Sin And Syntax, By Constance Hale


Many manuscripts read by editors and agents contain good content: story concepts, characters, settings. But they might not deliver in other ways. I think back to editorial meetings where we’d discuss books with ideas that at first seemed strong, but where ‘the writing’ didn’t quite succeed in the same way. He or she ‘can’t write’, one of my colleagues would say.

It’s hard to define that inability to write. Most people who take on board the task of writing a book can, of course, write. And I strongly believe that most/many/all people have a book in them, or at least stories to tell.

But sometimes we need to adapt our voices or shift our registers, and that’s where the writing falls short. Many of us have spent time in other trenches of writing – marketing or academia or journalism, maybe – and as a result we have come to crowd our writing with qualifiers and modifiers and clarifiers; such features of writing help us sell or argue or report with precision, but in the process they force us to sacrifice something else: mood, feeling, a sense of connection. Writing ends up thin or dreary or cluttered.

Also, there are sometimes gaps in our understanding, and however creative and free-spirited we want to be in our new projects, it can’t hurt to know how to use tools of the trade as fully and as brightly and as instinctively as we can.

Sometimes we need to learn how to write all over again.

To help in this task, we can read good guides to grammar and usage that refresh what we already know, and help with what we don’t know, as well as what we don’t yet know we don’t know. Sin and Syntax is the book I usually turn to, and the work I recommend most to writers who need to perk up their prose. Constance Hale, its author, is a journalist, editor and teacher who has written and edited for a range of publications, including Wired and the New York TimesHer website features tons of resources, including lesson plans for teachers and online writing classes for the keen.

Sin and Syntax has a simple structure. Part 1: Words brings to life the different parts of speech, with eight chapters on:


Among many places in this book that gave me pause, Constance Hale’s thoughtful brilliance is revealed in the chapter on conjunctions, which, ‘though seemingly inconspicuous, can alter the tone and voice of a paragraph’. Knowing use of the word ‘and’ brings cadence to the fiction of Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy.

Part 2: Sentences addresses the ways in which these building blocks are brought together, with four chapters on:

The Subject, the Predicate
Simple Sentences
Phrases and Clauses
Length and Tone

Part 3: Music has four chapters that explore some of the less tangible ways in which prose achieves its ‘mystery’ and writers grow their own style:


Each chapter throughout the book includes five sections. Those called Bones amount to simple grammatical ‘sermonettes’ that, for example, spell out in clear terms the distinctions between different types of verbs (e.g., static, dynamic, sensing, auxiliary), in this case using a brief analysis of Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ monologue.

The Flesh sections bring grammar to life with real-life examples, such as the suspenseful effects created by Dr Martin Luther King’s use of subordinate clauses, or the rich setting evoked by the specific and concrete nouns of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.

Cardinal Sins debunks myths (we can end sentences with prepositions) and looks at errors and usages best avoided, such as run-on sentences (see: Sarah Palin), or the transparent and stylistically awful sentences we sometimes encounter in academia. One example comes from a programme description in the social sciences at the University of East London, whose dependence on the verb ‘to be’ ‘takes the life out of studying human life’:

The programme will be of interest to graduates as well as professionals working in these areas … It will be of relevance to those desirous of adding legal understandings to these perspectives. It will also be of interest to students wishing to proceed to a doctorate in the anthropology of human rights and related areas.


Carnal Pleasures shows how breaking the rules can inject great energy into the writing: sentence fragments from David Foster Wallace, the wordplay of international Englishes, the voice and personality established in the haiku-like tweets of novelist and food writer Ruth Reichl.

Catechism sections added to the 2013 edition conclude each chapter with exercises that bring a practical energy to what we’ve been reading: parsing your own sentences; modelling writing on selections from Ernest Hemingway, Dave Eggers, or the New Yorker; exploring metaphors in your own freewriting; describing the sound of the rain.

There are a few other changes between the first (1999) and the second (2013) editions: the chapter entitled ‘Sentence Variety’ is replaced with ‘Length and Tone’, covering much of the same ground (compound and complex sentences, and the value of variety), and the chapter on voice now concludes the book, which seems fitting: all these other constituent parts come together to make your voice. And voice is, perhaps, more than anything what defines that elusive ability to write.

