I Meant to Do That!

There are some things, as a writer, that you should only ever do on purpose.  A short and incomplete list:

  • Humor.  There’s nothing worse than making people snicker when you were hoping to tug on their heartstrings, unless it’s making them guffaw when you were aiming for elevated dignity.  Accidental humor is often fatally easy — all it needs, sometimes, is a random typo of the “united/untied” or “public/pubic” variety — while deliberate humor can be fiendishly hard even if you’re one of the rare few with the gift for it.  (And in the realm of bad things that can go wrong with deliberate humor — if the little voice in your head says, “Maybe this is a bit too edgy,” then for the love of all the Muses, listen. And remember, as always, John Scalzi on the failure mode of clever.)
  • Ambiguity.  Properly managed, a judicious amount of certain kinds of ambiguity can add depth and texture to your story.  Done badly, all it does is cover your story with an unnecessary layer of shadows and mud.  How can you tell if you’ve pulled it off?  You probably can’t — you’ve got privileged access to the inside of your own head, and can see the stuff you didn’t put down on paper or in pixels.  This is where trusted first readers come in.  If they say that something isn’t clear, don’t waste time explaining how they’ve missed it.  Fix the text so that they don’t miss it, instead.
  • Offense.  Sometimes it’s necessary for a writer to give offense because the target is, no kidding, offensive.  Other times . . . well, writers often have big feet as well as big mouths.  If you did decide to give offense on purpose, don’t bat your eyelashes afterward and claim that you didn’t. That’s tacky.  And if it truly was an accident, then apologize without groveling and try not to do it again, okay?
  • Conspicuous alliteration, internal rhyme, or recognizable meter.   Unless you’re very very good indeed, all of these verbal juggling tricks and somersaults can distract from the point of your story, rather than ornamenting it.  (The late Poul Anderson wrote A Midsummer Tempest, in which some of the characters speak in blank verse written out as prose, but Poul Anderson was good enough to get away with it.)  Accidental occurrences of things like this should be eliminated ruthlessly from the text.  As for doing it deliberately — if you’re a certain kind of word-mad writer, you’ll probably at some point end up trying out the technique.  Just remember, don’t attempt this feat without a net seek out a trusted first reader for help in determining whether or not you’ve carried it off.

There are plenty of other things that writers should only do on purpose, but the four above are biggies, and should do for a start.

2 thoughts on “I Meant to Do That!

  1. Re: Conspicuous alliteration, internal rhyme, or recognizable meter: I’m intrigued that modern American novelists are strenuously urged to avoid adventures in lyric language, while contemporary Irish journalists writing columns for major Irish newspapers routinely indulge in them. For example, I’ve enjoyed reading multiple strings of up to four alliterative words peppering political prose, and the more acerbic the polemic, the more artful the puns. Whoever started advocating American authorial austerity – Strunk, I suppose – has effectively impoverished writers and readers of imaginative expression, but even you, “Dr. Doyle,” can’t avoid betraying your Irish surname’s linguistic heritage in the title of your blog!

  2. I think that falls under the “do it on purpose and not accidentally” and “be sure that you’re able to carry it off” portions of the advice — pyrotechnics in prose are a risky endeavor for those who aren’t ready to tackle them yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.