Are Good Intentions Enough?

If you aspire to be a writer, you will need to learn correct spelling, punctuation, grammar, and word usage. There, I said it.

A surprising number of people consider this proposition outrageous. “You can hire an editor!” they shout. (On Facebook, everybody can see you shout.) “Agatha Christie and F. Scott Fitzgerald were lousy at spelling! What matters is the nuance in your writing, the emotions, not those picky details!”

If you have as much talent as Christie or Fitzgerald, then you can probably get away with writing however you please. But most of us don’t have that kind of talent. In today’s overheated book market, thinking you can get away with sloppy writing is just a form of self-sabotage. You’re setting yourself up as a victim. After which you get to whine endlessly that your talent is unappreciated. That’s the payoff.

“Oh, but dyslexia! How can you be so cruel as to insult writers with dyslexia?”

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t understand dyslexia. It may be a real condition, the result of some sort of brain organization that is simply different. Or, in some cases, it may be a result of bad teaching and toxic self-esteem. I once knew a man who was dyslexic, and he definitely suffered from toxic self-esteem. He had been held back in 6th grade because he was dyslexic. But whether the dyslexia caused the low self-esteem, or whether he seized on the dyslexia as a convenient explanation for what he was feeling when the feelings were actually due to the dysfunctional family in which he grew up, I would be unable to say.

Let’s turn the question in a different direction. Instead of writing, let’s talk about music. If you had a dear friend or relative who was tone-deaf and unable to tune his violin, would you seriously suggest that he should be allowed to play in an orchestra? Would you be angry at the orchestra conductor for not respecting your friend’s creative passion? I sincerely hope you would suggest that rather than dwell on having been rejected by the conductor, he invest in some music lessons.

Still, an orchestra is a special situation, not really comparable to writing. How about a solo violin recital, that’s a better analogy. If your friend proposed to book a small recital hall in order to perform his own original compositions, and proposed to sell tickets, but was unable to tune his violin, would you seriously suggest that he go right ahead and sell tickets? Would you tell him, “Tuning doesn’t matter — what matters is your creative spirit! Your accompanist can tune your violin for you.”

If you would tell him that, you’re an idiot. If he can’t tune his violin, he doesn’t understand intonation. If he doesn’t understand intonation, not more than one note in ten that he plays will be in tune. And you would encourage this? You would expect people to pay to listen to it?

It’s the same in other art forms. What would you say to someone who proposed to sell her pottery but produced mostly bowls and dishes that cracked in the kiln, or sagged sideways lopsidedly? What would you say to someone who proposed to hire out as a landscape designer but had never learned about pruning, weeding, or watering? “Oh, that doesn’t matter. You can hire people to take care of those pesky details. What matters is the beauty of your vision for the yard!”

I hope you wouldn’t say that. Probably you would know better. But somehow, when it comes to writing, people see it differently. Somehow, when it comes to writing, developing a basic set of skills is supposed, by millions of well-meaning people, to be irrelevant. Suggesting that an aspiring writer needs to learn the craft is perceived as arrogant, as elitist, as an insult.

“We should nourish creativity,” cry the skeptics, “not force it into a straitjacket by insisting on all these petty rules!”

There are two difficulties with this line of thinking. First, it’s asking too much of your audience, be they listeners or readers. You’re demanding that the audience overlook your friend’s lack of skill (or your own, if you’re the violinist). Second, learning the craft actually helps you become more creative. People who worry that learning the craft will stifle their creativity understand nothing about creativity, and nothing about the value of learning the craft.

If you’re writing purely for your own private enjoyment, then I hope you’ll feel absolutely free to spell and punctuate however you like. You need follow no rules! But when you want to present your writing to anyone outside your immediate family, you’re playing in a different ballpark. The fact that your mother thinks your writing is wonderful is absolutely, shockingly irrelevant.

If you’re dyslexic, I hope you’ll consider that perhaps some other art form might suit you better than writing. Perhaps you’ll find wonderful success as a sculptor, in video production, or in modern dance. If you propose to become a writer in spite of your disability, I hope you’ll come to grips with the fact that you’re going to have to go through a laborious learning process. The learning may be painful. But if you’re dyslexic, and propose to share your writing with others, and think learning the craft doesn’t matter, the hell with you.

“Oh, but I can hire an editor!” No, that’s not a viable solution. Not all editors are good. Absolutely anybody can put up a website and claim to be an editor. And if you don’t understand the craft, how will you be able to judge whether the editor has done a good job?

Learn the craft. Stop whining.

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