One of the great gifts that comes from being a freelancer is the ability to work with multiple editors. Many writers don’t experience that advantage. Or at least they don’t get to experience it often enough. Newspaper reporters, for example, often toil under the tutelage of the same editor for years, decades even.

That’s unfortunate.

Having a bevy of editors to your credit gives you an insight that writers with more stable employment just don’t get. You learn that the right way to construct your piece is the way the editor wants it. With apologies to my high school English teachers, I learned early on this simple but often hidden truth; there is no correct way to write in English.

Now I know that’s an incendiary statement. There are no doubt plenty of successful writers, and editors, who will disagree entirely. My evidence is significant, however. It starts, but it does not end, with Strunk and White’s, The Elements of Style.

My copy of that fine little book has a floppy blue cover, worn nearly to tatters as the result of a seemingly endless series of pages being flipped, references being sought, and answers being found. Messrs Strunk and White have saved my bacon on more than one occasion, and I thank them. Like many aspiring writers, I first encountered their work as a college student. They might be posthumously gratified to know that I have kept a close relationship with their slim book lo these many years.

Then somewhere along the way, I found the AP Stylebook. And then the New York Times Stylebook. The Broadcast News and Writing Stylebook sort of snuck up on me. The Chicago Manual of Style popped up at some point, too. It was somewhere around this point in my career when it finally occurred to me, these books on style, these arbiters of good and proper usage, didn’t always agree. In fact there are considerable differences of opinion between them on multiple issues. A fact that can only lead a poor freelance writer to a single conclusion – there is no correct way to write in English. There is only the way your editor wishes you to write, or the way you wish you to write.

If the check is drafted and clears when you deposit it into your account, you’re a winner. Congratulations. Your submission was written correctly – or at least it was written to the standards of that editor, on that day, for that publication.

That’s good enough for me. What the heck, it keeps the mortgage paid up. That ought to be good enough, don’t you think.

After more than twenty years of being paid to put words on paper (or in more recent years, on the monitor of a computer near you) I have learned this one, very powerful, very true lesson. If the editor likes it, and if the reader can understand it, you’re doing it right. There are teachers, for instance who will sternly instruct that you cannot, that you must not begin a sentence with the words, “and,’ or “but.” They are wrong. And I’ll tell you why. But first, let me point out that nothing will burst into flames if you violate that rule. In fact, nothing at all will explode and cause large numbers of fluffy kittens or cuddly ducklings to suffer catastrophic injury. These are just words. No blood will be shed, no hearts will be broken. If your reader can understand you, and that is often the result of developing a consistent style more than it is the result of slavishly adapting to the opinions of others, then you’re on solid ground. Solid enough, anyway.

So go ahead, write.Write what you want to write, and express yourself the way you feel is appropriate to the occasion. And when someone comes along to let you know that you’ve done it wrong, keep this simple question in mind. It will save you more often than not.

When the literary bully says, “Hey, the way you wrote this story – that’s not right.”

You say, “According to whom? Strunk? White? The Associated Press? The New York Times? The Chicago…” Well, you get the idea.

Now go write something, and don’t worry so much about where the commas go, or how to use a semi-colon correctly. Just write. We can work on fixing it up to be pretty, later.

3 Thoughts on “That’s not right

  1. Excellent post!

    I find that often the “proper” style often becomes so much blah blah blah.

    I’m attracted to those whose “style” has often been harshly criticized for their lack of conformity. Think Hunter S. Thompson.

    How words LOOK on the page apart from content is part of the total mental image they make.

  2. Jamie —

    You really need a “like” button on this blog somewhere. Good thoughts!

    JVD

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