Sunday, November 11, 2012

How to Write

You would be surprised by the frequency of simple errors in other people's manuscripts.  We all benefit from editors, as I learned again and again  whenever a copy editor returned a manuscript that bristled with Post Its.  Last week a couple of anonymous notes on writing came my way.  They may give you a laugh as they did me.

Words on a t-shirt:

Let's Eat Grandma.
Let's Eat, Grandma.
 Commas save lives

And a list of guidelines, doubtless written by an English teacher who had had enough and couldn't take any more:
  1. They're =They fucking are
  2. Their= Shows fucking possession
  3. There=Specifies a fucking location
  4. You're=You fucking are
  5. Your= Shows fucking possession
  6. It's=It fucking is
  7. Its=Shows fucking possession
  8. We're=We fucking are
  9. Were=Past fucking tense of “are”
  10. Where=Specifies a fucking location
  11. Loose=Not fucking fixed in place
  12. Lose=Cease to fucking keep
  13. Affect=A fucking action
  14. Effect=A fucking result
  15. Could've=Could fucking have
  16. Could of=You're (see 4) a fucking retard
I thought about cleaning up the language, not to offend readers whose sensibilities are more delicate than mine.  But why?  Words are only words, and words are writers' materials.  Taboo words have greater force than others, if they're used purposefully.  As they come more frequently into the ordinary conversation of old ladies like me, they lose some of that force, but they haven't yet lost it all.  (Consider your own reaction, Reader, to the appearance of such words at a website about writing for children.) If the list above were cleaned up, it would lose the hair-tearing tone the author intended, and therefore its humor.

Meanwhile, I've been reading An Element of Lavishness, the correspondence of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, her New Yorker editor for forty years.  Warner wrote scores of stories for the magazine.  Over time, although they rarely met, author and editor became intimate friends.  The tone of their letters is the contrary of the tone in the list quoted above, all elegance and decorum and delicate irony, all patience and kindness.  One of the most striking things about the correspondence is the writers' mutual encouragement.  Maxwell wrote novels, as Warner did.  They sent their books to one another as gifts, always a dangerous thing for writers to do, lest one be forced to remark on a friend's book that doesn't please.  Whatever they may have thought in their heart of hearts, they always found generous things to say.  Maxwell could write about a storm strong enough to blow his wife into the arms of a stranger and shatter plate-glass windows all around, with a sense of the danger unmitigated by the humor of the telling.  Warner wrote about an aged friend who enjoyed a little adultery, when the robin that came and went through the sitting room window and was her constant  companion took umbrage at the arrival of another robin who entered through a window in the kitchen.  Such little things became matters of moment, because gifted writers had noticed.

These two old friends both loved music (Warner was an expert in ancient music) and books and culture and one another.  Whether the topics were storms or birds or Cardinal Newman or the cats in the garden or Maxwell's little girls or the Cuban missile crisis or Warner's need to hunker down at home during World War Two, when she might have taken refuge in America, their impulse was always to comfort and share ideas and entertain.  A reader of these letters takes vicarious comfort and entertainment, too.


  1. Jane, two of my favorites are:
    What's that in the road -- a head?
    Or is it: What's that in the road ahead.

    And Eats, shoots and leaves.
    Or is it: Eats shoots and leaves (as in a panda's menu).

  2. Jane, I just adore you. Thank you for the above. I struggle with grammar all the time. This makes me laugh and it really sticks. I just might repost on facebook if you don't mind. I might repost this above my desk in a frame. I love. I just love it.