Brief Thoughts on Writing

For the first time in my life, I can offer my thoughts on writing as an actual, legit professional writer. Previously, I was just some random person doing that–and I’m still a random person doing that… I just happen to have something in my corner lending a small modicum of credibility to what I have to say. This isn’t important stuff, though, and I’m pretty much just going to take the opportunity to vent about some pet peeves of mine.

-St as in “Whilst”

There is not, and will never be, an occasion where the word “whilst” makes more sense than the word “while.” The two words achieve exactly the same thing and serve exactly the same purpose. Invariably, “professional” writers will use “whilst” in their articles. If you look, you’ll see this all over the place. This is because they aren’t sure how to write professionally, so they jump to pretentious words that people don’t use in everyday communication, hoping that it makes their writing sound credible and professional. In actuality, it has the opposite effect: nothing strikes me as less professional than reading the word “whilst.” Well, that’s not true, because there are some words that are just as bad…

If you hear someone say “whilst” in conversation, then they are, almost without exception, either very old or trying very hard to sound professional. The same is true in writing, obviously. The problem is that a professional writer does not inject needless pretense into their writing; they let their writing stand of its own accord without pretentiousness. Pretentiousness is meekness and weakness. A writer who is afraid their writing cannot stand on its own and who desperately wants to be taken seriously uses “whilst.” A writer who is confident simply uses “while.”

You know, like actual people do.

Behooves

Nothing is more likely to make me write off a writer as a pretentious hack than seeing this abomination in print. It’s impossible to even say the word without sounding like an arrogant twat (Did I say I’m a professional writer? I may need to re-evaluate that claim). Just say the word three times. Pay attention to how your lips move.

Behooves.

Behooves.

Behooves.

Now use it in a sentence. There’s only one kind of sentence for this word: a pretentious one. It behooves us to put aside the inherent disputatious behavior of democracy and insulate ourselves from abject criticisms with utter rejection and condemnation of those ideals for which Trump is heralded. Yes, that’s needlessly pretentious. That’s the point. It contains the word “behooves.” It must, by virtue of containing that word, be needlessly pretentious. “Disputatious,” it’s worth mentioning, is a word I recently read from a CNN writer regarding the Democratic Party’s primary in Iowa. My eyes rolled so hard that they nearly fell from their sockets.

As in speech, there is just no way to write the word in a serious sentence and have anything but an ironic result. It’s a bit like the word “forsooth,” really, or “verily.” Say “forsooth” to the cashier the next time you’re at a service station. You won’t, though–at least… I hope you won’t.

Prepositions Ending Sentences

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with ending a sentence in a preposition.

This whole thing is some bullshit inspired by an 18th or 19th century linguist who wanted English to be more like Latin. In Latin, a preposition can’t even end a sentence, and this guy who had a boner for Latin decided that implementing a rule that sentences shouldn’t end in prepositions would make English more like Latin. Seriously. That’s how it happened. There is absolutely no historical or linguistic basis for the assertion, and the only thing that matters is whether or not the reader understands what you meant. If you can achieve that best by ending a sentence in a preposition, then end the sentence in a preposition. If you can achieve that best by not ending a sentence in a preposition, then don’t end the sentence in a preposition.

The only thing that matters is communication. How effective is the sentence at communicating its idea? That’s the only question that matters. It’s often true, because of the nature of communication, that adhering to the grammatical rules of the language will ensure that the communication is clear and effective, but that isn’t always the case. Consider the scene from Beavis & Butthead Do America where they’re trying to figure out how to rephrase “Is that the guy whose camper they were jacking off in?” without it ending in a preposition.

After considerable thought, I’ve decided that “Is that the guy in whose camper they were off jacking?” is the best way to achieve that goal. But look at that sentence! It’s a mess! It fails the most basic test that a statement is supposed to pass: does it communicate effectively? Here, the answer is a loud and unambiguous “No!”

Starting Sentences with Conjunctions

Generally speaking, I’m okay with doing this. It really depends on the tone of the thing being written, because sometimes it doesn’t work and sometimes it does. But too many people hold it as the utmost of heresies that someone would dare begin a sentence with a conjunction; evidently, they don’t realize that the goal of written language is to emulate spoken language, and a comma is not always a sufficient end to a thought.

