On what or who you’re writing for

Those interested in writing as a craft may want to read (or have already read) this Slate piece defending the use of adverbs. I wholeheartedly agree with it. Well, most of it. It traces the modern writing teacher’s disgust with adverbs to Elements of Style and On Writing Well, which is fair, but it kind of reads as an indictment of those two books, which is not very fair. While I’m quite pleased to see someone take a shot at Elements of Style, I have to stick up a little bit for On Writing Well. I’m pretty sure it’s mostly focused on business communication, where concise minimalism should be encouraged. I don’t think it provides much great advice for writers of fiction, but I’m not sure that was its main theme.

The fact that it gets cited so often in reference to fiction leads me to believe that there’s some confusion about what we’re writing and who we’re writing it for. This, in turn, confuses me. It seems obvious that writing meant to provide information should be different than writing meant to provide pleasure. To paraphrase Larry Niven: If you’ve got something important to say, say it in baby talk. If you don’t, say it any way you like. Ah, but what if you’re trying to inform and entertain? Then what do you do?

Damned if I know. I’m just wondering why you’re trying to do two things at once. If you are imparting information, do that. If you are providing entertainment, do that. Why mix the two things? Ugh — I blame New Journalism for this mess. Maybe the whole “creative nonfiction” movement as well.

Actually, no. I blame lazy readers.

Beyond a minimal level of readability, if you’ve got some information that I need, I don’t care how pretty your sentences are, I will read you to get the info. Please to not waste my time. On the other hand, if you’re dead set against teaching me any new important facts about the world, don’t write me a court transcript of your imagination: “He caught the fish. He cooked the fish. He ate the fish. Later, he enjoyed remembering the catching, the cooking and the eating.” I mean, that’s very to the point, I get what’s going on in no uncertain terms — but that’s just fucking dull.

But I suspect most readers want a song and dance when they read for information. They want stories about Appalachia that start with, “It was a sixty-mile drive over gravel and dirt roads, through the hollows and the hills, amidst the singing clouds of summer insects, that eventually brought me to the frail shack home of one Peabody Boteet, who is the ostensible focus of this story that will contain mostly details about myself, your humble journalist.” Which is fine, if you like that sort of thing. But it sucks if you need that kind of writing in order for you to condescend to learn anything.

“What’s going on out there?”

“A lot of people are dying due to rampant opioid addiction.”

“No, no, NO! Tell me a stooorrryyyy!”

Anyway, the point is, adverbs have a place. That place is in ornate, overwrought prose — which I love (if you couldn’t tell)! Pointless, imaginary bullshit deserves to be all decked out in its finest, fanciest accessories. The fact that adverbs often show up in so much bad writing means nothing more than that bad writers don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. You want to blame a part of speech for bad writing, like that helps? Fine, blame conjunctions, problem solved. Or commas. I don’t care.

Let us be blunt and to the point, and damn the lazy readers too sensitive to their own boredom to learn anything. Furthermore, let us be verbose and flowery, and damn the readers who think they’ve got better shit to do than read our voluminous fantasy garbage.

Oh wait, no, they’ve all stopped reading.

Oh no, oh no, they’re all watching TV now.


On what or who you’re writing for

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