Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A Cautionary Word on Style Guides

Commenting on the commentary, specifically Style Guides such as Mr. King’s: On Writing, reviewed below.

Books like this are very handy, especially if you write using traditional story structure, which King does. He, admittedly, writes from situations. Another good one in this same vein is Self Editing for Fiction Writers.

However, many writers, including myself, are not situational writers, and writing should not, and in many cases, cannot always be confined to traditional structure. In that case, writers and critics can take these types of books too literally. I have seen stories suffer due to hack and slash editing based upon misconceptions and misunderstood principles, many of which were gleaned from books such as this. Maybe the confusion lies simply in the definition of the word guide. Guide and Rule are two completely different animals, and in the case of writing tutorials, they are often used interchangeably, so the confusion is understandable.

Grammar and Vocabulary have rules. The art of writing is a wondrously different beast, well beyond the basic physics of sentence construction. The only rule is concise thought, and grammar takes care of that. Everything else is open to manipulation.

So I recommend a good balance between this type of standard style guide and more intensive literary study, where basic mechanics are put aside for more poetic and experimental construction, where the focus is on the underlying theoretic principles of literature and not just the physics of a story.

And not all literature has to be a traditional story. I think Kafka would agree with me on that one. Standardization destroys original thinking and thus destroys art. So how seriously you take style guides really depends on what you are writing.

Mr. King’s book was written with a good deal of objectivity, but even some of his “rules” are open to debate, simply because they are grounded in traditional standardized practices, nothing more.

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