Style manuals are all well and good, and in fact, highly desirable for newspapers.
The average reading level of newspaper readers is the sixth grade. Over
the years it became imperative that newspaper writing be simple, consistent,
and use basic punctuation, even when that violated some elementary rules.
The end result has been that borderline idiots may now understand today's
it all, if a fiction writer is not allowed to coin a word, who
I feel that these manuals should not be taken as carved in stone for
fiction writers. Imagine, if you will, someone dictating to Picasso,
Dali, the French impressionists, which colors of paint they may use,
which strokes, which perspective, etc. Unthinkable, yet there are many
people who insist that fiction writers must abide by the (sometimes)
arbitrary grammar and style rules in the popular style manuals.
There are certain rudimentary dictates we must all use, otherwise our
writing would be chaotic. However, fiction writers should, more than
any other writers, be allowed enough freedom of expression to create
a style that is special to them. In other words, a style that is peculiar
(in the correct meaning of that word.) In the editing process of my
book, TALES FROM THE WRECKTORY, I had an incident with the editor (He
won, I lost.) over the use of the word, "tenebraephobic."
(Tenebrae is the service used during Christian Holy Week, and the Latin
word, "tenebrae" means shadows, hence darkness.) I wanted
to use it to convey a particular kind of fear of the dark. Now, there
is more than one word for this condition: nyctophobia and lygophobia,
to name two. The individual I was writing about was afraid to be alone
in an old, multistory, rambling house in the dead of night. I ask you,
which word conveys the impression I wanted to create: one of the two
clinical names I mention, or the one which speaks of fear of shadows?
The editor objected to my "tenebraephobic" because he said
there was no such word, that I had made it up, and, of course, he was
right. There wasn't and I had. Damn it all, if a fiction writer is not
allowed to coin a word, who is? Political speech writers? Computer nerds?
Or, as we see happen every day, the intelligentsia who, through ignorance
or sloppiness, take a perfectly good word or phrase, misuse it, and
give it a whole new meaning. Others follow the bad example and it suddenly
jumps up the ranks in today's parlance. "Impact" is a perfect
example of that.
The same editor then pointed out that most people would not know the
meaning of the word, "tenebrae." My answer to that was: "Then,
let them look it up. If they want simple words that won't strain their
poor brains, they should stick to newspapers (or television) for their
entertainment. Fiction should do more than entertain; it should also
broaden the mind."
Another editor (I quickly changed this one) tried to correct my grammar
and spelling in dialogues. Now, to me, dialogue is sacrosanct. Apart
from obvious typos, no one fools around with it. Words in dialogue are,
after all, not my words, not the editor's words. They belong to the
character speaking. You wouldn't say, "Just between you and I"
but one of your characters certainly would. You'd die rather than say,
"Me and my friend did..." Would one of your characters? You
Years ago, I was responsible for training several would-be writers for
an international corporation. It was hoped that what they wrote would
convince those who read it to buy our products and services. These young
writers soon became sick of hearing me say, "We don't write the
way we speak, any more than we speak the way we write. Writing is a
visual medium; speaking is an audible medium." I convinced them
(I think) to throw away the style manuals (or at least leave them on
the shelf most of the time), and concentrate on what was important:
getting a message across, a message that was brief, succinct, and easy
When it comes to the final showdown, who wins,
editors or you, the writer? That's an easy one.
Editors. Certainly you have the right to take your
work elsewhere. My rule on this is quite simple. If I
have any doubt whatsoever of the suitability of what I
wrote, I don't mind giving in, especially to an editor
who is usually cooperative. Such an editor deserves my
cooperation. On the other hand, if I believe I could
not go on living with myself by abandoning my precious
words, I'll insist it stay as written and accept the
consequences. Quod scripsi, scripsi.
The test of fiction writing is not whether it
conforms to any style manual, but whether or not it
works for you, the writer. Unless your words move you
to laugh or cry (preferably both), it isn't likely to
affect anyone else. How do you make your words work?
The formula is simple, although not easy. You must
make your words flow as though they were about to run
off the page. The nonfiction writer must be careful
that all facts are correct, make sure the writing
conforms to the publication for which it is written,
and for the intended audience. You, as a fiction
writer must do the very same, but only as a starting
point. You must go on become a poet, a word-painter, a
strummer on people's emotions. The person who
originally said one picture is worth a thousand words
had it all backwards. A thousand words can conjure up
as many pictures, as many emotions as there are people
who read them.
As a writer of fiction, you need only keep one eye on your style, and
only an occasional eye on the rules set down, but you must at all times
keep both eyes wide open and directed towards that which you hope to
pursue, and by that I mean pursue that noblest of trades: the writer
who leads others to far-off lands in this world and in other worlds;
the trade of Dickens or Tolstoy; of Bradbury or Poe, of Cartland or
Hemingway; and above all, the trade of ________(please insert your name
© Joseph E. Wright May 22nd 2003
Joseph E. Wright is the author of Tales from the
The Bodies Out Back and The Remigrants (both published by
His writing has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
all rights reserved