I was once accused of talking like a textbook. At the time I couldn’t see it, but it was true, and it was not appropriate.
I was in the lull between Masters and PhD at the time, and over a dozen years through off-and-on tertiary studies, so perhaps there was no mystery to it. One trains oneself to express in a particular way for a particular audience, and when that audience is your professional peers and elders you tend to go out of your way to live up to their expectations. When the field is science or social science, the “principle of pedantry” applies and precision is everything.
When I’m teaching beginners the rudiments of tertiary study I tell them in the first class that “the English language is a precision instrument, as exact as a scalpel, and you must learn how to use it properly, so you can say what you mean and mean what you say.” It’s remarkable how many don’t know what I mean at that point, and who think they can waltz through a university education without ever learning how to string words together. The bar has been lowered in terms of required skills in order to stuff commercial universities with candidates paid for by government schemes – this is probably true in many places around the world – and a large cadre amongst those who secure places will not leave First Year due to disillusionment over their own skill levels.
As you might imagine, it’s a thankless task for the teacher who is trying to point this out to those considering senior level study but whose literary bad habits are ingrained over a lifetime. These students are poles apart from the condition I found myself in, so locked into academic expression that every word I said was measured, considered and formulated. I must have seriously annoyed those around me at the time, just as those who are trying to run before they can walk are the bane of those who must either find some way to teach them what they need to know, or break it to them that higher education is not their wisest choice.
Bringing it down a level, this really comes under the heading of speaking to your audience in the terms they can accept. A world of difference lies between academic and creative writing. Spare a thought for the creative writing student at tertiary level, who must alternate between styles – dry, pedantic analysis when writing essays about the craft of writing, interspersed with lush prose, experimental narratives and giving rein to enthusiasm and inspiration when creative expression is the object. This applies to creative writing in general at a finer grain.
For whom are we writing? What is our target marketplace? What is the style a piece demands or invites? If we are writing in first person, who is the character who provides the POV? Is the narrative obliged to be couched in a regional, dialectic form? If so, one must be intimately familiar with it to carry it off or native speakers will spot the errors. Is the character well educated or poorly? From a high or low socioeconomic background? These factors, along with age, gender and others will govern the speech patterns and thus how the narrative should be expressed. Likewise, if structuring a narrative line in third person, are we following a singular POV or the “omnipotent narrator” model? The latter seems to have fallen from favour these days, and perhaps with good reason – the term “head hopping” applies. Whatever our artistic choices, we end up with a package of information we are presenting to a reader in the hopes of providing entertainment on one or more levels. The reader’s receptivity is another matter…
It has been said, when submitting a story, you are not selling that one but the next. Even if we don’t score a placement with a particular piece, being welcome to submit again is a win in itself, we are doing something right if an editor is looking forward to our next submission. The first-readers know their editor’s brief, and the editor knows the marketplace he or she is publishing to. We are endeavouring to please that final marketplace and the submission meatgrinder is how it happens. It’s unfortunate our work is the meat, but that’s the price the writer pays for offering up his or her brainchild for public scrutiny. Perhaps the best way to soften the process is to write consciously – conscientiously – for that final market.
That said, guidelines vary enormously between marketplaces. Some have a brief so narrow you would be hard-pressed to send a rejection anywhere else, while others are open to every subject and style. This is the gordian knot the writer must endlessly attempt to unpick – far worse than the riddle of the sphinx – for what one marketplace craves, another cannot abide, and vice versa. Variety is the spice of life, as they say, but many a writer has had to rewrite a story created for a particular marketplace when a sale was not forthcoming but the alternate marketplaces required some sort of change – take out a supernatural element, or shift a scenario from, say, fantasy to historical.
At this level, the fine-tuning to the audience’s requirements is technical and complicated, and tests a writer’s skill and patience. Sometimes a rewrite is glaringly obvious, and the good writer knows it – puts a story aside until mentally ready to unravel at least some of the tapestry and start again. Sometimes a rewrite is not necessary at all because, as some markets point out in their form response, all feedback is subjective – and thus open to dispute. First readers must generally make the right call for their magazine, that doesn’t mean the next one won’t snap your hand off for the same story exactly as it stands.
Perhaps, in the end, you can’t second guess the marketplace; this has probably been true of all artists in all media from the very beginning. You can only commit to doing the best job you know how, and then let the audience decide. It’s a helpless feeling for any writer, and established professionals know the sting of rejection as surely as the newest beginner. The trick is not to let it beat you, but come back with a new submission, every single time.
Cheers, Mike Adamson