Every so often, I read a book that reminds me it’s possible to get the basics right and still turn out something genuinely crappy. I just finished one that, as usual, was highly rated and enthusiastically reviewed on Goodreads. It’s also been mentioned and recommended in other places. So, what do you think? It drove me crazy all the way through because it’s so badly written. It’s not the grammar or the spelling, or even the punctuation, which are mostly fine. But partway through, I had one of those moments. I realized that there are things that aren’t as easily taught, or learned, as grammar and spelling. Maybe they’re not teachable at all, at least in the normal sense. So here’s this book that tells a good story, has few obvious problems of the kind that you’d look for in editing, but doesn’t reach the level that distinguishes mediocre writing from excellent writing.
For a lot of people, it would seem to be a matter of style, but that’s not it. Styles vary, but they still rest on a foundation of an understanding of language and, more important, an ear for language. A book like the one I just read reminds me of some of the compositions that my husband’s high school students would turn in. They were written by students who could diagram a sentence perfectly. They could even write grammatically correct sentences. But their writing was ugly, stumbling, awkward, and even confusing.
What it comes down to is that you can learn the rules, but if you don’t have a feeling for language, your work is going to be ugly, stumbling, and awkward. A good editor will recognize the problems and, if you’re very lucky, will correct them for you. If you’re not lucky, he/she will point them out and leave you to it. And you will fail miserably. Why? Because this is an area where the ear is the judge, and if you don’t have the ear, your knowledge of the rules isn’t going to help. Because developing an ear for language is a slow process that involves having read and absorbed well-written language from hundreds or thousands of books, over many years.
If you don’t have that ear, this is a good time to be writing. Why? Because most readers also lack it and are interested only in the story and the emotions it evokes. If you care about the flow of language and how it can enrich or impede a story, but don’t yet have the ear, you have your work cut out for you. There’s nothing to memorize. All you have to do is listen.