I’ve used Sin and Syntax as a course text in many writing classes. You can consult individual sections, but Constance Hale’s witty and conversational tone also makes this a brisk and accessible book that can be read from cover to cover. She also draws on a wide and wild variety of examples: Nabokov, Muhammad Ali, Apple ads, political speeches, confusing newspaper headlines, Catherine Tate, Junot Díaz, Joan Didion, Downton Abbey

Throughout, St Constance revisits ‘five new principles of prose’, which are mantras that could be pinned above every writer’s desk:

Relish every word.
Aim deep, but be simple.
Take risks.
Seek beauty.
Find the right pitch.

Concepts such depth, risk, and beauty involve some degree of subjectivity, of course. These are things to find for ourselves, and things that will forge voice and personality in our writing.

Many books on usage are varying degrees of bossy, reactionary, jargon-laden, righteous, or dry. They also have to negotiate the resistance that the subject of grammar can invite: it’s boring, it’s difficult, it’s uncreative, it’s frightening or intimidating.

Sin and Syntax is the book that belongs on every writer’s shelf. It shows us how to use English mindfully, and it makes grammar exciting, insisting upon an active and engaged command of language that gives voice to our writing and makes it ‘pulse with life’. It will help creative writers, and it’ll help marketers and academics and journalists and writers in every other field too.

Thank you, Constance Hale.

* Constance Hale, Sin And Syntax: How To Craft Wickedly Good Prose (Three Rivers Press/Random House, 2013)

Friday Writing Experiment No. 54: Write! A Manifesto


I first encountered writers writing manifestos in a serious and active way when I was doing my MFA at Naropa. During earlier literary studies, I had come across avant-garde artists writing declarative statements of intent – I’m thinking in particular of the Surrealist Manifesto.

At Naropa, writers bring to life the practice of the manifesto in a manner that really seems present and urgent. Anne Waldman in particular encourages the writing of manifestos in her teaching and activism. Her prose collection Vow To Poetry, subtitled Essays, Interviews, & Manifestos, is a manifesto in itself, defining her commitment to poetry, while Fast Speaking Woman is a magnificent declaration of intent in poetry form (see a video clip of Anne fast speaking here). Of it Anne says:

I wanted to assert the sense of my mind, my imagination being able to travel as artist, maker, inventor. To see beyond boundaries.

A manifesto contains passion and drive and purpose, all wrapped up in the efficiency of a list (something I explored in another writing experiment, Lists, Lovely Lists).

Start looking, and you find manifestos in many places:

* This Critic’s Manifesto by Daniel Mendelsohn is as much an exploration-essay, but it amounts to a powerful distillation of the writer’s experiences, commitments, and desires in writing.

* David Shields’s Reality Hunger (subtitled A Manifesto) is a fantastic book-length cry for new forms in writing.

* Matt Haig, a king of lists, has written what amount to be some of the most heartfelt, funny and purposeful manifestos, e.g., How To Be A WriterTen Reasons Not To Be A Writer, and Ten Reasons Why It Is Okay To Read YA. Look for others on his site.

* Via Google, I also came across this Manifesto of the Female Novelist by Catherine Kietsu. I’m not sure if she is a published novelist, but I admire her directness and clarity of her intent, which can only equip her well in achieving her expressed goals.

* I also came across some poets’ manifestos on Google.

* And then there are famous broadsides such as the Vorticists’ Blast and Charles Olson’s Projective Verse.

I do admit to finding some writers’ manifestos opaque, dull, or pompous, especially (sorry!) some of those by poets and self-described experimental writers, and particularly (double sorry!) a lot of those by self-described experimental poets. I guess laying out your intent like that can open yourself to excess, abstraction, and cliché. It’s something to be mindful of, and to avoid or maybe to write with awareness of, writing through and out the other side until your writing is tangible and fresh again. But, too, I guess a bit of pomp is fair game when you’re giving free rein to your intent – and writers really should allow themselves this, unhindered, from time to time.

I also find that a manifesto is a useful tool during revision. It can be a super tool for clarifying where you are during your drafting, and I often ask writers I’m working with to write a manifesto – it helps me to understand what they are looking for, but more than that it often helps writers take stock, frequently at a point where they’re drifting or losing focus or getting stuck. Sometimes our intent shifts as a project evolves, and we need to keep tabs on that too.

So: for this week’s writing experiment, write yourself a manifesto. It could be a mission statement outlining your long-term intent as a writer, or it could be a five-year plan, or it could be a manifesto for a specific piece of writing, perhaps as part of your revision. It might be specific to a genre you’re working in. It could involve artistic and aesthetic goals as well as commercial ones, and it might (should?) also invite political consequence. Go on, be a revolutionary through your writing. Change the world. Even be pompous – this is one of those occasions where a bit of bombast will do you no harm.

