Dispensing with formalities


Having put the completed third draft of my book to one side for several months (like you’re supposed to), I re-read it a couple of weeks ago with fresh eyes, and decided a fourth draft was in order.

I’ve had a change of heart, you see. Early on, working on my first draft, I realised that I needed to make a decision about the general style of my book. Specifically, should I use formal language, or less formal? For example, as the book is written in the first person, should I use the formal I am, or the more chatty I’m? I plumped for the former. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

But, re-reading my third draft, I decided my book comes across as a bit too formal in places. The formal language sounds like an affectation at times. Which it is, I suppose. I’m not writing a dissertation, for Pete’s sake! I’m supposed to be writing about a place I love, and about subjects which fascinate me: science, history and nature. It’s hard to sound enthusiastic when you’re being formal. I want my book to sound a bit more like me.

I blame my fancy education. They took the English language very seriously at our school. From Day One, they had us parsing sentences, separating subjects from objects, adverbs from adjectives. They taught us how to punctuate: the correct use of apostrophes, parenthetic commas, Oxford commas, and semicolons. And heaven help you, should you start a sentence with the word And, or, as I once did, refer to a refrigerator as a fridge!

The worst crime, though (with the possible exception of ending a sentence with a preposition) was to write a sentence that wasn’t actually a sentence. Like this. And this. Try that in your homework, and expect to see the abbreviation N.A.S. (complete with full-stops, obviously) written in large, red letters alongside it in the margin: Not A Sentence.

I’m very grateful to have been taught English so rigorously at school. These things are important. But, at times, my education gets in the way. I know the rules, and I’m loath to break them.

But then it occurred to me, re-reading my third draft, that I don’t worry about using informal language when I write to friends. I’ve written over 600 letters to my good friend Stense over the last twenty-three years. I don’t agonise over grammar when I’m writing to her. Well, I do, but nowhere near as much. I just sit down and write. It’s easy. I’ve had lots of practice. And I always end up sounding like me.

So I’ve started my fourth draft, making it a little less formal. I’ve taken to writing I’ve instead of I have when it seems appropriate—which is most of the time. I’m trying to cut back on my beloved em dashes and semicolons—wonderful punctuation marks, but often, in my case at least, just a lazy way of breaking up over-long sentences. I’m trying to make my sentences shorter. Even if, sometimes, they’re no longer proper sentences. I haven’t thrown the rule book out the window, but I’m treating the rules more like guidelines these days.

And, the good thing is, I think my book is reading better for it. So far at least.

Now, if only I could stop agonising over the relative merits of it’s not versus it isn’t!

Richard Carter

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. He is currently working on a book about looking at the world through Darwin’s eyes.Website · Newsletter · Mastodon · Facebook

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