I will put a caveat on this post from the outset; I am a work in progress, not an authority.
However, I believe that communities are built through sharing and, having been involved in the building of a few internet communities, all successful due to a spirit of sharing, I stand by my philosophy.
So, here’s what I’ve learned so far.
First off, I strongly recommend that anyone who has not done so will benefit from a study of “The Elements of Style”, by William Strunk Junior.
It is heavy going for those of us without the benefit of any formal education in writing, but the benefits far outweigh the cost.
It has few in the way of problems, but the reader must bear in mind that this text-book was penned in 1918, so one must use some discretion in application of its contents to our favorite hobby/occupation.
There is far too much material to cover in one post, and I have thus far been through it just twice, thus it will pay for me not to generalize on a subject I am still coming to grips with; a lack of any formal education past grade 10 has its drawbacks.
I want to home in on one particular thing I gained from this book; sentence and paragraph structure.
I have a friend online; an author of long-standing, who has been a wonderful guide and mentor to me this past year or so.
He is a voracious reader; he has thousands of e-books on his Kindle and he has read every one.
He tells me that the most common weakness he finds in most books these days is sentence structure; the lack of correct technical structure undermining the story and causing both distraction and a weakening of immersion.
I thought I had written a good book, until I read Strunk and took to heart what my friend was telling me.
I am eternally grateful to my beta reader who put me onto this book, because I read it twice before doing one last run through The Road Out.
I haven’t found hundreds of bad sentences. I have, however, found many.
Some have been fairly harmless; in the middle of laid back sections of narrative summary and not impinging directly on the flow. I’ve fixed them anyway.
There have, however, been those which were in the guts of an action sequence and were doing great harm to the flow of the piece; unnoticed by good old semi-literate muggins here.
Well, I guess this is all part of the learning curve (or is it learning cliff?) that writers without formal education have to go through.
Through to chapter 2, section 6, Strunk focuses on grammatical usage and punctuation; it is section 7 onwards where the structure discussion starts.
I was amazed at the difference the application of correct sentence structure can have on the strength of a passage; a meandering narrative can be emboldened to become a gripping tale with just the application of a few basic principles.
I must concur with my learned mentor in this regard, though. Much of what I read today lacks this technical construction and is far the worse for it.
One of the beauties of Strunk’s book is the liberal use of practical examples. Indeed, a dumb tradesman like me would be none the wiser, for the most part, if the whole thing were a dry discussion of the correct usage of participial phrases, co-ordinate clauses and the such like.
The examples have helped immensely in my actually comprehending what these terms mean and coming to grips with them.
Chapter 3 is where we start to really dig in to the importance of structure and the correct methodology for putting together strong paragraphs.
The use of the topic to paragraph measurement, along with the dividing of the paragraphs according to their importance to the overall storyline is an enlightening way for us to analyze our book’s construction.
I guess that’s likely to be the reason why I identify so strongly with this book; the identification of the parts of a written piece and the analytical discussion of how to correctly assemble these parts into a meaningful whole.
I build things; it’s what I’ve always done. Get or make bits, put bits together, sand, polish and/or paint and then trim.
This publication breaks it all down in a way that may prove to be heavy reading for some to begin with, but once you’ve dug into the examples and comprehended what all the terminology actually means, I would argue that anyone without a formal education will be a better writer after having gone through the experience.
Writing is storytelling, I appreciate that.
It is also an art, and art cannot be constrained by technical boundaries, I appreciate that, too.
However, the application of technical theory to an art form is a proven method of improvement.
No, an author doesn’t require a degree to write a best seller, neither is the author under any compulsion to produce technically correct publications.
The argument I would put forward, though, is that no one would be worse off for having read this and other text books like it.
Some have argued that self publishing has undermined the quality of the written word, and there may be some truth to that.
But let’s take a more personal view of this situation. As a musician, I have always had just one person I competed against; I don’t consider music a competition and find the concept of music competitions nauseating.
This particular person, however, is the same guy I’m neck and neck with in the writing quality race, too.
This person is the writer I was yesterday. I want to be better than him, every day.
I believe gaining technical knowledge will aid me immensely in this quest.
I hope it may be of some use to you, too.