Starting a sentence with a conjunction is the literary equivalent of a dramatic pause. It’s okay in small doses, but we don’t want to become Calculon.

Semi-Colons Are Not “Like Commas, but Better”

I’ve been seeing this more and more often lately. The people at the New York Times are really bad about it, often using semi-colons in place of commas to delimit items in a list. That’s fine when each item in the list is complex and contains a comma, but it comes off as needlessly pretentious if only one of those items requires a comma. People aren’t that stupid. People are smart enough to realize that one of the four commas in that series is being used to separate a clause that isn’t part of the list. Beyond that, it’s the writer’s responsibility to rephrase the series so that the comma and clause weren’t necessary, perhaps by using that as the last item in the series.

Plus, using a semi-colon to delimit a series does not mean that you can skip the conjunction on the last item! Semi-colons are used to connect two related sentences without using a conjunction. That’s true. But a semi-colon is not serving the role of a comma by doing so; it’s serving the role of a semi-colon. When a semi-colon is used to separate a list because the items within the list are complex enough to contain their own commas, then the semi-colon is serving the role of a comma, and thus the conjunction must be present. Here’s a brief example:

Donald Trump and his supporters are accused of being racists; foul-mouthed homophobes; Islamophobes, though they won’t admit it; rightwing lunatics; fanatics in love with a cult of personality.

I pretty much read the equivalent of that (though the content was different) in a recent New York Times article, and it bothered me to see the written word be butchered to such a degree in the name of pretentious “professionalism.” First of all, there is absolutely no need to use a semi-colon here at all. The following is just as clear:

Donald Trump and his supporters are accused of being racists, foul-mouthed homophobes, Islamophobes, though they won’t admit it, rightwing lunatics, fanatics in love with a cult of personality.

Now, obviously, it still sucks as a sentence. And swapping out the semi-colons for better commas reveals how sloppy it is not to have a conjunction there. So let’s clean it up a bit more.

Donald Trump and his supporters are accused of being racists, foul-mouthed homophobes, Islamophobes (though they won’t admit it), rightwing lunatics, and fanatics, in love with a cult of personality.

Oh, no, the dreaded parentheses! There are a lot of “professional” writers who seem to forget that they even exist–or they have no idea how to use them. Take this excerpt from a Chicago Sun Times article I found the other day. This, no joke, took me a full five minutes to figure out what was being said:

Maggie is a perpetually upbeat innocent who worships Hope. (Cecily Strong, who plays Maggie’s single mom, is all of 11 years older than the actress playing her daughter.) She’s sweet but she’s kind of an idiot, and she has no idea Hope isn’t really interested in mentoring her.

Fucking god. What? Let’s start from the middle–the parenthetical statement.

First of all, you should never have a single sentence within a parenthetical statement end with a punctuation mark. If there are multiple sentences, then all but the last should end with proper punctuation, but a single sentence should never, ever end with a punctuation mark. A “professional” journalist should know this. Secondly, the parenthetical statement should directly pertain to what it succeeds–and parenthetical statements should never precede the statement to which they are related.

A parenthetical remark is like halting the sentence mid-sentence to quickly, and in a different tone, mumble something else. We do this all the time in spoken conversation. When you stop what you’re saying midway through and say something related that clarifies or expands upon the rest of it, congratulations–you just used parentheses in speech. But we never, ever offer these parenthetical statements before the main topic, because that’s not how conversation naturally flows. It normally happens mid-sentence because that’s when it occurs to us to expand/clarify the rest of it, but sometimes it happens at the end. Being written, the writer has more leeway here to put the parentheses where they make the most sense and disrupt the flow the least.

In light of that, though, we can see that the parenthetical statement has absolutely no relation to the rest of the paragraph, and is just… injected… in there. Sloppily. It’s sloppy. Fuck, it’s sloppy. Never mind that, though. What is the parenthetical statement even trying to say?

Maggie is a perpetually upbeat innocent who worships Hope. (Cecily Strong, who plays Maggie’s single mom, is all of 11 years older than the actress playing her daughter.) She’s sweet but she’s kind of an idiot, and she has no idea Hope isn’t really interested in mentoring her.

