The Subjective Nature of Writing

A conversation with a friend about adverbs that end in LY (e.g. gladly, sadly) revealed the subjective nature of writing. Her position reflects a current consensus that using LY words is bad writing. You must not write “He hurriedly walked to his destination. “He ran to his destination,” is better because someone has decided that “ran” is a stronger word than “hurriedly.”

The book selling millions of copies at that time were the Harry Potter books. I read the first chapter in a Harry Potter book to see if the author, JK Rowling, used adverbs that end in LY and counted fifteen. Rowling is one of the richest authors in the world with a net worth of one billion.

In addition to being subjective, the rules that govern writing change. Rules that made some methods forbidden in the past are acceptable today. At one time it was forbidden to start a sentence with a conjunction. A conjunction is a word used to connect clauses or sentences or to coordinate words in the same clause (e.g. and, but, if). Pick up a newspaper today and you will find sentences starting with conjunctions. My English teacher gave me minus points for doing that.

And it’s not the first time that rule has changed. Every sentence in the first chapter of the King James Bible begins with the conjunction “And” except for one sentence that begins with “So”.

Who makes up these rules and who changes them?

I recently listened to 24 lectures about the “sentence” by the director of the University of Iowa’s General Education Literature Program, Dr. Brooks Landon. The university was the original developer of the Master of Fine Arts degree and it operates the world-renowned Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which has produced 17 of the university’s 46 Pulitzer Prize winners.

Dr. Landon concluded the lectures with a discussion about assembling sentences into a paragraph. The definition of a paragraph that is generally treated as a mandate from God and has been taught for a century, and was taught to me in English class, came to us from English Composition and Rhetoric written in 1866 by Alexander Bain. Bain defined the paragraph as “the division of discourse next higher than the sentence” and is “a collection of sentences with unity of purpose.” Bain gave us six principles that govern the structure of the paragraph. By the 1970s the six principles were reduced to 3: unity, coherence and emphasis. In other words, a paragraph has a topic sentence and the following sentences should be on that topic.

Makes sense to me.

BUT according to Professor Landon, “Bain got a lot wrong. His errors have been mechanically if not mindlessly passed down as the received truths of paragraph theory.”

He said there is nothing wrong with doing it Bain’s way except your paragraph, “will be an artificial structure that forces your writing style into a box made long ago by one self-trained rhetorician at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland and if you go looking for examples that will fit this prescriptive model you are almost certain to find them since this model has been forced on writing students for nearly 150 years, but the odds are you won’t find paragraphs by celebrated or even your favorite writers that fit this mold.”

OUCH

This is taught in a university that has produced 46 Pulitzer Prize winners. Clearly, the way to construct paragraphs have shifted out of the box. But why is Bain wrong today? Why wasn’t he wrong when he originally defined the paragraph 150 years ago? What makes Professor Landon right and Bain wrong?

As Christians we can judge right and wrong because we have a standard given to us by an unchanging God. In writing whatever the consensus is among literary leaders becomes the correct way to write. And I guarantee that somewhere down the road someone will say Landon got it wrong and if enough people agree with the challenger of the status quo new rules for writing will appear.

 

2 comments

  1. Intriguing stuff, Teena. I was really struggling to finish my first book, because I was so preoccupied with doing it the “right” way… until I finally let myself write in my own style, and the book was suddenly done! Amazing! Sometimes rules truly are meant to be broken.

    Like

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