Style and substance

I once worked with a woman whose responsibilities included, among other things, welcoming new employees into our department. She did this in part by outfitting their desks with all of the supplies and devices she thought they would need. Our department reviewed legal contracts for a major national company. We weren’t lawyers (thank goodness), but we were trained in what the company liked and didn’t like in its contracts, and we were empowered to negotiate terms to a small extent.

One thing you never want to do with a contract (and most other legal documents) is slam a staple through it. Yet this woman would be sure to outfit each desk with a stapler and a new box of staples. She’d also be sure everyone had a ruler, though we had even less use for those. And a letter opener, though all of our correspondence was opened in the mail room. (And paper correspondence was growing less frequent with email.) I think if she could have laid her hands on some old spindles, she would have provided those as well.

My point is that she was outfitting the desks for the style of office work without really thinking about the substance of what we actually did. She had an old-fashioned idea of what office work entailed, and she was “imposing” that. Never mind that the office place had moved on. There were certain eternal truths, at least to her.

Which is all throat clearing for the real musing of this post. Maybe I’m the only one in the world who thinks this way, but I give a sad chuckle sometimes when I read about all of the accoutrements ambitious writers provide themselves. Now I’ll be the first to acknowledge that everyone works differently and is entitled to do so by divine right. But it sometimes seems to me that, for some, there is more preparation for writing than there is actual writing.

I know there are dozens of software programs developed for writers so that they can organize their drafts, or tease their sentences, or count their words, or check their grammar (ugh!), or record their submissions, or all kinds of other mechanics that are on the periphery of actual creative writing. Sure, I’ll also acknowledge that for some this can help with their creativity, but it doesn’t seem like the fingers-to-keyboard thing that is at the core of writing. Yet I see ambitious writers assure themselves that they are getting things in the proper order for writing. Maybe so. I don’t know, but I suspect a lot of preparation can feel the same as actual writing, at least for some. It has the style of creative writing without the much harder and less certain substance of it.

On one writing message board I saw a long discussion about whether or not a certain popular pulp magazine wanted spaces within its ellipses. Fine, but really, who cares about that at the creative moment? (And should you?) Wouldn’t the editors at the magazine fix that if you didn’t do it in their style? Would the magazine reject an otherwise fine submission because the ellipsis format wasn’t “right”? (This one might, actually. It’s hugely popular for its genre and can afford to be — dare I say arrogant? — that way.)

It seems to me that writers should anguish over the creative process itself. Maybe when to use an ellipsis rather than how to space it. Not which word processing program is best (though we all know which one that is) but which word is best. Not the logging of the word count but the production of it. Not which day of the week is best for submitting to Agent X, but whether the work is ready to be submitted at all. Not if your grammar is textbook perfect but if it you actually communicate the nuances of your meaning to the reader.

Sure, I could be guilty of missing the forest for the trees. It may be that these writers who anguish over punctuation are doing so long after the frenzy of writing is over. They may have done the creative work and are now merely cleaning up the mess. But I don’t get that sense some of the time.

Tell me about your hours staring at the blank screen. Tell me about how you spent half the day putting in a comma and then the other half taking it out. Tell me how your character has changed in your time spent with her. Tell me about how you structure your paragraphs or how you judge the flow of your sentences. All of the peripheral stuff is not writing.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Process, Rants and ruminations

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