Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Making a good beginning

The best way, it is often said, to learn to write well is to read widely and keep practicing, and those are activities only the writer herself can carry on. The writer’s tool is language, and the only way to pick it up is by reading everything from Chaucer and Shakespeare to cereal boxes and learning to distinguish the subtle variations in style, voice and purpose among writers of different eras and genres. But even though no one can provide a complete set of rules that will replace the knowledge gained through reading and writing, it is possible to set out guideposts to show a clearer path to those who have already started in the right direction.

While there are plenty of existing manuals that provide advice on writing, some of the sources writers have traditionally looked to, like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, were originally composed some time ago. In the light of a new century, their edicts are in need of a thorough reexamination. The grammarians are out in full force on the Web, it is true, but this is not meant to be a column focused purely on grammar or even style. It will look at all the ingredients that make for clear and beautiful writing, because the art of writing consists of more than a collection of correct sentences.

I have spent much of my career as a professional editor, in essence a person who reads for a living. In my work, I have seen passages that impart information with simplicity and grace, and I have seen many others that garble their messages entirely. With the latter, I do what I can, patching things up here and there and reordering clauses. Still, there is only so much an editor can do to set things aright without completely changing the writer’s voice, and sometimes patching up poor grammar can lead to a sentence that is functionally correct but ungainly. It is far better to begin with a harmonious marriage of the concept and its realization. In this blog, I hope to give writers a set of principles to keep in mind at the outset, while they are composing their work, that will allow it in the end to bear a finer polish.

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