Thursday, June 16, 2011

Punctuation and Grammar – An Update on My Summer Creative Writing Course

This summer, I am embarking on a self-taught creative writing course (see my post: Autodidact’s Summer Creative Writing Course).  I want to become a better writer.  I need help becoming a better writer.  While I can’t leave my kids to fly off to a formal program, nothing is stopping me from reading instructive materials and putting the advice I gather into practice.
            This week, I started with the basics: grammar – more specifically, punctuation.  I had a slow start with my self-assigned readings.  The subject matter evoked shameful memories of my undergraduate composition class where my essay, composed during the first class meeting, was chosen by my classmates as the best-written.  So why does this memory make me wince rather than glow with self-esteem?  Because my professor systematically reamed the essay to show us all that we didn’t know shit about writing.  Since then, I have never rushed to pat myself on the back – I try to avoid the embarrassment of premature congratulation.
            Once I got into Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, I realized the subject wasn’t so bad.  I never bothered with Strunk and White during my university life (non-English major here – that obnoxious composition professor probably put me off the entire discipline), but The Elements of Style is great little book of writing basics.  It’s short, but eye-opening.  I now realize how moronic I must seem to my blog readers.  I am red-faced that I don’t remember as many of the guidelines of good writing as I thought I did (what was I saying earlier about hasty self-congratulation?).
           Once I absorbed Strunk and White, I moved on to Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation.  It’s a technical read, but Lukeman provides abundant examples to make his points.  In the first section Lukeman covers the three primary marks: period, comma, and semi-colon.  He also covers colons, dashes and parentheses, quotation marks, and paragraph and section breaks.  The chapter format for each point is as follows:  how to use it, the danger of overuse, how to underuse it, the danger of underuse, context, what your use of the [insert punctuation here] reveals about you, and exercises.  My use of various forms of punctuation, more often than not, revealed my amateur writer status: no surprise there.  I haven’t done the exercises yet, but they can all be applied to my work-in-progress, which I am sure will render further revelations and self-loathing.  Nevertheless, Lukeman has shown me the stylistic force of these seemingly mundane symbols, and I am, at long last, more confident about how to use semi-colons and colons.
            I’m now about a third of the way through an entertaining yet edifying book called The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English by Roy Peter Clark.  Part of the appeal of this book is Clark’s raging enthusiasm for the written word and word play.  I was laughing out loud at some of his pun-laden passages (probably because I’m a big dork who loves puns – didn’t someone say “puns are the lowest form of humour”?  Guess I’m lowbrow, too.)  Let me offer an example:  Clark was writing a story where he linked the coincidental deaths of President Gerald Ford and Kind of Soul, James Brown.  He writes, “Gerald Ford saved the nation, it is said, by getting us out of a funk.  James Brown saved it by getting us into one.” 
Clark also amuses the reader by offering a minilexicon of neologisms coined by his family: poop du jour, a word that indicates regularity of a member; keysta louista, a reminder to grab one’s keys; and left ovary, the yucky stuff at the bottom of jelly or mayo jars.  The conversational tone of the book makes the reader want to join in the game, and Clark offers “keepsakes” at the end of each chapter, which are suggestions of how to get in on the fun.
            I have yet to read Paula LaRocque’s The Book on Writing: the Ultimate Guide to Writing Well.  This reference is the least attractive of the lot.  I have thumbed through it, and it seems that the first half is largely a recap of style guidelines from The Elements of Style.  The second part is about storytelling, which may come in handy in weeks 3 and 4 of my summer course.  The final section is on language and writing mechanics, which are relevant to my grammar lesson – I may just skip ahead and see what LaRocque has to offer on the subject.  I will say that her first chapter on keeping sentences short with one main idea was immensely helpful – not because I hadn’t heard this suggestion before, but because she mentions the Flesch Reading Ease score.  I wasn’t aware that Microsoft Word could compute this score (I know, pathetic), but armed with this discovery, I immediately tested my own writing.  La Rocque suggests that most Americans prefer to read at a tenth grade level or less and that a suitable score on the Flesch readability index is between 60 and 70.
