The syntax of great writing

It is a truth universally acknowledged that great writers make fools out of great editors.

Great editors say, “Avoid passive voice.” Then a writer like Ian McEwan starts Atonement with a whopper of a passive in the very first sentence: “The play—for which Briony had designed the posters, programs, and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crepe paper—was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.”

Editors say you should use correct punctuation. Yet Cormac McCarthy dispenses with apostrophes at will.

An editor who noticed a writer switching from the third-person to the second-person would fix it immediately. Yet in Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut switches from his third-person narration to directly command the reader in the second-person imperative: “Listen.”

Some editors (present company included) would tell you to avoid cleft sentences, which start with “it is,” then relegate the meatiest information to a subordinate clause. Yet Jane Austen, in Pride and Prejudice, got away with “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

The remarkable part: in every instance, the defiance pays off. Each of these sentences is far better than any by-the-book rewrite could have produced.

Why do they work? Magic, mostly. But to see how, exactly, the magic manifests itself, you need a basic understanding of syntax. Here's a piece I did examining what these writers did and why it worked.


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