One of the most illuminating and helpful things I ever read about writing novels was a comment by Patrick White, Australian Nobel Prize winner and novelist extraordinaire. Writing a novel, he said (I recall approximately), is a matter of writing one sentence after another, until they build up into a book. 1. Verbs HAS to agree with their subjects.
Sometimes encountering the blindingly obvious can have a revelatory effect. The thought has comforted me ever since. Especially in the middle of a book, when it seems to me that actually finishing this benighted piece of prose - which I began in an idle and perhaps slightly insane fit of thoughtlessness in some previous life - is utterly unimaginable. If I keep writing those sentences, stubbornly placing one foot in front of the other, I will eventually reach the end. It stands to reason.
Hand in hand with this blindingly obvious discovery was another: that each one of those sentences has to be as right as you can get it. And this brings you into intimate contact with GRAMMAR and SPELLING. One of the most important - maybe the most important - aspects of writing is making sure that your grammar and syntax are working for you and not against you. It's the difference between a good book and a bad book, and quite possibly between a good book and a great book. Genius, as Gertrude Stein once said, is "the infinite capacity for taking pains".
There is, it must be said, nothing exciting about this aspect of writing. It is simply essential. And after 25 years of writing for a living, I am still learning. I still make mistakes. I am still a little unsure of the difference between "that" and "which", and sometimes my verbs disagree, and I have to check three times before I spell "weird" correctly.
The people who have taught me most about grammar have been my very patient editors and copy-editors, a saintly group who shall be annointed in heaven. They carefully underline my grammatical and stylistic sins in red pen. They have made me a much better writer, because I figure that the more right I get it the first time through, the less work I'll have to do afterwards. This is a very attractive thought, because on the tenth proofread, you can get very tired of your own book, and would rather read something else.
I have never done anything sensible like go out and buy The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, which is the classic advisory on writing clear English, and which, despite my own delinquency, I advise all young writers to purchase. If you do not possess this book, you could do worse than peruse this advice from extremelysmart.com, How To Write Good. The first ten rules (of a very long and funny list) are:
Once you understand all these precepts - and only then, really - you can get to the fun part, which is breaking the rules. An obedient writer is an oxymoron, and no really exciting writer ever sticks to a style guide. I break quite a lot of rules, especially when I'm writing poems; but if I have learned anything over the past two decades, it's that it's no use breaking a rule until you first understand what it is. If you don't, you'll just be making mistakes.
2. Avoid clichés like the plague. (They're old hat.)
3. Also, always avoid awkward, affected, and annoying alliteration, which is almost always alienating.
4. Don't use no double negatives.
5. Avoid excessive use of ampersands & abbrevs., etc.
6. One-word sentences? Eliminate.
7. No sentence fragments.
8. Be more or less specific.
9. Being a careful writer, dangling modifiers are always avoided.
10. Foreign words and phrases are not invariably à propos.
This is the hard labour part of writing. Sadly, the more you write, the more you understand that there is always more to learn. All the same, I swear on my heart that it's absolutely fascinating. Really. And when you begin to understand how English works, then you can use the language, instead of the language using you.
1. Verbs HAS to agree with their subjects.