Mistakes Were Made

Posted by PJBraley on October 31, 2016


            When I began writing, everything I read about writing said, ‘if you want to be a good writer, then write’ (for Heaven’s sake!). In my library, I have a collection of English books on grammar (The Little, Brown Handbook), and composition (Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum), etc., left over from my many English classes – as well as the occasional lucky saunter past ‘free to good home’ tables where English professors had recently cleaned out their bookshelves – I use them for reference. Indeed, I have owned a copy of The Elements of Style for nearly a decade, delving into it only when I had a question. After all, I wanted to write, not read about writing.

            I can only compare such arrogance to driving a car without knowing the brake pedal from the accelerator; you may eventually arrive at your destination, but it’s going to take a lot longer.

            I have always had a writing voice. For better or worse, it is mine and I believed, until recently, it served me well. I write as I hear the words in my head and let the chips fall where they may. Luckily I am usually understood, but I have recently acknowledged that relying on that method alone may confuse my readers.

            This was brought full force to bear a couple of semesters ago when I thought I was being especially eloquent, and the professor wrote on my paper, “I cannot even begin to unpack this sentence.”

            How could he not understand what I thought I had written so beautifully?

            Chips were falling alright, but not quite as I had planned. Looking to my shelf of writing books for help, I had no idea where to begin. Nor was I sure I wanted to.

            I was intimidated because I thought these books would tell me how to write. That they would somehow change the way I wrote and my voice – becoming boxed in by a myriad of writing theories and endless ‘rules’ – would disappear. Only now do I realize that Gopen, and Strunk and White, and perhaps even Stephen King, could improve the structure and clarity of my writing. George Gopen’s simple (though oft repeated) admonition to write from the perspective of the reader made all the difference. More than just books of grammar guidelines (rather than real rules), they opened my mind to the knowledge that as my writing becomes stronger, the message becomes clearer. This clarity is not only better for me; it is also better for the reader.

            Accepting that such strength could be found outside myself was a hard leap to make. Although my writing may have been, at times, clumsy, and errors in syntax and construction abounded; believing I had nothing more to learn was the biggest mistake I made.