Knowledge is power. Or is money power? Maybe power is power. Certainly a gun is power. But if there are two guns and only one has bullets, and you know which, then we’re back to knowledge is power. Unless what you know is that the empty gun is the one in your hand.
The point I’m making is that no rule is universal. Just because something is true in one situation, doesn’t make it true in another. You need to understand the context.
Eight months into the pregnancy she was literally as big as a whale.
The word ‘literally’ has a meaning which in the above case doesn’t make sense. You can’t be literally as big as a whale unless some sort of weird genetic experiment has gone horribly wrong. The above line is therefore incorrect. Only it isn’t. It’s a form of expression called hyperbole.
Unrealistic exaggeration for effect is a completely acceptable way of communicating. And we know this because if you use hyperbole to another person, that person won’t take it literally (even if you use that word).
Our understanding of language goes beyond simple one-size-fits-all rules. We always look for what the person means, rather than what they have technically said. Unless, of course, we’re in an argument and losing.
As writers, it’s comforting to have basic guidelines to help us shape the mess of ideas in our heads, but you can’t cling to them through thick and thin. You can’t rely on what’s been decided as true in general will also be true in your specific case. But neither can you ignore all standards and practices and rely on the reader guessing at your intentions.
The important things is to communicate what you mean. To do that you must know what you mean. And what you mean has to be worth communicating.
That’s why it’s possible for a popular book to contain what’s considered bad writing. It’s not that readers like the stilted, juvenile prose, it’s that they don’t particularly care if they like what the tale they’re being told. In the context of being engrossed by a character’s adventures, individual word choices don’t register very highly.
Great, so we can all write with no thought to spelling or grammar! Not quite. It depends on your context. Do you have a rip roaring tale that just won’t quit? Perhaps a love story that consumes with a passion never before seen? If you have, hurray! But chances are you’re not really sure.
Those rules about good writing, clear writing, professional writing, they definitely help make things clearer, but they can also keep your focus on the tiny details and away from the actual point of storytelling (the story). Similarly, when other people read your work and offer advice about adverbs and info-dumps and whatnot, it’s easier for them to point out grammatical errors than it is to say the story’s a bit dull. Awkward!
Even if you write beautiful, technically flawless sentences, if the story isn’t up to snuff, nobody will care how good the writing is.
How you choose to write, what standard you aspire to, that’s a choice. Most writers would be embarrassed to be thought of as having the competence of a distracted high school student and making the words on the page flow and engage is a matter of pride. Other writers do the bare minimum stylistically, and focus on one outrageous event after another. While awards tend to go to the former, readers tend to go to the latter.
In case it feels like I’m sending mixed signals, let me clarify what I’m trying to say. Improving your writing is a good thing. When people point out grammatical mistakes, they’re probably right. But if they don’t mention the story, how it works or doesn’t, if it excites or bores them, if it makes sense, then that’s the real problem. You can get to the technical tweaking later, first sort out the story.
The far more important aspect of writing a book is what happens. And taking time to go over the events a character experiences without thinking about language, just focusing on whether it’s interesting, whether it could be more interesting, literally the most important thing you, as a writer, will ever do.
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