Master the Fundamentals
“I am approaching the heart of this book with two theses, both simple. The first is that good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of your toolbox with the right instruments. The second is that while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.” Stephen King, (On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft)It takes some people a long time to grasp the importance of the three building blocks of writing: vocabulary, grammar and the elements of style. If you haven’t memorized this little three-item mantra, take a moment to do so. Take a year. Take a lifetime. As I said in my previous entry, Don’t Expect it to Be Easy, anyone can get an idea for a story. Most people will even be able to write that story down, but few will do it well enough to qualify what they create as good writing. A good story and good writing do not necessarily go together any more than a good piece of music and a good performance do. Ever hear Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata played by Vladamir Horowitz? Ever hear it played by a kid at their recital?
Telling a story and writing a story are two different things. You can tell a story sitting on your kid’s bed or from a podium at a conference and, if you flub an adverb or have to backtrack because you forgot something, no one cares. They see the nuances of your face and hear the inflection of your voice. They interpret your hand gestures and read your body language. To read a story is a very different experience. All you have are static words so it stands to reason that those words must be carefully chosen and skillfully put together. While taking care of all that, you also must keep the thought simple enough to convey a multitude of events and emotions that are going on in a situation, both seen and unseen. This is why a solid knowledge of form is so important. If I had my way, I’d add structure to the mantra, but I guess it’s implied under style. I’m big on structure, so I’m going to spend a little time on it with you.
All art forms have some sort of structure. Take the simple essay form:
II. Point One
III. Point Two
IV. Point Three
Or, as I wrote in my lecture notes in school many years ago:
I. What the hell am I writing about?
II. What’s the most important thing about it?
III. How can I develop that a bit and add a second point?
IV. How do I put those together and add a third point while bringing it back to the original idea?
V. Tie a bright red bow to bring them together as a cohesive whole.
It was fun studying writing while majoring in music composition because I quickly learned they were essentially one and the same where form was concerned. Here’s the structure of the Sonata-Allegro form, upon which most great pieces of music are built.
See the similarity? When I began to see this form in the world around me I got very excited. I started recognizing it in architecture, paintings, movies—I began to see the world differently, to hear music differently, and to read differently. It changed the way I viewed life and the universe at large. I’d swallowed the “red pill” and saw the world through an artist's eye. Your writing must have form. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or as Mark Twain wrote in his Twain’s Rules of Writing, “A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.”
For godsake, know the difference between to and too, through and threw, and sight and site. And please know simple plurals. In a manuscript I recently edited I was horrified to find that the writer consistently got those wrong and also used “guest” when she meant “guests”. She made the all too common error of using “alot” and split words like “meanwhile” and “anyway”. These are basics and no one—I repeat NO ONE—who hasn’t learned them should be seeking a publisher. Final draft? I wrote back and told her it was a rough draft. I haven't heard back from her.
You should seek to acquire a wider vocabulary through reading, but you can’t if you lazily skim over a word that’s new to you. Since about 1981 I’ve built my vocabulary (and continue to do so) with a simple trick: when I come upon a word I don’t know, I look it up, then write it in my journal, copying the definition, part of speech, etc., and then I use it in a written sentence. Finally, I use it as much as I can in my daily life until it has been digested.
Too many young or inexperienced writers mistakenly think that the elements of style are the same as personal style. Whenever I suggest they buy a book on style, they say, “But I have my own style!” or something to that effect. I’m not talking about that. The elements of style are a set of prescribed rules of writing American English. Written by Strunk & White, it is a guide concerning…
“Eight elementary rules of usage, ten elementary principles of composition, a few matters of form, a list of forty-nine words and expressions commonly misused, and a list of fifty-seven words often misspelled.”Before you can write a novel you must be able to write a chapter. Before you can write a chapter you must be able to write a paragraph. Before you can write a paragraph you must be able to form a sentence. Before you can form a sentence you must know the parts of speech, understand punctuation, and have a decent vocabulary. I’m not a blind follower of rules. I adhere to them, not for their own sake, but because I want what I write to have impact and meaning. I don’t want to tell you there’s a blizzard, I want you to shiver from the cold. To do that, a writer must begin by mastering the fundamentals. This should be every aspiring writer's consuming passion.