Make that declaration. Set some boundaries, then see beyond them.

Working With Feedback On Your Writing


If you’ve recently received feedback on your writing, e.g., after attending a writers’ conference or sharing with your writing group or getting a manuscript critique, here are some broad suggestions towards working out what to do next.

* First, check your ego at the door. You will collect it later, but for now be open to suggestion. Disavow yourself of attachment. What you shared with readers was just a draft anyway – wasn’t it? You might have been looking for validation, too/instead – which is fine. But if this is a moving and fluid process leading to a desired outcome, you might need more than strokes to the ego.

* Ideally, feedback won’t be too prescriptive, particularly at early stages, and it should not be regarded as such.

* Some feedback will make sense right away, some might suggest alternatives, some will not really work. Some might suggest the reader doesn’t get you or your vision, in which case: also ask yourself if you need to be clearer, or maybe find other readers.

* Some feedback might be contradictory, even from the same person. Good feedback often is. Tussling with the contradictions can force you to go deeper to really figure out what needs to be done. Embrace the idea of negative capability, and revel in the contradictions even.

* Maybe avoid thinking in terms of agreement or disagreement with feedback. In some ways, agreement and disagreement are irrelevant. The ideas of right and wrong don’t really apply in creative writing; you’re not writing a technical manual (and clear-cut ideas of right and wrong don’t always apply even there). Instead, simply listen, then hold everything that seems relevant in suspension (maybe along with some of the stuff that seems irrelevant), and then act upon it through revising and drafting to take the work where it needs to go.

(I have to admit I sometimes get irritated when writers tell me they ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ with what I say – and not just because I am NEVER WRONG! But it can suggest we’ve been talking at cross purposes, as the suggestions I put across are never/rarely hard and fast ideas that are waiting for acceptance. I’m delighted if writers ‘disagree’ 100% with things I raise but are then prompted to act in their writing in ways that make it stronger. I.e., the idea of disagreement/agreement seems moot. Feedback is often about exploring departure points for future drafts, and sometimes it’s good for a reader to get provocative suggestions or comments, which can often spur.)

* Be systematic. Create a system – not least as it will take your ego and neuroses out of consideration.

* E.g., lay out on a table in different piles each piece of feedback, whether these are edited scripts you go through comparing them page by page, or a memo from a book doctor, or emails from beta readers you’ve printed out, or Post-its on which you jotted notes and impressions given verbally by readers. You’ll start to ground all of these words of feedback in something tangible; for some weird reason, I think that interacting with things physically makes a difference. It steps you out of yourself, and if you do a lot of your writing on screen it can lead you out of that locked-in work of constant scrolling through a document.

* E.g., you’re a writer, so do what writers do: write. Write yourself a memo or an editorial letter in which you synthesise all the feedback you have received, perhaps summarising different takes with a paragraph each.

* Or write lists of pros and cons.

* Or write yourself a manifesto or a mission statement that brings focus and clarity to what you are trying to do with and for this piece of writing. Maybe rewrite this – or write several manifestos – as you go through different drafts: give your project freedom to evolve. Maybe write a manifesto for yourself as a writer, too.

* A manifesto can help clarify your intention, which is often at the start of a project quite amorphous. Keep coming back to your intention. You may be able to integrate different responses while remaining true to your vision. Your intention might also grow or move on.

* Separate matters of technique from matters of taste. Matters such as uneven pacing or awkward transitions or clunky syntax or a lack of sentence variety are often things that could/should be fixed. Matters such as excessive adverbs (or some of the above, such as sentence variety) could be changed, but they might also be matters of style (a few adverbs are fine and even essential, else why else would the Goddess have invented them?). I guess the important thing is: don’t be careless.

* If several readers question the same thing, this could be something that requires a fix. Or it could be something that presses buttons. In which case, fix it, or do something to press those buttons even more strongly, or more effectively.

* Be open to experiment. Do try things out. E.g., you might not end up using first-person, but it could be worth trying if a couple of readers have asked if you’d thought about using it; just travelling in a character’s first-person narration for a few pages might give you new insights into the world of your book.

* Draw up a checklist of things to do. Things you can do, things you must do, things that you need to think about for a little while.

