Monday, July 02, 2007

Rambling through my long weekend

Yesterday was Canada Day, and in celebration (of the fact that I don't have to go to work today; whoo-hoo!), Zombie Monday is cancelled. I actually feel coherent. (And I have as much tea as I care to drink, which makes me happy.)

This blog post will start out about something dear to both Canadians and writers: being picky-assed about spelling. Where it shall end up, I do not know.

Canadians don't spell the way Americans do. We feel irrationally smug and superior about this, too - irrationally because we aren't spelling the way the British do, so it's not like we're correct and Americans aren't. Sure, we keep the extra "u" in colour, but we don't put the extra "o" in "foetus" and we willfully and flagrantly write "jail" instead of "gaol".

There is more than one correct way to spell and not a lot of merit to choosing one set of spellings over another. If you want to be unbiased about it, the British invented the language, therefore their conventions are correct.

But where did their conventions come from? A lot of standard English spellings are phonetic renditions of the way the language was spoken seven hundred years ago in England. The "k", "g" and "h" in "knight" really were pronounced (something like "k-nig-hh-t".) Thus, the standard spellings of today don't reflect the way the British speak anymore, so why hold them sacred? Only because it's convenient to have standardized spelling.

(It's a little like the fact that the Sun signs of western Astrology, i.e. Pisces, Virgo, etc., are based on the constellations the Sun used to pass through. Thanks to the precession of the Earth's axis, the Sun now passes through thirteen constellations. Is your birthday between November 30th and December 17th inclusive? Surprise! Your Sun sign is actually Ophiuchus.)

Also, spelling was standardized after the invention of typesetting, and the typesetters were originally paid by the letter. It benefited them to pad out words. I don't see much merit in being snobbish about a 700-years-dead guy's method of lining his pocket.

So what's my point? Hmm; what is my point? I know I had one. I saw it here a second ago... Oh, yes.

Feeling superior to someone based on their language skills could blind you the merits of their work. I think it was the frighteningly intelligent Feemus who noted that sneering at someone for writing an approximation of street slang is basically you congratulating yourself for speaking your own dialect. There is no superiority there; you're just being smug.

I got caught out by this once. I had a very nice fellow leave a critique for me on Critique Circle.


Holy Jude Law, revered Saint of Sexy, this guy's English skills were atrocious. He didn't capitalise, he swapped or missed letters randomly, his punctuation was non-existent. I was inclined to ignore the critique based on that; how could someone who can't write English properly give a useful critique? Surely you need some level of competence yourself before you're capable of dissecting someone else's work thoughtfully?

I put that aside, because I believe in listening to critiquers. It's fine to decide someone is flakier than a box of bran, but you listen to what they're saying before you make that call. Arrogance is bad for a writing career; professionals should always be open to the idea that they could stand to improve.

I gave his comments serious thought and found they were good ones. I wrote the fellow an email thanking him and noting which points I had found most useful. He wrote back to thank me in return and asked if I'd be willing to critique his story.

The language skills displayed in his email were every bit as horrific as those in his critique. I cringed, but I agreed to have a look at his work.

The story was very good. The mechanics were also fine; he had a tendency to swap letters still, but everything else was perfect.

It turns out the fellow is dyslexic. He's bright and talented, but he's got a brain-wiring issue that makes words squirm for him. He's dedicated to his writing, and puts effort into making it mechanically correct, but he doesn't do the same for casual correspondences because that's too much effort.

I really feel a turd for having judged him based on an email. My brother is also slightly dyslexic, so I should know better. My [brother/childhood tormentor/favourite person to snitch books from] is also extremely intelligent and capable, but yeah; his emails are also an orca-sized case of ouch every single time. I should have known better.

Wow; this is a long post. Oh, well. It's a long weekend. :-)

So is it fair to judge someone on their language skills? It depends on which arena you're standing in, and which lions are licking their chops as they pad toward you. Writers tend to whinge when literary agents and editors rail about some little thing they hate. To the writers, it seems arbitrary (like the rules of spelling) and unfair.

There is an element of truth to that, but the fact is if you want to get published, you're supposed to be better than just about everyone on the planet at writing. You need to be able to function at that level. Yes, it's hard, but the only reason it feels unfair is because, to varying degrees, we interact with our fellow writers by being reasonable. We praise our critique partners for their strengths as well as bruising them for their weaknesses. We make allowances for different dialects and styles of writing. We exercise tact. We remember that everyone starts out sucky, but that it's a curable affliction.

The professionals in the publishing industry don't have to do that. As soon as you leave the small and human environment of your critique group, the world is suddenly full of knives and icy wind. The change is a shock, but it's not unfair. You're trying to be one of the best, remember? No whining when someone says you aren't there yet; say thank you for the heads-up and keep working at it.

And speaking of working (and tying back to the issue of smugness) did I mention I don't have to go to work today?

Neener, neener! *cackles evilly*

Pageloads since 01/01/2009: