Masters Course Update: The Only Rule of Good Writing

My Creative Writing masters course astounds me. Often for very wrong reasons. The other day in class a woman old enough to know better said, absolutely sans irony: “I know we’re not supposed to use adverbs or adjectives but…”

I near enough fell off my chair. Says who? Whatever next? Banish commas? Forbid verbs? Only use proper nouns on the first Tuesday after the full moon? One of my classmates attempted to defend this absurdity by saying that writers shouldn’t use adverbs because you end up with phrases like “shouted loudly.” Which, as justifications go, is not so merely lame but paraplegiac. “Shouted loudly” is terrible because it is a tautology — “shouted” implies “loudly.” The adverb is innocent. Take a phrase such as “the wind blew softly”; the adverb is an essential modifier if the reader is to know how the wind blew, e.g. loudly, softly, ferociously. What is at stake here is not the use of an adverb, but the quality of the writing.

That is the only rule of good writing: pay attention to what you’re putting on the page. Forget rules and learn to write. As Orwell notes:

“If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy… when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.”

3 thoughts on “Masters Course Update: The Only Rule of Good Writing

  1. Style should not be absolutely dictated by rules, but there is a real danger that when one starts challenging unhelpful conventions, useful ones are undermined also. Given the diminishing importance accorded to English language instruction in the British education system, I’m pleasantly surprised that a Master’s student knows what an adverb is, even if they don’t use them. Content is all; form is nothing, as is exemplified by the current marking policy of a university that will remain nameless (let us call it the Sunday Times University of the Year 2011). Teaching staff there are not allowed to correct students’ spelling, punctuation or grammar as long as the marker can broadly understand what the student wants to say.

    Now it seems that the dissertations which teaching staff are obliged to submit as part of their compulsory pedagogical qualifications are likewise not corrected for SPG (and there are plenty of PhD-holders who harbour strange misconceptions about the possessive apostrophe or the use of semi-colons). So a new generation of educators. lacking the skills necessary for accurate written communication, goes out to teach. Students are instructed by ill-trained teachers , and soon no one will care much about even very basic SPG. It may seem finicky to make a fuss about the correct use of the word “whom” or the difference between “it’s” and “its”, but these distinctions exist for a purpose, namely to convey often complex meaning in the simplest form possible. Once these distinctions are judged to be unimportant, language is rendered a blunt instrument, limited to conveying very basic information, and, even then, only with a good deal of confusion.

    That said, we can probably do without the rule prohibiting split infintives.

  2. Pingback: Recommended Reading – Essays « Cila Warncke

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