Sunday, August 13, 2006

On flair versus technique

Occasionally, a person who has inferior writing skills to mine will tell me that they don't have anything to learn from me because I am rules-bound and they are creative. The notion is that creativity is somehow damaged by learning how to write well technically. This is transparently rubbish. Most great writers are technically excellent and have read and studied writing hard. The difference between them and the unschooled is visible in their writing. I consider that the main ramification of my better understanding of technical side is that not only do I write better than the "creative" ones but I can tell them why too.

Just now, a friend of mine told me that they don't want to take part in my online workshop because they have nothing to learn from me. They implied that, because I am an editor, I am just a rules-bound mole, delving away in language to throw up molehills of boring, crusty old bollocks, whereas they, free from the constraints of learning how to write, could take flight. Naturally, this would have made more impact on me had it been true that the person in question really could write brilliantly, but as so often is the case with the "creative" types who think they cannot learn, it is not true.

Just so I'm not misunderstood, I'm not suggesting that a person must understand what they are doing to be able to do it. I'm rather pointing out that a technical review is a help when you are not able to do what you are trying to. Most of the "rules" of English are internalised in competent writers (many are of course the same as those of spoken English, and one rarely thinks of speakers as incompetent).

This is what I wrote to them:

You would understand writing better -- and be a much better writer for it -- if you understood that there is no opposition between "creativity" and "rules", because the "rules" are not constraints on creativity but part of the means for building it! They aren't either analogous to laws, or even road rules. They are more like the road than the rules for driving on it. And if I am helping people learn to write, I don't discuss their writing solely in terms of "rules" (although I focus on that when I am blogging about writing because I do not generally blog reviews or critiques, and I am interested in technical aspects of writing for obvious reasons). When I've reviewed your writing, I didn't discuss it with you in terms of the rules, rather, I focused on much broader ideas of how you communicate what you want to say (or don't), how you use register (or don't). Learning how to write is not a question of learning grammar but of learning how to mould your communication effectively. It's a rather small part of learning to write to learn good grammar, but a big part to learn why bad grammar is fucking up your message. If you compare writing with making music, grammar is like music theory. You may not know the "rules" of music theory, but if you disobey them, your music will, I'm sorry to say, not work.


I am not hurt or dismayed when someone claims that I can't possibly have an imagination, be creative or be an artist because I have a good technical understanding of English and use it to make a living. I simply consider that person to be ignorant of what makes good writing good and no surprise: you rarely hear that from someone who actually can write well. Good writers may have natural talent but they are aware that they had to nurture it, increase it and mature it.

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