“Cecily Strong, who plays Maggie’s single mom, is all of 11 years older than the actress playing her daughter.” I don’t think I’ve ever read a sloppier sentence from a “professional” journalist before. Let’s go ahead and get rid of the “all of” cliche that has no place in a professional article. Unless it’s being used for humor (using “all” to subtly draw attention to the fact that there aren’t very many), it has no place in a serious article. This isn’t used in that way, though. The phrase “[She] is all of [x] years older…” is a cliche, and that’s why it’s there. That’s also the problem with it.

Cecily Strong, who plays Maggie’s single mom, is 11 years older than the actress playing her daughter.

So much cleaner. Crisper. More concise. Better. And if we must draw attention to the small age difference, we can use the word only. Cecily Strong, who plays Maggie’s single mom, is only 11 years older than the actress playing her daughter.

But there’s another issue, isn’t there? Well, there are several, to be honest. The issue I’m talking about, however, is the lack of parallelism. This is the “thing” where you wouldn’t want to say “Bob is going to the gas station, to the ballpark, eating lunch, and then going to Amy’s.” While technically correct, it’s a bad sentence. Infinitely better would be “Bob is going to the gas station, to the ballpark, to get something to eat, and then to Amy’s.”

Knowing this, let’s return to this crap from the Chicago Sun.

Cecily Strong, the actress who plays Maggie’s single mom, is only 11 years older than the actress who plays her daughter.

Better, of course, but it still has major problems. Is there nowhere else that we could have made the distinction that Maggie’s mom is single? Of course there is, and it was actually pointed out previously in that article, so that can be scrapped, leaving us with: Cecily Strong, the actress who plays Maggie’s mom, is 11 years older than the actress who plays her daughter. Versus its original form: “Cecily Strong, who plays Maggie’s single mom, is all of 11 years older than the actress playing her daughter.”

It would also be worth it to replace “her daughter” with “Maggie,” because using proper names is always preferred over generalized pronouns and nouns. So it would actually be best to say, “Cecily Strong, the actress who plays Maggie’s mom, is only 11 years older than the actress who plays Maggie.” This is what editors are supposed to do, but, honestly, I doubt that someone with Mr. Roeper’s credentials still passed through an editor who would be brave enough to make substantial changes to the writing.

I’ve got a bit of a love/hate relationship with editors. To be totally upfront, I actually am an editor now at Cubed3, in addition to a writer there. However, I hate having my work edited heavily, and it really bothers me if my work is heavily edited and then posted without further input from me. It’s not because I think my writing is flawless; it’s far from it. It’s because whatever gets put online there has my name attached to it, and I need to be sure that anything that is posted under my name is something that I’d stand behind. A few months ago, someone got a bit heavy-handed with one of my reviews, and the result was several reworded sentences that I wouldn’t have stood behind. If someone happened upon that review, they would have discarded me as a poor writer. Things were moved around arbitrarily, word choices were changed… Even the score I gave the game was changed by 20%. I didn’t necessarily mind the changes; I minded that the changes were so extensive, were seemingly arbitrary, and that I wasn’t given an attempt to say “Yea or Nay” before it was posted under my name.

So I naturally try to keep a light touch with the editing that I do. I don’t want to inhibit anyone’s style, and I don’t want to make it seem that I believe I’m a superior writer. Because it’s not like that. If I was that good, I would be able to be my own editor. That doesn’t work, though. It’s not because I’m better that I see mistakes or edit things for clarity; it’s because I’m a different person, and a different person won’t have the internal thoughts that the writer has. The writer’s job is to make sure that the internal thoughts get put down properly; the editor’s job is to verify that no internal thoughts were left out, because the ordinary reader won’t have those.

At any rate, Mr. Roeper, you need a new editor, sir. I say that with full respect to your critic skills and substantial career.

Maggie is a perpetually upbeat innocent who worships Hope. (Cecily Strong, who plays Maggie’s single mom, is all of 11 years older than the actress playing her daughter.) She’s sweet but she’s kind of an idiot, and she has no idea Hope isn’t really interested in mentoring her.