Guess what?  I write with all the sophistication of my nine year-old daughter.  My grade level was 4.2 and my readability score was 84.6.  No one wants to believe one’s writing is childlike (especially a few drafts into a project), so I searched online for “Flesch index scores for bestselling authors”.  Here’s what I found:  Author J.V. Smith Jr. analyzed the work of Stephen King, Danielle Steele, Elmore Leonard, Jan Karon and six others with the Flesch-Kincaid equations to see how these favored writers compared.  They averaged 83% on the readability index with a reading grade level of 4.  I take comfort in the fact that I am in the range of what adult readers in the U.S. prefer to read.  Of course, I’d love to have the complexity and virtuousity of David Foster Wallace, but I’m encouraged that I’m at least as readable as commercial writers.         
And speaking of David Foster Wallace, I am reading his collection of essays, Consider the Lobster, as part of my coursework.  His works are often listed on syllabi for creative writing classes; I would be remiss I didn’t consider his style.  I tried reading Infinite Jest this spring, but put it down after about 100 pages.  The reasons are varied: I checked it out of the library but realized this was a book I needed to own so that I could spend time with it and scribble notes in the margins; I found sections of Infinite Jest evocative of my own depression and I don’t like going to that low place; I also found myself enthralled with the author and the hype surrounding him, and I had to ask myself whether I liked his work or whether I thought I was supposed to like his work or whether I thought he was some cool but intellectually smug guy I would’ve smoked doobies with in college.
All that aside, I’m glad I’m reading his essays.  One particular essay, “Authority and American Usage” highlights the debate between Prescriptivists and Descriptivists regarding the need for lexical standards of usage and meaning.  It’s a long essay, and I’m still working through it, but I find the subject apropos for my grammar lesson.  DFW is a conundrum: he’s at once vulgar and erudite; he’s elitist at times and democratic at others; he uses classical references like “Heraclitean” on one page (forcing me stop reading and go wiki Heraclitus), and then I flip a few pages in and I read the pop culture reference “Twelve-Year-Old-Males-Whose-Worldview-Is-Deeply-Informed-by-Southpark”. 
According to all the standard style advice I’ve read so far, DFW is as stylistically deviant as authors come.  He uses foreign words and Latinate jargon.  His signature footnotes, while entertaining and informative in themselves, make his essays read like a sixteen-year old driving a stickshift for the first time.  These copious asides teeter between self-effacing personal confession and scholarly showing-off.  I suspect  this duality is what endears him to his fans: while he’s schooling us ignoramuses with his extensive knowledge and perspective, he’s also trying to convince us that he, too, is human, as foolish and fragile, as anyone else.  It’s precisely Wallace’s breaking of style rules that makes his essays so important to my lessons: does mastering the craft mean you can write however you want?  Or, should a writer care about readers and how much work the prose requires of them? 
According to Lukeman, a writer should strive for balance between self-indulgent craftsmanship and readability.  I’ve seen video of DFW acknowledging that most people don’t want to work too hard at a piece of literature, but that he preferred to challenge his readers.  It’s a debate not easily won, and there is value in both perspectives.  I suppose the question I should ask myself is, “Do you want to be a commercial, money-making writer, or do you want to shoot for the stars and become a paragon of literature?”  At this point, I’m so far from “paragon of literature” that I’d feel validated by earning even a little bit of cash for my efforts.  I’ll let you know when I’m feeling Pulitzer-worthy – with a little luck it could happen in my next ten lifetimes.

*Next week, I’ll be extending the grammar lesson with readings on sentences and syntax.


  1. A book on writing you will find helpful is Vector Theory and the Plot Structures of Literature and Drama. Don't worry, there are no equations in it! There are lots of discussions of stories, poems, plays, and films. The book is focused on plot.

  2. Thanks so much for the suggestion, Cynthia. Plotting is particularly troublesome for me - there is an inverse relationship between the complexity of my plots and the reader's desire to turn pages. I'll definitely check out Vector Theory and Plot Structures.

  3. I really recommend The Oatmeal site. Has great punctuation resources that are fun, and almost appropriate for the whole family.

  4. Thanks for the tip, Colin. Don't know how The Oatmeal has escaped my attention until now. I'm seriously thinking about buying The Oatmeal Grammar Poster five-pack!

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