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Writing about writing about writing

I don't ordinarily like to write about the writing process, mostly because it doesn't seem nearly as interesting as other things I could write about (e.g., shrubbery). However, two good links on the subject presented themselves today:
First, from pegkerr (who seems to find lots of good links), an article about George Orwell's life and attitude toward writing. I love the caustic and concise quality of the direct quotations from him, but was most struck by this description:
He concedes that it’s almost impossible to earn [one's] income solely by writing books, and that a second occupation, useful for putting the author in touch with the real world, should be non-literary.

I've been saying that for years! Orwell and I are great minds who think alike, obviously. How are we "authors" supposed to write about ordinary people with real-world jobs if we've never met any such people or held any such jobs? Furthermore, I don't mean to pick on anyone in particular when I say this, but I've always thought it unimaginative of writers to have their main characters be writers. That's taking "Write what you know" a little too far, if you ask me. I've done it, yes, but I was young. Besides, she was a psycho character, so it could be considered a statement about the insanity of us writers. I see it as more honorable to write about people who do things other than write about people, if you see what I mean. (Exception: John Irving does a damn fine job with his writer characters, and indeed all his characters. But his characters do branch out into some other weird professions to make up for it.)

The second link: Ten Mistakes Writers Don't See (But Should). These are stylistic things, most of which are making me quite paranoid about my own writing now, and all of which are good advice. Notice that they include the excessive-adverb no-no, which I called J.K. Rowling on, a few months back. And on item #10, which reminds you to use commas (properly) to break up long sentences, I want to add: "And please, please, PLEASE learn the difference between commas and semicolons."

The comma splice is one of my hugest stylistic pet peeves. Since punctuation does not exist in true linguistics (which studies spoken language), this peeve does not violate my non-prescriptive linguistic stance. It isn't out of pointless tyranny that I want people to learn the semicolon. It's because their sentences are hard to read without them. Commas are lovely, but they can't do everything. Example:

I liked that movie, I still think about it.

"I liked that movie; I still think about it." Two sentences. Two separate thoughts. No conjunction. Semicolon!
If you've got a conjunction, a comma is okay: "I liked that movie, and I still think about it." But notice the reading of the sentence is slightly different there.

This is not an arbitrary, ridiculous grammar rule like the one forbidding split infinitives. (Which is dumb because, in short, English is not Latin.) No; this has to do with the flow of the sentence (or sentences) and whether you're expressing them as two separate arguments to one point, or all part of the same point. Your intonation - to bring it back to spoken linguistics - would usually make a distinction between where you'd put a comma and where you'd put a semicolon. So show it! That's the point of punctuation: to clarify intonation.

If you're still confused, run a Google on "comma splice" and you'll come up with plenty of reading material.

Don't get paranoid about punctuation errors in your comments now, by the way. I don't really care in an informal setting like that. But in composed writing - which maybe ought to include LJ posts, and definitely should include emails - be aware that by substituting a comma for a semicolon, you're brutally crushing nuances that deserved to live.

Just my two cents, of course.

(Hoping the hearts of raethe, alltimeqb, and ten_fifteen are warmed by the fleeting return of LemonLye, Grammar Nazi.) :D


( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 22nd, 2003 08:50 pm (UTC)
::stands up and offers LemonLye, Grammar Nazi, a sharp salute::

Oct. 22nd, 2003 08:57 pm (UTC)
How are we "authors" supposed to write about ordinary people with real-world jobs if we've never met any such people or held any such jobs?
mm...I would mention that that problem isn't quite the same when one write genre. ;P But, in general, I agree with you and Orwell. ^_^
Oct. 23rd, 2003 12:02 pm (UTC)
Well, I don't know about you, but I've spent lots of time as a hobbit, not to mention a vampire. ;)

Good point. But then, in sci-fi, fantasy, supernatural, etc., I never do see writer-characters anyway. Unless you count Bilbo...
Much more imagination goes into those, as opposed to real-life research (though sometimes there's that as well), and I heartily approve of imagination.
Oct. 24th, 2003 11:39 am (UTC)
*chuckles* Point ;)

I suppose writer-characters do, in a sense, exist in those... I seem to vaguely remember a vampire writer...and composing ballads (here, I'm thinking of Anne McCaffrey's Harper Hall Trilogy) could be considered writing.

But yes, more imagination goes into those ;) Although, apparently, there's a trap. Some authors will create a world, and then stay in that world and never create another. I could point out a billion of those... -.- and at that point, I think the imagination goes -poof!-....but yes :)

I'm babbling XD I'll shut up now! ^_^;
Oct. 24th, 2003 04:44 pm (UTC)
Re: Babblebabble!
Oh, agh, yeah. Definitely not condoning the authors who can't let go of their damn series. Same with TV shows that run too long, for that matter.
Oct. 22nd, 2003 10:12 pm (UTC)
LiKe OMG OMG OMG WTF? yOu ArE bEiNg SuCh A hElLa GrAmEr NaTsI knowhatimsayin?
Oct. 22nd, 2003 11:29 pm (UTC)
Semicolons serve no actual purpose. They exist to make us English majors feel smarter than mere mortals.

To use your example:

I liked the movie. I still think about it.

