themselves, there has never been a shortage of people seeking advice on writing – nor of people looking to share their tips and “rules”.

Perhaps this is because, as Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker wrote in his wonderful modern guide to style, “A crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life’s greatest pleasures.”

And it is, of course, a natural human inclination to find ways to improve oneself, particularly in the way we express ourselves. Quite simply, this is because human beings want to be heard and understood by others.

It is the way in which we approach this self-improvement that is interesting, as it proves what many of us no doubt suspected all along: that the rules and advice people give on how to become a better writer or a better communicator are just as unique and idiosyncratic as the writing or speaking styles they seek to improve.

Take the approaches of two great writers as one example here. On the one hand, the late, great, David Foster Wallace advises a deep studying of one’s use of language, practically applying the rules of a faithful usage dictionary to ensure your writing is applied correctly in meticulous detail:

“Get a usage dictionary… you need a usage dictionary, you have to be paying a level of attention to your own writing that very few people are doing… A usage dictionary is [like] a linguistic hard drive… For me the big trio is a big dictionary, a usage dictionary, and a thesaurus.”

On the other hand, F. Scott Fitzgerald describes good writing as something that comes naturally, from deep inside us – and is expressed through our pens (or typewriters, or laptops) in a way that cannot be overthought:

“If you have anything to say, anything you feel nobody has ever said before, you have got to feel it so desperately that you will find some way to say it that nobody has ever found before, so that the thing you have to say and the way of saying it blend as one matter—as indissolubly as if they were conceived together.”

What this all teaches us is that language and writing can be ever truly mastered, because they are not static things bound by real rules; but rather living and ephemeral, ever evolving over the course of time. At any moment in time a style of writing could be dying out, and, simultaneously, another may be born. This is because language is defined not by rules of syntax or grammar; but by the human mind that creates it.

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