The whole thing needs to be improved, and the best way to do that would be to remove the parenthetical statement as a whole and shift its contents elsewhere in the article–perhaps to a paragraph that discusses the actresses, instead of a random paragraph that discusses the characters. This statement has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the paragraph. Why is it there?

Moreover, the entire paragraph could have been reduced to a single sentence. Ignoring the fact that it should have went like this:

Maggie is a perpetually upbeat innocent who worships Hope (Cecily Strong, the actress who plays Maggie’s single mom, is 11 years older than the actress who plays her daughter). She’s sweet but kind of an idiot, and has no idea that Hope isn’t really interested in mentoring.

Because the parentheses, I’m sure you’ll agree, has no reason to be there. It’s not related to anything else in the paragraph. It doesn’t expand upon or clarify anything in the paragraph. It’s just there, like a tumor that needs to be removed. So let’s remove it.

Maggie is a perpetually upbeat innocent who worships Hope. She’s sweet but she’s kind of an idiot, and she has no idea Hope isn’t really interested in mentoring her.

Much better, isn’t it? Except now another problem has shown itself, hasn’t it? There are only two basic parts to this entire paragraph: a description of Maggie, and Hope’s interests. Why does this take up three clauses? Perpetually upbeat innocent, sweet but kind of an idiot, worships, and has no idea. These are the traits given to Maggie in the paragraph, and they take up two entire clauses to do it. We can obviously clean this quite a lot.

First, is “sweet” a necessary part of the description when she has already been described as a “perpetually upbeat innocent”? Doesn’t “perpetually upbeat innocent” entail being sweet? Isn’t being “sweet” and being perceived as innocent… pretty much the same thing? Of course, it is. Think of any sweet person you know–not someone who is sometimes sweet. We’re talking someone for whom “sweet” is a defining characteristic, clearly–of course “innocent” also describes them. So we really only have “perpetually upbeat innocent, but kind of an idiot.” This easily becomes:

Maggie is perpetually upbeat and innocent, but is also kind of an idiot, and she has no idea that Hope isn’t really interested in mentoring.

I don’t mean to pick on Mr. Roeper. I’m sure he’s a fine film critic. But he’s one of those rare critics who is an aficionado of his subject first and a writer second, whereas most of us critics are writers first and aficionados of our subjects second. In fact, that’s one of the things I’ve been trying to explain to people throughout the past year: there’s nothing that gives video game critics special insights into video games, psychology, culture, or art. We are good writers, and we do train ourselves to look at the subject matter critically, but there’s nothing special about us. We simply are good at conveying our thoughts with words. There is nothing that makes our thoughts better or more representative of the masses.

I’ve never really made any claims about my ability to write. I’m a fucking bad ass guitarist–among the best in the next few hundred miles–but I’ve never been willing to say that about my writing. I’ll say very tentatively that I appear to be a good writer, because people seem to enjoy some of the things I write, but I may be a terrible writer. So take my thoughts here with a grain of salt. Whilst you are enjoying that grain of salt, perhaps it would behoove you to like me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter. 😀

3 thoughts on “Brief Thoughts on Writing

  1. I think that is why salt intake is so high is that I take everything with a grain of a salt. Which could explain why I feel thirsty all the time 😛 LOL

    I think that is one thing that really matters is that we communicate. That communication can be helped by using grammar properly it is not necessary. If I can get an idea of what you or another person is trying to communicate then how the grammar is used is of no consequence. Just because someone can use grammar better than someone else doesn’t make what they write better. Just means they understand grammar and can use it.

    Reading your complaints about how some people write and why you complain about it along with how you would wrote has given me something to consider for my own writing. They will be taken under consideration. After due consideration, changes may be implemented to my communication methods as a result. This is not a statement that what I write will not peeve your pet in the future when reading my communication. This should be expected as our styles of communication are as unique as our ourselves. But maybe the idea I am trying to convey will not be as garbled as a result of you expressing your views.

    P.S. It really pained me to write that last paragraph 😛 LOL

  2. Pingback: Easter Sucks | A Shemale's Diary

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