Prescriptivism: Enemy of the First Draft

I’m trying to start my next book, and I keep getting hung up on semicolons.

A writer whose work I admire once said — I’m paraphrasing here — that in almost every case, replacing semicolons with full stops will make for better writing. In this particular case, I know that the writer who said it was making an offhand comment, not trying to lay down her fundamental philosophy of writing. As a former English teacher, I also know that semicolons have a handful of legitimate uses and can actually improve a piece of writing when used effectively.  As a former scholar of the eighteenth century, I know that this prescription is of relatively recent vintage. In short, I know that this is not one of the Immutable Laws of Writing Handed Down from On High.

But all the same, that comment has stuck in my mind, and every time I sit down to write, I hear it. When I try to string sentences together, I remind myself that I am No Longer Allowed to use semicolons (or em-dashes, that other breathless punctuation mark of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). After a taxing hour of stops and starts, I reread my handful of sentences, and they sound hideous to my ears. The pacing is wrong. Too choppy. No ebbs and flows, no crescendos and decrescendos, no gentle gliding from one idea to the next. If there’s a trick to writing lyrical sentences without semicolons, I never learned it.

I surface from my word processor, heartsick and practically vibrating with self-loathing. A quiet part of me asks, Didn’t I used to be good at writing?

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I think many writers have had a similar experience. We want to write well, by which we mean that we want to write the kind of shining, supple prose that reshapes the world in its own image. But that particular talent is cultivated only through observation and practice, and there are only so many times and so many ways that a writer can say, “Observe! Practice!” Thus, in lieu of teaching people to write well, most practical writing advice instead aims more humbly at teaching them to write correctly.

While writing correctly is always at least partly a matter of taste, there are usually enough commonalities within an era or a genre that it’s possible to cobble together a set of rules. Semicolons are my current bugbear, but I’ve encountered writerly Thou Shalt Nots on dozens of other topics: epithets (“the blonde girl”), dialogue tags (“said”), contractions, adverbs, parentheses, sentence fragments, showing versus telling, point-of-view shifts. There are always celebrated rulebreakers — Terry Pratchett, for example, is a master at telling rather than showing — but I’ve come across vanishingly few guides that lay out rules in order to explain how they might productively be broken.

At the beginning of a new project, I’m particularly susceptible to the allure of a set of rules. When you’re desperate to write well, but you aren’t sure what “writing well” entails, it’s natural to seek out guidance from people whose prose routinely shatters you. And it’s also natural to want to implement that guidance as you draft.

For me, though, that approach is almost universally fatal. Nothing kills my projects quite so thoroughly as coming to them with judgment in my heart, scrutinizing every sentence for flaws before I’ve written it. When I’m that concerned with being correct, I forget to observe my characters with emotional honesty, and I’m left with a story that feels like it’s made of cardboard. Apart from anything else, that obsessive self-policing is really exhausting.

As Anne Lamott reminds us in Bird by Bird, it can be liberating to write a really terrible first draft. At their best, first drafts offer an opportunity for exploration and discovery, even for scrupulous outliners like me. They let me stumble across energizing subplots and powerful themes, explore the recesses of the characters’ psyches, and learn what’s really at stake at the story’s climax. Some of my finest turns of phrase have come to me during a first draft, the natural outgrowth of a scene in full flow.

The rest of my best lines, though, have emerged from revision. Once the story is complete, I have the leisure to toil over a sentence as long as I like, deciding whether a bell “rang” or “tolled” or “sounded.” I can decide how much information the readers really need about the particular shade of the sunset as the last evening light spills over the hills. I can slice out three hundred semicolons and two hundred em-dashes in a single, brutal day (or, if I’m feeling contrarian, leave them all where they are).

There’s value in having conversations about whether semicolons are dead, whether showing is always better than telling, or whether it’s ever acceptable to loosen up a tight third-person perspective–but the time to have those arguments is after the first draft.

During the first draft, it’s time to write.

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