Two sentences, two periods.
Oct. 23rd, 2003 12:17 pm (UTC)
Hmm, true; that example could stand just fine with a period. But the semicolon has nuance and uses beyond this one type of sentence. It connects two clauses that have some relation to each other, as opposed to just any two clauses. A period suggests a definite separation. Thus:

"That was a good movie. Let's go get ice cream." Periods are good here. A semicolon looks odd:
"That was a good movie; let's go get ice cream." This strikes me as strange, since there's no particular reason why the first clause should prompt the second.
As for using commas: "That was a good movie, let's go get ice cream." - well, that's the annoying comma-splice construction that gets to me so much. :)

Semicolons are also good in complex lists, to help avoid confusion. "I planted pink, red, and white roses; calla lilies; and sunflowers." Without the semicolons (using nothing but commas), it would not be clear whether all your flowers were pink, red, and white, or just the roses. And so on. :)
Oct. 24th, 2003 08:42 am (UTC)
Darn. You're right.
I forgot all about complex lists.

My style is severely influenced by a writing/grammar teacher I had who hated complex sentences. "Say it in ten words or less," was his motto.

Ergo, I reject semi-colons on principle. Also on personal bias. I had a collaborator, once upon a time, who did the "That was a good movie; let's get ice cream at the shop 45 paces down the street with the 5' wide door and brick front (the shopkeeper has about 20 hit points)." sort of writing.

Oct. 24th, 2003 04:40 pm (UTC)
Concise writing is best anyway. Orwell apparently said that too. :) (Or, in E.B. White's words, "Omit unnecessary language!")
Oct. 23rd, 2003 01:48 am (UTC)
As a result of that post, I am now madly in love with you. Just so you know.
Oct. 23rd, 2003 12:19 pm (UTC)
Heheh. Using the phrase "comma splice" gets me so many dates; I can't even begin to tell you.
Oct. 23rd, 2003 08:42 pm (UTC)
You mock my love, I should write a run-on sentence just to spite you.
Oct. 23rd, 2003 06:19 am (UTC)
Yes, comma splices can be confusing, but the rules for commas and semicolons have changed considerably over time. An eighteenth-century writer suddenly transported to our time would find our punctuation dreadfully sloppy. In many of the places where we use semicolons, he would use colons (to set off independent clauses within a sentence, for example). He would wonder why we fail to set off restrictive phrases and clauses with commas, and he would be annoyed by our preference for putting commas rather than semicolons before coordinating conjuctions. His system would seem to him to be considerably more precise and nuanced than ours; to us, his system seems to pause for breath so often that the sentence becomes fragmented. I guess my point here is this: yes, it's nice to have a system that distinguishes between a short pause (comma) a longer one (semicolon), and an even longer one (colon), but the rules have changed before and will probably change again.
Oct. 23rd, 2003 12:25 pm (UTC)
Ooh, I love the colon as well - and even used it in the post. :) But I didn't think the world was ready for a discussion that included quite that much punctuation detail.

I've definitely noticed the greater number of commas in 19th-century English writing. Used to be a mark indicating where someone reading aloud should stop for breath, didn't it?

Anyway, I'm not picking on the idea of the rules changing to reflect nuance differently. I'm picking on people never learning to express nuance in writing in the first place, or being sloppy proofreaders. As some article put it, the trouble is not that "TV is making us stupid" or that we're progressively getting dumber than our ancestors, or anything. It's only that people these days aren't revising their drafts enough times. :)
Oct. 23rd, 2003 03:45 pm (UTC)
Computer usage, chatting online and instant messaging are a triple threat to good grammar.
Oct. 23rd, 2003 06:19 am (UTC)
very nice
Oct. 23rd, 2003 11:26 am (UTC)
My mom is always getting on my case about the comma vs. semi-colon thing. I guess I'll have to pay more attention!

Are you going to do NaNoWriMo?

Oct. 23rd, 2003 12:27 pm (UTC)
Ah, well, luckily most sentences can be rewritten to avoid the problem if one is in doubt.

I'm not officially doing NaNoWriMo, in the sense that I don't plan to start and finish a new novel in November. But I'm already working on one, so in a different sense it will still be a novel-writing month, as indeed it usually is for me. :)
Oct. 23rd, 2003 11:33 am (UTC)
My brother and I are among the only people I know who use proper grammar, capitalisation, and punctuation (semicolons included) in even the most casual of notes. This includes instant message conversations.

We're not English majors or anything. We're just incredibly picky about things like that.
Oct. 23rd, 2003 03:40 pm (UTC)
Dear Grammar Nazi,

My heart is warmed at your return; however, I am slightly disturbed to know that you wrote this post on the very day I taught a grammar mini-lesson on comma splices. For my remedial students, the concept of a semicolon being a "glorified" period seems to be easy for them to understand. They are so apt at making the two thoughts into separate sentences that I'm trying to teach them about complexity as well. Therefore, what do we do? They place the period where it should go and "glorify" it by adding a comma underneath. The result of this is a perfect semicolon. As I told them, "The semicolon is the best of both worlds: comma and period. It looks pretty, kiddos, when used correctly."

If I could be any punctuation mark, I'd be a semicolon.

- ; (the teacher formerly known as ten-fifteen)

Oct. 25th, 2003 03:49 pm (UTC)
Heheh. So I guess ";", as a name, would be pronounced like a pause, slightly longer than that of "," but not as long as ".". Or something.

I'm so glad someone out there is taking a day to explain about the comma splice to high school students. It does make me rest easier. When you start taking time out to address it in college, it just starts looking sad.
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )