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In Celebration of Technique

By Michelle Arch

A curious thing seems to be happening in MFA workshops and critique groups. Criticism regarding spelling, grammar, and punctuation is considered hypercritical and offered only with considerable apologies for nitpicking. “Your editor will catch and correct those problems” seems to be the widespread assumption, which disregards entirely the fact that, as unpublished, amateur writers, we don’t yet have editors. Moreover, we have less chance of ever having one if our query letters and submissions reflect a bungling of or indifference to the fundamental rules of writing.

Personally, I think relying on others to tidy up our work is a slippery slope. More often than not, a seemingly minor punctuation edit such as the addition or elimination of a comma or an ellipsis will change the carefully wrought tone of a passage entirely. Further, many of these “petty” edits are stylistic. Will my editor know, for instance, that I intended to capitalize “It” when referring to a personified Fate? The portrait of the resplendent but doomed Dorian Gray might have been inelegantly smeared rather than excruciatingly seared “with the lines of suffering” had Oscar himself not corrected his typist’s error.

Writing well is more than the generation of an engaging plot and well-developed characters and the correction of inadvertent POV shifts; it is the ability to inspire, evoke, engage, and transform through words and syntax and rhythm. But none of that can be achieved if the passage is a distracting, irreverent jumble of comma splices, dangling participles, improperly used apostrophes, and misplaced semicolons. Such blatant disregard for the fundamental mechanics of writing would destroy any stylistic or substantive merits of the piece and undermine the credibility of the author.

As both a Christian and a writer, I feel a heightened responsibility to write well and to confront and overcome any prevailing issue of ordinariness at all costs. The standards for writing that is divine or inspirational should never be compromised for the sake of the enterprise or message. “Christians,” according to screenwriter and script consultant Barbara Nicolosi in The Making of a Christian Bestseller by Ann Byle, “tend to allow mediocrity because of our penchant for looking at the heart, not the art.” She goes on to criticize some of the “slop” in Christian literary art that is justified by the market because of the artist’s good intentions. “We’re ending up giving a false witness to what our faith is. It’s devastating.”

I agree wholeheartedly with this assertion, having encountered faith-based writing that is both technically inadequate and thematically trite, and I deem the deficiencies even more objectionable than I would if I came across them in the secular realm, considering what is at stake. My intention as a Christian writer is not only to support an unfettered approach to genuine and controversial subject matter but also to advocate the highest standards of technical imperatives and artistic excellence in Christian fiction and nonfiction.

So let’s master the semicolon and colon and solve the lay/lie/laid/lain mystery once and for all. Consult grammar manuals in relentless pursuit of accuracy, and find a critique partner or group that isn’t reluctant to point out grammatical errors or other weaknesses. Let’s eliminate our beloved adverbs where possible, and murder our darlings. And, for heaven’s sake, please tell me if I mean “sow” rather than “sew.” Let’s utilize our talents in a way that exalts unabashedly the One who bestowed them. If that means revising and editing ad nauseam, so be it. After all, as William Zinsser reminds us in On Writing Well, “a good editor likes nothing better than a piece of copy he hardly has to touch.”

Michelle Arch)Michelle René Arch earned a Master of Arts in English and an MFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and is the recipient of the 2015 Tom Massey Award for Outstanding Dual Degree Student. She also holds a Master of Business Administration and a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre and English from California State University, Fullerton. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, and the Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society. An excerpt from her debut novel in progress, Time of Death, won First Prize in the Fiction Writing Contest sponsored by The Editorial Department, Second Prize in the WestBow Press Writing Contest, and Third Prize in the Beverly Bush Smith Aspiring Writer Award competition at the 2012 Orange County Christian Writers Conference.

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4 Responses to In Celebration of Technique

  1. Deborah Marino says:

    So true. Our words are our witness, so everything we write should be polished and presented with the utmost integrity. Thank you for such a timely exhortation, Michelle!

  2. Kathy Ide says:

    Wow, Michelle, this is a fantastic message, and you presented it so beautifully! This is exactly why I wrote “Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors”–to help writers (and editors) learn the industry-standard guidelines for punctuation, usage, grammar, and spelling, as well as tips from successful multi-published authors on proofreading for typos, inconsistencies, and inaccuracies. It’s also why I love being a freelance editor. I really enjoy helping writers find ways to polish their manuscripts to enhance the message (and, hopefully, raise the quality of Christian writing so that Christian authors are viewed with respect and admiration by the general market instead of with derision). Thanks so much for taking a bold stand for “nitpicky-ness,” Michelle!

  3. This is beautifully stated. I love the perfect balance you made in showing things that should not be altered in the name of “stylistic choice” without removing the reality that sometimes there is one. I’ve seen nearly everything excused in the name of “creative license” and if everything is, then none of the rare (or should be) deviations for impact will actually make any.

    Beautifully, tactfully, and inspiringly stated (and look at that string of adverbs!).

  4. If a writer changes(corrects)the text in an e-book after it has been published, does that writer need to get a new ISBN for that changed book? Maybe Kathy knows.

    At the end of each chapter of Polishing the “PUGS,” Kathy gives you space to write down your particular grammar, etc., problems that pertain to that chapter. I think this suggestion of listing particular problems is brilliant. It is so helpful when you are self-editing later manuscripts.