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Tools of the Craft

So you have decided you want to write. Perhaps you may feel you need to write. Sometimes this urge inside you is so sweet and urgent that you find yourself imagining the smooth feel of the keyboard beneath your fingertips. You can hear the tap tap of the keys as your fingers fly over them, forming words, sentences, paragraphs and pages of images that will flow from your mind to another’s in a bizarre and wondrous kind of telepathy.

This desire may come to you as you are studying, attending classes, or working, making you yearn for the time when the tedious details of life might be abated, if only for a moment, so that you can finally work on your story. When at last you are able to grasp your favored writing instrument, whether it is keyboard, pencil or pen, you might reach inside for the words that had nagged at you so insistently earlier. Your fingers will caress the keys, or your pencil will lightly touch the page…and frustration will fill you more completely than your earlier desire had.

For even though the words are there, deep inside the crevices of your imagination waiting to break through, the transfer of thought to print is more difficult than you had ever realized. Writing is hard, a fact that most novices and likely all experienced writers are aware of. When you find yourself fighting the inadequacies that plague your writing, where do you turn? Most likely you’ll seek the pages of the books and stories that have inspired you in the first place. Are the answers there? Perhaps; perhaps not. It can depend on the writer and the book.

There are hundreds of books out there that claim to help the writer, including numerous “How To” books that address every aspect of writing that you have imagined and some that you may not have. Which are right? Where are the ones that might help you? One book for writers that has been popular for roughly 65 years was written by a professor of composition at Cornell University and revised by a writer of fiction who was well known for his fiction and essays. The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White is a valuable guide for any writer.

In it the writer will find rules for writing that are demonstrated by short examples. This book is for the writers who have found themselves stumbling over the roadblocks of grammar. It will also be of assistance in describing what terms are useful and which get in the way of the sentence. E. B. White has also provided the reader with a brief introduction to the nebulous concept of style that has been the cause of as many misconceptions as there are books on the subject. It is highly recommended that this book be read first whether the writer is confident about their ability to follow the rules of grammar or not.

After you have read enough of Strunk & White to feel somewhat confident (or even frustrated) by the rules that you already knew or forgot, examine Style by Joseph M. Williams. Mr. Williams is a professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Chicago. You may have already encountered another book published by the University on the subject. Fear not; Williams book is not an immense conundrum of rules in the same vein as The Chicago Manual of Style. I prefer to think of it as a response to Strunk & White; Williams will address many of the same rules of writing from a refreshingly unique viewpoint.

Some readers may find his work incredibly dull and prefer The Elements of Style for its short and simple guidelines. Or you may find yourself enjoying a newfound sense of freedom from the rather liberal suggestion of Williams that some rules are, in fact, meant to be broken. If you are of an analytical or logical frame of mind you may enjoy the many diagrams and trees he created as examples of his statements. If you do not fit into this group, do not let these examples get in the way of the underlying message. Writing, Williams appears to suggest, is not about rules and regulations.

It is about getting a message across to your reader. Last, I would recommend a book that will provide you with a far different tone than the others. On Writing, by Stephen King, will take the tools given to you by the other writers and show you how to use them. The reader might find this last book to be almost a guide for some of the concepts provided in The Elements of Style. King will even discuss a number of the rules that Strunk & White presented and show you how to use them to make your own writing, and especially your story, a more honest, powerful piece. I have told you a little of what’s in these books.

Now why should you read them? In The Elements of Style one of the first rules you will learn that may catch your attention may even be one you have heard before. “[Rule] 17. Omit Needles Words. ” (Strunk & White, 23). What could be simpler and yet more complex than that? It certainly sounds simple at first, until the writer looks at his first draft and begins to ponder the meaning of “needless”. Here is where Williams comes in. He attempts to explain what words might be “needless” by using an example sentence in need of revising, and then showing the reader how it might be revised and explaining why.

In the first chapter, he explains that the book is about clarity. Williams seems to be stressing that writing is not about the rules. Instead, it is about being understood. A writer has not done their job if the reader does not understand what is being said. This is a book about writing clearly. I wish it could be short and simple like some others more widely known, but I want to do more than just urge writers to “Omit Needless Words” or “Be clear. ”

Telling me to “Be clear” is like telling me to “Hit the ball squarely. ” I know that. What I don’t know is how to do it. (Williams, 1. ) King will mention rule 17 as well. In one of his three forewords, he promises to try and follow it in his own book on writing. He will not go into any great length about omitting the needless word, however, and after reading Williams you won’t need him to. Instead, King is more concerned with another rule that Strunk & White provided us with. “14. Use the active voice. ” (Strunk & White, 18. ) King makes it plain not only that he agrees with this rule, but also offers a series of examples to explain why it is important to use the active voice.

He will even suggest why the passive voice can be so popular in writing. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with … unsure writers also feel the passive voice somehow lends their work authority…” (King, 123. ) His opinion of such an idea is clear. “If you find instruction manuals and lawyers torts majestic, I guess it does. ” (King, 123. ) Williams will also provide some good examples on the uses of active vs. passive voice. Though Williams claims not to be writing for imaginative writers (Williams, x. ) his suggestion that the passive voice may still be of use is not one to be dismissed.

Often, we avoid stating who is responsible for an action, because we don’t know or don’t care, or we’d just rather not say … In sentences like these, the passive is the natural and correct choice…” (Williams, 38. ) The examples he provides when using these voices, along with King’s examples, will not only clearly explain what is meant by the terms, but may go a long way toward convincing you of the validity of the rule itself. The most effective demonstration of passive vs. effective voice I’ve ever seen is found on page 36 of Style. Active: The partners * broke * the agreement. Passive: The agreement * was broken * by the partners.

William’s greatest value to the writer of imaginative fiction is his willingness to explain in detail what the rules of writing mean, including many of the very same rules Strunk & White discussed. He will illustrate with examples why the rules exist; he will even go so far as to argue that some of them are unnecessary. Perhaps one of the most valuable chapters in Style is the last, dedicated to Usage. Here he examines a number of the “rules” promoted by various grammar authoritarians and demonstrates how the clarity of the message may be adversely affected by actually following the rule.

His argument is that while the rules may be set in place as a guardian to comprehensive writing, the rule does not necessarily ensure good writing. “A writer who observes every rule can still write wretched prose. ” (Williams, 197. ) On Writing will act even more closely as a companion to The Elements of Style. Not only does King give enormous insight in the makings of a writer, but he will discuss many of the rules Strunk insists on, and he will use examples from his own writing as well as the works of others to illustrate how the rules can be used to strengthen your writing.

His tone will be more in the nature of friendly, personal advice to a friend than a clinical study of the mechanics of language, and this may appeal to a number of readers who have been overwhelmed by the other books. He will even present the rough draft of one of his short stories and demonstrate how it might be edited to improve it, listing in the following pages detailed explanations for each of the changes that were made.

Finally, he will touch on certain elements of writing fiction left entirely untouched by the other two books: Dialogue, symbolism, and some discussion on the importance of plotting your novel as opposed to letting the story tell itself. Together, each of these books will provide the beginning or struggling writer with not only the tools for writing, but also with a demonstration of how to use them. These books will not make you a writer but they may be able to show you how to become a better writer. Once shown the way, it is up to you to follow it.

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