Song of the Dustpan People: Are Grammatically Accurate Writers Less Creative?


dustpan The other day a friend asked me if I’d help line-edit his manuscript. He’s tight on time and I can barely make my own deadlines, but I agreed—mostly because I like him and his book, but also because proofreading comes naturally to me. I see typos and punctuation errors the way Haley Joel Osment sees dead people.

Copy-editing is a very particular skill like, say, nit-picking. When you need it, you need it. In each, you’re removing tiny pernicious things people may or may not notice themselves, but if seen by others would make them look bad. It’s the kind of skill friends and family find useful for reports and correspondence, though it’s not always fun to live with. (Is there anything more annoying to a teen than a mother who corrects text-message grammar?)

As a writer, it’s good to have a reputation for turning in clean text. This is especially true in journalism and narrative nonfiction. But on the fiction side of the writing life, it doesn’t feel like quite the same asset — sort of like having a knack for hospital corners compared to the ability to do backflips on the bed. Because let’s be honest; clean copy is really not at the top of traits valued in creative writing. It falls somewhere south of imagination and vocabulary, just above penmanship. There are phrases used to describe creative visionaries, people who “think outside the box” and “push the envelope.” People with attention to grammatical minutiae are more likely to be the ones to gently tape the envelope seams back together.

Sometimes when creative writers say they don’t notice their own typos, it has a whiff of, well, humblebraggery. They’re on a roll, blinded by their vision — the fingers cannot be stopped, the whole brain engaged in its art. That’s why God invented proofreaders, right? To straighten up the mess of the visionaries. The people who sweep up the mistakes are valued professionals, to be sure, but they are not the artists. They are the people with the golden dustpan and brush.

I’m being cheeky, but not entirely kidding. If these on-a-roll writers have a certain creative je ne sais quoi, do detail-oriented folks have a…little less? I don’t know much of anything about the way the brain processes rules of language, but it got me wondering. Is there a chance the creative side of the brain has to pause, even if just for a moment, to let the grammatical traffic cop do its job before continuing on with an idea? That a bit of creative forward momentum is lost when the brain backspaces to correct spelling, or does a track-switch to fix past tense to present? I’d like to think not, but I really don’t know.

The few times I’ve purposely put myself in a situation to write with maximum spontaneity, I’ve noticed an interesting side effect: the typos and punctuation go to hell. But that’s because I created conditions where I literally cannot see them. When I’m writing a particularly troubling and intense scene — the sort of section that somehow calls for me to constantly to check email or put in a load of laundry or refresh my coffee — my avoidance tendencies call for serious measures. I sit at my desk with the lights dimmed and tie a scarf around my head, just able to peek enough to get my fingers on the right computer keys. Then I set a timer, and can’t get up until it goes off or the scene is finished, whichever comes first.

The writing is free-association and messy, but readable (I learned on the old Driver’s Ed model of high school typing, to each key there’s a finger). When I edit the scene I find I’ve rarely capitalized and sometimes skipped punctuation altogether, because I hadn’t wanted to risk getting my hands misplaced on the keys. I also find I’m much more mentally spent after a half hour writing this way — maybe because there were none of those traffic-cop breaks for punctuation, spelling, and so on. The idea is full throttle, no second thoughts, no fixing as you go.

I can’t say there’s much text that remains intact from those scenes. Reading the spontaneous sloppy prose is like chasing a rabbit narrator through the underbrush. But the direction of the idea, the flow, the energy of it, is usually a keeper.

There’s a lovely irony here, of course, that a detail-disciplined person might have to take draconian disciplinary measures like a blindfold in order to let go. But that’s one of the delicious differences I’ve found between journalism and novel-writing. There are any number of messy, sometimes contradictory ways people go about getting their words out of their heads and onto paper. The world of fiction can be full of contradictions. And so can the process of creating it.

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One Response to Song of the Dustpan People: Are Grammatically Accurate Writers Less Creative?

  1. John (https://twitter says:

    Interesting, topic, Nichole — and one that I’ve considered quite often. I’ve found that after years of exchanging words for money, I physically cannot keep going when I sense a typo or other screw-up of some sort. Just can’t. It’s a tree fully blossomed now, planted as an acorn in J-school and nurtured by an industry that values speed and accuracy in equal measure.

    It’s leaked into the mobile world for me, as well … How I wish I could fire off a hastily considered text, a Tweet in all lowercase, or even missing a few vowels for brevity. That would be awsm. Alas.

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