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Refine Your Prose 5: Don’t Let English Get in the Way
This tip may be the most crucial for breathing life in your narrative and making it your own. But using it without the utmost care can destroy the readability of your prose.
When James Ellroy sent his novel L.A Confidential to his editors, they told him he needed to cut the length. Not wishing to remove any of the scenes or plot of his story, Ellroy went through and removed every verb, adverb and adjective he deemed unnecessary.
I feel you recoil. Sentences need these words! Verbs in particular are one of the two pieces of every complete sentence. How can you publish a novel that ignores major structural underpinnings of the English language?
Ellroy did. And his prose full of sentence fragments and verbless narrative –which he uses to accentuate the speed and rhythm of his story – created a unique writing style, called Ellrovian prose, that redefined the genre. He would later refine the style with White Jazz and his proceeding works.
Prose is rife with examples of broken English rules. Forgoing rules when necessary can lift your prose to an unforgettable level. But forgoing those rules too liberally, too grossly or without care can ensure no one will read your work.
I wrote a story in college without punctuation or capitalization. It was new! It was fresh! No one wrote this way! (Except every other college creative writing student in existence.) And it was unreadable. I broke the rules of punctuation and capitalization just to break them, not for any reason that added to my voice or the work.
Even writers that break rules with purpose can be difficult to read. It took me several chapters to grok Ellroy’s style in White Jazz. Cormac McCarthy routinely dispenses with apostrophes, commas and quotation marks. Though McCarthy’s prose is beautiful, I can’t get through many of his books because the lack of punctuation plain bugs me.
This post does not advocate breaking the rules of basic English just to break them. A writer needs to know how to correctly use a semicolon, when to use less versus fewer, where in a sentence a comma belongs, and what the difference is between its and it’s. This comes well before a writer should even have an inkling to consider suspecting that she might want to examine investigating the development of a style that might occasionally contemplate breaking rules. You need to know the rules before you break them. And even after you have a great handle on English, you can develop a memorable style without breaking a goddamn thing. Hemingway, Twain, Faulkner and Vonnegut have styles all their own and don’t go out of their way to mess with English rules.
English rules are rules for a reason. They allow people to understand the writing of others. Our job as writers is not just to communicate with our readers, but to connect with them. When done with skill and forethought, breaking an occasional rule can connect more fully and make prose more beautiful without sacrificing communication. But when those things distract your readers, your work will be relegated to the reject pile.