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Writers: Learn Your Craft
Being a writer includes learning the rules of your language.
Welcome to The Living Dark. I’m Matt Cardin, and this is my blog/newsletter on creativity for writers, situated at the intersection of religion, horror, nonduality, apocalypse, dystopia, consciousness, and the numinous unknown. You can subscribe by clicking this button:
Dear Living Dark readers,
Here’s a brief note that I hope won’t come off as nothing more than a dyspeptic rant. I didn’t wake up on this fine Saturday morning expecting to write it. However, as explained below, my morning reading struck a spark of irritation, and almost before I knew it, this had blossomed into a little campfire of five hundred flickering words. I hope they’ll prove helpful to some of you.
Their thesis is stated right in the title of this post: If you want to write, learn your craft. This includes learning the game rules of the language in which you’re writing.
Today’s case in point:
This morning while drinking my coffee, I started reading an ebook that I had been looking forward to enjoying. And right on the first page, I stumbled when I saw the author stating that he does something “everyday.”
My immediate, spontaneous response was a flash of irritation, accompanied by the thought, “No, you don’t.” Because what he meant to write was “every day.”
“Every day” (two words) is an adverbial phrase that means each day, as in “I write every day.”
By contrast, “everyday” (one word) is an adjective that means common or ordinary, as in “my everyday clothes,” the clothes I wear on regular days instead of the fancy clothes I reserve for special occasions.
This is not a mere pedantic distinction. For the book I just started reading, the upshot of committing this common error on page one is that the writer’s credibility has taken a hit. He has generated a poor impression, right up front. Yes, I will still continue reading his book, and I will no doubt find value in it. An authorial—and also editorial—technical error like the one in question does not, of course, make or break a book in its entirety. But still, the writer’s credibility is at least minimally blown. His ethos is slightly tarnished. It’s not a good look. Not only did his editor do him a disservice, but he did it to himself by making the error in the first place, so that it was in the text to begin with and something the copy editor could potentially miss.
The game rules of a given language within a given historical-cultural setting may as well have been handed down by the gods and inscribed on the sky. You have to learn these rules to play the game effectively at the level and within the realm you have chosen. .
And no, this isn’t me being a “grammar Nazi.” In writing as in any other art form, a thorough grasp of your craft and its basic tools—in this case, the written form of standard American English—is essential, mandatory, irreducibly necessary.
Yes, in the end, all language is just made up, and it’s always evolving, so in a broad sense we can choose to change things at will. But on a more practical and local level, the game rules of a given language within a given historical-cultural setting may as well have been handed down by the gods and inscribed on the sky. You have to learn these rules to play the game effectively at the level and within the realm you have chosen. This even holds true for such phenomena as code switching and code meshing, where an understanding of the constituent elements that are being switched or meshed is part of the game.
In the present case, where someone has endeavored to put himself out into the world as a published author of instructional nonfiction in the particular language (or more accurately the dialect) that is standard American English, the objectively (in a cosmic sense) insignificant difference between “every day” and “everyday” is the difference between appearing credible and appearing clumsy to a mainstream-educated reading audience. I doubt one in a hundred readers who notice the error will recognize it as a copy editing error. Instead, they will blame the writer. For better or worse, this is how it works.
Standard written English is a marvelously subtle and flexible medium, capable of generating a virtually infinite array of artistic and intellectual effects in the hands of a skilled writer. If you want to write in this medium, whether for reasons that are purely artistic, or professional, or both, do yourself a favor and learn it so deeply—preferably through broad, intensive, exuberant reading of good things by other writers—that its rules and conventions are practically imprinted in your DNA and flowing through your bloodstream. You and your readers will benefit greatly—including on those delightful occasions when you realize it’s time to break a rule or flout a convention for deliberate creative effect.
On a related but separate note: Am I wrong in thinking it’s painfully obvious that I taught high school and college courses in English composition for a combined total of 15 years? Apparently my own veins still course with plenty of freshman-oriented professorial blood.
“This heady second volume of the journals of Cardin, the writer of and expert on weird/cosmic horror fiction, charts two decades of thinking, searching, reading and feeling of matters artistic, theological, and philosophical. . . . A weird fiction authority’s searching, incisive journals of this millennium.” — BookLife by Publishers Weekly
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