I was emailed a link to this post on Daily Writing Tips, in which Mark Nichol provides his answers to a survey on writing quality. Even before I worked as a lawyer I aimed to write sound prose so the topic struck a chord. Rather than respond there I decided to share my thoughts here.
Mark appears not to state the questions as they were originally framed and does not give a source for the survey; I have attempted to recreate the original questions, so any grammatical oddities in them are the result of extrapolating a (probably) American English document using British English rules.
1. Do you judge other people based on their writing?
I think everyone judges others on their felicity of style; I try to be aware that poor style is not a true indicator of poor comprehension though.
2. What bothers you most about how others write: grammar and punctuation (e.g., subject/verb agreement, misplaced commas); word use (e.g., they’re, their, there); long, difficult sentences; vague purpose; poor logic?
Of those, poor logic bothers me most. I like to unravel mysteries so a poor explanation bothers me more than no explanation at all.
Grammar and punctuation differ between English speaking countries and even publishers within those countries. With the internet opening up access to work from so many countries, I have become forgiving of variations from those I was taught.
Errors in word use, especially homonyms, are an easy mistake to make when drafting and hard to catch in editing, so I sympathise with most of them.
Long difficult sentences and vague purpose are symptoms of not being trained in expression rather than the lack of a good idea to express, so I try to look beyond them.
3. Have you seen an example of bad writing in the last week?
It would depend on what the criteria was for bad writing: is it writing I did not enjoy reading, is it writing that did not achieve its purpose, or is it writing that fails to meet a standard entirely separate from any reason for writing? This morning my wife told me one of the exam rules for her latest actuarial exam was that calculators from the approved list could only be used in the exam hall; I certainly enjoyed hearing it and the meaning is clear, so it achieves its purpose, but the word order technically means something different so it fails on that level.
4. Where did you see it: email; website; newspaper/magazine; other?
All of these are sources of bad writing by one measure or another. Certainly my work has been both praised for it’s lyricism by one person and attacked for being arch by another.
5. Do you apply the same writing standards to social media: yes; no; yes, but I make an exception for Twitter and Facebook?
I apply the same, slightly archaic and formal, standard to my own work irrespective of method of publishing: (1) use rules that fit the message, e.g. a legal document uses different rules than a novel; (2) break the rules for specific effect, e.g. parody or poetry. I view fitting nuanced messages into limited space (800 character limit, 300 word limit, File size <1kB) as a call to write with even greater concision rather than a reason to abandon the rules; I might sacrifice a subordinate clause if necessary but maintain the semi-colon until the last.
6. Do you correct the writer when you see a mistake?
Not unless I am asked to provide commentary. I usually leave mention of style errors out of reviews unless they are large enough or frequent enough to have a large impact on the work.
7. Why or why not?
Typographical errors occur even to the perfect manuscript, and it is easy for a great manuscript to not be perfect before it reaches the printer. Therefore, the mistake in a published work might not be the writers. If it is there is often nothing they can do at that point, so it would not bring any improvement.
Also, I rarely remember most style errors after a while unless I make an effort, so to highlight them would be to give them a weight they otherwise did not possess.
8. What is your personal pet peeve?
Trying to copy Finnegans Wake. The evolution of Joyce’s style moved it through writing that was technically skilled but hard to understand and not easy to enjoy into writing that is an exercise in form; an exercise I do not feel to be wholly successful. Works attempting, in whole or in part, to replicate the form to be literary or edgy rather than to express a unique perspective annoy me.
9. People often report “rules” that are not, in fact, rules. Also, rules do gradually change, and some people insist on rules that some authorities have relaxed. Which of the following rules do you still follow: never begin a sentence with because; never end a sentence with a preposition; never split an infinitive; the word they must always refer to a plural, never a single person or thing?
When writing as an expression of my beliefs or actions I usually follow all of them; I am less strict with fictional dialogue.
The focus of the “Because the cause, the effect happens” structure is usually the effect not the cause I prefer to put the major point first.
Unless it would make a sentence overly convoluted I do not end sentences with prepositions; often I will rewrite the sentence to avoid the need.
I have no objection to split infinitives per se; however I do not wish to sacrifice the impact or rhythm of splitting them by unnecessary use.
10. Would you like to add a question to a future version of this survey? If so, what is it? Include the answer options.
I agree with Mark’s question, “How do you determine what constitutes good writing?”
However, my answer would be that it is a personal judgement based on the reason for writing: good fiction writing has a lower bar than good philosophy due to the different influence of a good plot and a sound thesis.