Saturday, May 25, 2013
The Rules of Writing
By OFW chief editor:
Carlos J Cortes And Renée Miller
Published: May 12, 2013
Of all the technicalities of writing well, grammar has the worst image. Mention grammar, and pictures of mind-numbing lectures dished out by monotone voices swim to the forefront of our memories, with endless lists of prepositions, irregular verbs, and other unsavory bits.
Bridge, Poker, Whist, and other fun card games have rules. Some are set, and failing to observe them will result in the player being unceremoniously kicked out of a competition. Other rules are flexible. If the player knows them well, he may spot the opportunity to bend one to suit a particular hand and, in doing so, defend an otherwise hopeless contract. Still other rules are unwritten. The player ignores them at his peril and suffers the inevitable fallout.
The common thread in these examples is knowledge of the rules. A player who sits down to play ignoring the game, house, or a particular table’s rules is a fool. With luck, he will lose his money, and depending on the players and venue, keep the integrity of his skin and bones.
Thus, a writer, any writer ignoring the rules of this “game,” is similarly misguided. The gorgons out there (agents, editors, readers, and other writers) will eat him alive.
Grammar consists of a set of rules governing the way we string words together to convey concepts. Some are clear-cut, while others nebulous and fewer still are left to the interpretation of the writer according to the subjective tenets of something called “style.”
In the following sections, we aim to highlight these rules. We have neither the space nor the inclination to write a comprehensive grammar treatise and have limited the explanations to the basic concepts. We will attempt to lay down this necessary theory not in the style of a school primer but as tools for fiction writers.
“But... grammar is grammar, no?”
Not quite. In day-to-day communication with other members of our species we use words loosely. We rely on noises, gestures, volume, jargon, tone, and texting shorthand (RU1?, LMAO, ROFL, LOL), dispensing with niceties to convey information. That’s communication in basic form. Writers strive to convey complex pictures and deep sensations with the sole help of text. This is a different ballgame.
We have structured the grammar sections into three parts:
Parts of speech
Clause / Sentence
Writers must understand not only the rules but their power to transform the rows of letters on a page into magical images. To do so, it’s not sufficient to understand the laws of composition but rather their effect on prose. To this end, we have structured the grammar sections with emphasis on how each part of speech affects fiction writing.
Rules have origins. Some are sensible, others picturesque, and a few downright questionable, but no writer can decide which is which unless he’s familiar with them.
First, let’s return to school.
Language is constructed with words, the building blocks from which sentences are made. Words, which experts term “lexical items,” fall into different categories as defined by their use or syntactic behavior. We name these groups: parts of speech, word class, lexical class, or lexical category. For our reference, we’ll stick with “parts of speech.”
The number of parts of speech depends on source and uses. Linguists and grammarians need scores of these categories to analyze language, while most dictionaries name only eight. Here we have chosen the short list with one exception: Determiners. Though most sources include these with the adjectives, we have given them their own group. Therefore, we will investigate nine parts of speech:
Each part of speech will be examined under the regular headings. For example:
What’s a verb?
How do verbs work?
For writers, what’s in a verb?
Feel free to go straight to the heading most appropriate for your needs, but remember that familiarity with all of them and using the concepts will strengthen your prose. As our incombustible Wendy Swore remarks: “Grammar is good for you—like vegetables: they keep the strength up and help things come out smooth.”
Renee Miller & Carlos Cortes
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