You may remember a while ago that I posted a piece, Messes, Clones and Plots like a W, about why I think it's so important to understand technical things about how writing works, to work hard on how you understand them and how you put them into practice, but not to allow them to become rules to be 'kept' or 'broken'. In writing there are no rules, except possibly the one about starting at the top left-hand corner of the page, but only different ways to write different things, some of which work better than others. To refuse the concept of rules doesn't mean abandoning all judgement or discussion of good and bad writing, just making it much more nuanced, and so much more useful.
When she's not writing novels about politics (More Than Love Letters) and campuses (Hearts and Minds), with a warm heart and a satirical pen, Rosy Thornton is a law lecturer. She posted this in the private members' section of WriteWords, and I think it's the most interesting thing I've read in ages about the whole thorny question of 'the rules', and why they seem so alien to some, and so comfortable to others. You have to start by understanding something that she posted later in the discussion:
The anti-essentialist argument [that not all women - or men - are the same] is a very handy one for ignoring the female perspective (or the black perspective or any other perspective outside the domiannt discourse). Well, the point is not that all men think like x or all women think like y. But that - statistically and observably and demonstrably, according to psychologists and anthropologists and others who have studied it - women as a group think differently from men."
Having cleared that up, here's Rosy's piece:
"If I were blogging, I would head it: ARE THE CW RULES GENDERED?
Time and again I find myself balking at the CW ‘rules’ – both the individual rules themselves and also, possibly, the very notion of there being any rules. But I haven’t ever really thought about why that might be. But here’s a possible theory. It begins with a diversion, so please bear with me.
In the rest of my life I spend a lot of time dealing with rules, because I teach Law, and Law is essentially a set of rules. I also teach Women and Law, in which students are encouraged to challenge the rules from a gender perspective: both the content of the specific rules, which have historically operated to the disadvantage of women in many respects, and the very idea of the rules themselves, in the way they are currently conceptualised. The common law works from the premise that situations (real life, complex, messy situations) can be distilled down into simple, sharp-edged paradigms, from which lawyers can reason and according to which future cases can be decided, and rules can evolve. Feminists have rejected this mode of reasoning – epitomised by legal rules but found throughout the social sciences – as ‘male’.
American psychologist Carol Gilligan wrote a book in the 1980s called In a Different Voice. Her thesis is that the two genders think in wholly different ways – something I have to say that rings true with all my own lived experience. Gilligan interviewed children in the schoolyard. She asked them all the question, ‘Would it be justified to steal bread if your children were starving?’ Of the boys, some said yes and some said no. But the majority of the girls said neither. Instead, they worked their way round the question. They said, ‘Surely there must be another way’ and ‘what if you were to explain to the baker about the starving children…?’ In other words they refused to accept such a simplified, black-and-white scenario as being true to life – the exact kind of scenario which is the daily tool of legal reasoning and the basis of all legal rules. Rather, they viewed things as contingent, as muddy, as nuanced, as negotiable.
So, if women think and reason differently from men, do they also speak and write differently? Do they have, quite literally, ‘a different voice’? And if so, what impact does that have on how women write – or how anyone writes if they are trying to get inside a female character and to explore the female experience?
This brings me to the point: the so-called CW rules. Let’s think about some of them. We are told, for example, that modal constructions are to be avoided. Don’t say ‘she could see the mountains, say ‘she saw the mountains. It is stronger writing, we are told – more direct, more pacy, more powerful – ‘better’ writing. Similarly we are told, don’t use lots of subordinate clauses, especially those beginning with a present participle – ‘ing’ clauses are weak and therefore bad. Stick as often as possible to the finite verb. Not ‘gazing out of the window, she saw the mountains’ but ‘she gazed from the window; she saw the mountains.’ But what if rather than strength and directness what you want to achieve is something softer – dare I say, more ‘feminine’? Maybe if I’m writing in a female voice (female character, and first person or close-in third) then my writing patterns should mirror the way a women thinks, the way she experiences the world – which is often (in my experience) packed full of contingency and uncertainty and tentativity and conditionality.
More fundamentally, what about the ‘rule’ that says we should pare down, write sparely, make sure that every word is necessary, every word is doing a job. Why? Research shows that over the course of a day women speak many, many more words, on average, than men. Surely ‘not wasting words’ is a very male ideal? I know that I talk nineteen to the dozen for large parts of the day. I know, for example, that when teaching, sometimes if I say the same thing three times over in different ways, it gives people more chance to grasp what I mean. Effective communication can be effusive, it can be sprawling, it can be full of doubt and wondering and even contradiction, and out of the morass emerges understanding - and perhaps it might even be a more nuanced understanding, a warmer and more humane one, than the one which emerges from a fewer, and superficially clearer, set of words.
That’s what I reckon, anyway. Basically: we women are wafflers, so waffling reflects our lives and our voice.
Er, that was it, really."