* Separate these checklists into rounds of edits, then go back into the text and start revising, rewriting, redrafting. Expect further feedback on future drafts, and possibly seek out fresh readers. (The matter of revising is another post, or set of posts.)

* Consider who is giving the feedback. An agent, an editor, a book doctor, a teacher, a beta reader, a writer, a general reader, a member of your writing group, a friend or loved one: each will have a different relationship with you and with writing and reading. (This covers a broad subject, and might be another post too.)

* Ask questions of your readers. In some contexts, this is not possible (in which case, maybe you can make it possible?). And it is possible for discussion to get too circular or unfocused. So make any questioning pointed and specific (as, ideally, feedback should be too). It can often, in fact, be good to raise questions in a note or two when you hand over work for feedback, though too it is often good to solicit views cold (yet another post).

* Tame your monkey mind. Understand that going through feedback can invite all sorts of doubts and chatter, and feed all sorts of anxieties and neuroses. Calm down. Some meditation or mindfulness techniques can help. Or just take the dog for a walk or bake a cake or do some work in the garden.

* Be patient, mostly with yourself. Writing a book takes a long time, and sometimes takes many drafts.

* Give yourself some time and space, too. A pause. Maybe put the writing to one side for a while. Understand the value of emptiness; when you stop thinking about something, your instinct can develop. Ironically (as it’s good not to be too outcome-oriented at this stage), taking some time away can eventually make the task ahead easier, once you return to it. You’ll be surer of what needs to happen.

* A pause in the writing can in fact be a good time to go away and do the other work of a writer.

* E.g., reading. Read widely and deeply in your own genre as well as others. Read this year’s bestsellers, but also read the classics, with a view to understanding how your book might sit beside them. And this is not just about reading for pleasure or reading for your book group or reading because you like an author. This is about reading as a writer, and reading to learn what writing can do and what you can do as a writer. Most every book that has been published can teach you something: aspects of craft, style, conventions, taste. And why did an editor choose to publish this book?

* E.g., identify gaps in your knowledge or obvious areas of improvement, and maybe in the mid- or long-term embark on some self-improvement. Read some books on writing, or take a course, or simply carry out some writing exercises to help with things that could be stronger.

* Sometimes, too, rewrites come quickly. Have confidence in them. Spontaneous writing for a project, even if it is later on edited, often taps into something vital. Follow those tangential thoughts, play around with things at the edges, stop all the clocks to do the rewrite commanded by that brainwave you just enjoyed.

* Know when to stop. At least for now. Revising and editing can go on forever. But …

* Keep writing. Maybe not all of your next books at once, but make some plans for one of them, and be starting work on that. Sometimes a project is put to one side for now, or till later. Sometimes, first major projects are overly ambitious, and it might make sense to work something more manageable in the meantime. If you are writing a novel, that might include, for example, practising the art of fiction by writing short stories.

* Importantly, don’t be harsh on yourself (which you shouldn’t be if you checked your ego at the door!). Try to be as clear-sighted as possible, using that clarity of vision to stop you from feeling wounded or offended by what you hear. Or excessively pumped up: praise can be as harmful as criticism, sometimes.

* More than anything: Listen.

If you have other suggestions or things to say about feedback, do raise in a comment below, and if I have anything to add I can try to follow up on that. In future posts I intend to address more specific aspects of revising and self-editing, and discuss related matters such as ways to solicit feedback, setting up a writing group, and readying your work for submission or publishing.

Friday Writing Experiment No. 53: Breaking Up Is Never Easy, You Know

Okay, so I was going to stop weekly writing experiments, but in fact I had decided to do them every now and then as the whim takes me and inspiration strikes. And lo! So soon.

The spur and inspiration: my brilliant friend Bhanu Kapil, and her brilliant blog, which this week included a post of her break-up letter to Jacques Derrida.

Dear Derrida: I waited for you behind the pillar at the Rijksmuseum in 1988.  Do you recall? We drank cocoa in the cafe. You showed me how to breathe.  I was wearing a lambs wool jumper. You were wearing a mauve silk shirt unbuttoned to your mid chest. Though it was cold. It was winter. I break up with how much I longed for you at that time of my life. I break up with the desire to be seen. Hey. Are you reading this?  Death: a letterbox. You are so beautiful. I sank to my knees. I am sorry I did not understand your poetry at the time and judged it so harshly. Goodbye for now. Goodbye forever. Love: you know who I am.

I reckon that break-up letters are great for writing. You tap into something profound. You latch on to details, and then latch the writing on to those details. Your voice is powerful and direct in its address. Your writing is laden with purpose. Go for it!

