A Welcoming Salvo to

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A Welcoming Salvo to Mr. Akin
I hate to get on Mr. Akin's case so soon after he has joined our little community; after all, I truly appreciate the hard work and research that goes into his apologetics site and I like what he writes. However, he has chosen to spread one of the most poisonous false truisms in the literary world. A truism that has led to an explosion of hemingwayesque pap and cardboard prose indigestible to anyone with even a modicum of taste and education. In one recent entry on his blog, he trots out this little bit of advice for would-be writers:

One of the most common faults of beginning writers is the overuse of modifiers (adjectives, adverbs). You must resist this tendency. Overmodification of your nouns and verbs weakens the force of your writing. Beginning writers frequently add modifiers thinking that these will make their text more vivid and powerful, but they donít. Consider these two sentences:

(1) The beautiful Francesca lovingly spread a treasured quilt on the green grass beneath the stately oak.

(2) Francesca spread a quilt on the grass beneath the oak.


The second is better writing. In the first, each noun and verb has been modified in a vain attempt to make the text more vivid.

This is the delivered truth from years of teachers whose sensibilities and refinements have been dulled by poring over the received texts--For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises, and A Farewell to Arms. The second sentence IS NOT better than the first, it is simply bad in another way. It is flat, dull, lifeless, and nonindicative of character. The truth is somewhere between these two extremes. For example, one might normally pick a stronger or different verb, but what is wrong with the sentence

Francesca lovingly spread a quilt in the shade of the oak.

(Why do you need "on the grass" where else would she have spread it? On the air beneath? In the bramble and brush--one would assume that the blanket is being spread on a generally flat, vermin-free area.) One word speaks a world about Francesca, the quilt, and what she hopes this quilt may be scene for. It galvanizes an otherwise very flat narrative and enlivens what would likely be one sentence in an endless line of dull sentences.

She opened the picnic basket. She took out plates. She set them on the blanket. She closed the basket. She opened a bag. She pulled out a bottle. She closed the bag. She put the bottle on the quilt. She waited. She saw a figure. Giorgio approached. He sat down. She opened the basket. She took out the food.


This is not strength--it is simply a string of declarative sentences without impact, without panache, without style, and, ultimately without interest. Very few write this way, and no one should.

In addition the advice which follows, "Your writing will be much stronger if you avoid unnecessary modifiers," is again received wisdom that is, at its base, nonsensical. By definition ALL modifiers are unnecessary. You need not modify anything with something more than "this" or "that" in order to talk about it. We need to learn, "Your writing will be much stronger if you learn to use modifiers as they are needed to add detail to what you are writing." This is where the truth is. Moreover, all of these rules differ depending upon desired effect and audience--one accustomed to the leisurely jaunts of a Trollope, Dickens, or James, might be more amenable to reading prose with great descriptive capacity.

We need to weed out these imperatives that sap the strength from our writing. Remember to select strong verbs, vivid modifiers, and appropriate nouns. We need to place these in appropriate juxtapostions to make syntactical sense. Beyond that we need not pare down, strip off, or otherwise constrain our prose to fit the rules of those who think that they have some rubric for what constitutes effective writing. Effective writing is, at best, a subjective notion. You've seen from the interchanges between Dylan and this blogmaster, that things that are very effective and very moving to one of us may not inspire similar feelings in the other.

Sure, I think we all can buy that excess modification is detrimental both to meaning and to beauty. But to continue to preach this mode of writing is enormously detrimental to young people and new writers who need to find their own legs. Do yourself a favor, ignore the advice and read the fine prose of such writers as Mr. Akin, this will stand you in better stead than any number of checklists for journalistic/writing integrity.

My apologies for the raking over the coals Mr. Akin. You have, unknowingly, pressed one of those many buttons that results in the spewing of invective and much frothing at the mouth. I truly enjoy what I have read of your blog and your website and I think you are a very capable writer. However, having had to deal with the end result of teaching like that, and forcing people to open their prose up, I can assure you that the ultimate effect of these rules is to dissuade many capable writers from beginning because their prose is "too weak." Moreover it encourages blow-hards who write "tough, masculine prose" which in fact is merely a series of atrociously dull declaratives strung together to resemble a narrative.

Okay--so this is the closest I've to a harangue here. And you'll note it isn't on doctrinal matters. In fact, the only controversies you're likely to face here are artistic in nature. Hope you've enjoyed this glimpse into the differences of opinions that make up the writing world.

Oh, and welcome Mr. Akin, I truly look forward to enjoying your insights and apologetics.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on August 29, 2002 4:49 PM.

Meet and Greet Before was the previous entry in this blog.

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