For this week’s writing experiment: Write a break-up letter. True, fictional, personal, political (Scotland didn’t write one after all yesterday).

(The writing of this post is not responsible for any ensuing divorces. It is amazing what can surface in writing experiments.)

(And additional thanks to Ella Longpre, who once gave me a brass heart, which afterwards I realised made me the Tin Man. If I only had a heart … And he had one all along.)

(PS I should stop judging poetry I don’t understand so harshly too.)


Steering The Craft, By Ursula Le Guin


There are many books with elaborate theories of narrative structure, or top ten ways to create memorable settings/living characters/powerful dialogue. But many easily overegg, or go off at tangents, or create second-order systems that take over and stop the real writing coming through. At the root of all writing is, um, writing, and the basics of writing lie at the core of Steering the Craft.

Ursula Le Guin is of course the author of dearly beloved and ground-breaking novels such as The Left Hand Of Darkness and The Wizard Of Earthsea. She’s also a very generous critic, who reviews for the Guardian, among other publications. Look at her recent review of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, for example. Read any of her reviews, in fact: warm, joyful, encouraging of both readers and writers. No snark. This is what reviewing should be. What a dream. Also take a look at this Paris Review interview.

No wonder Ursula Le Guin just received a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation. (Note that fellow recipients include those two other writers in the trenches of genre who’re also the writers of what I consider two of the most useful other works on writing: Ray Bradbury, author of Zen In The Art Of Writing, and Stephen King, author of On Writing. When it comes to writing on writing, genre writers rock.)

Back to St Ursula. All of her creative and storytelling brilliance aside, Steering The Craft is her most useful work for writers of fiction (and nonfiction) looking for practical advice as well as inspiration. It’s a short book, and deceptively simple in what it has to say. Everything it contains is pure gold.

Perhaps it’s easiest simply to give the self-explanatory titles of the ten chapters:

* The Sound of Your Writing
* Punctuation
* Sentence Length and Complex Syntax
* Repetition
* Adjective and adverb
* Subject Pronoun and Verb
* Point of View and Voice
* Changing Point of View
* Indirect Narration, or What Tells
* Crowding and Leaping

Additional sections cover verb forms (in case we need to brush up), provide a glossary of working literary terms, and offer tips on running a writing group (very handy). And its subtitle is Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew.

Such delights! It’s full of many bon mots. Here are just a few choice points.

* Unlike many other guides for writing fiction, St Ursula devotes space to grammar and usage, as you might gather from the list above. But rather than dwelling on technicalities, she gives commonsense principles to work by, interrogating the idea of ‘correctness’, yet still caring about commas – but in the most enabling and graceful of ways:

If you aren’t interested in punctuation, or are afraid of it, you’re missing out on a whole kit of the most essential, beautiful, elegant tools a writer has to work with.

Who could resist that?!

* Writers get bored of apparent experts telling us to ditch the adverbs and adjectives, but at the start of the chapter devoted to them St Ursula gets the point across directly and easily (see, I use them too!):

Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and fattening. The main thing is not to overindulge.

She continues:

The bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.

Point made?

* Her chapters on point of view include incredibly practical working definitions, e.g.: observer-narrator in first person; observer-narrator in third person; the detached author; and a term she prefers to omniscient narrator – the involved author:

This is the voice of the storyteller, who knows what’s going on in all the different places the characters are at the same time, and what’s going on inside the characters, and what has happened, and what has to happen … It’s not only the oldest and the most widely used storytelling voice, it’s the most versatile, flexible, and complex of the points of view – and probably, at this point, the most difficult for the writer.

Once upon a time …

* Her thoughts on the idea that stories are driven by conflict are extremely important for all writers to think about:

Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing. Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.

So: how are your characters relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing?

You can sample more of her discussion of story on her own site. Pure gold.

In practice, in much of the work I do as a book doctor or an editor I find that I can make a very quick judgement about the writing on the basis of sampling the voice in a page or two, and I probably have more time or inclination (and patience) than busy agents or editors. Writers who want to be published: you need to get this stuff right. Some of this is about right or wrong, but some of it is about more subtle stuff that has no easy solution. The counsel of St Ursula might just help you get there, though. This is not only a fantastic book for apprentice writers looking for resources as they are getting started, but also an excellent guide for more experienced writers; its clarity cuts through some of the clutter and contradictions in a very level manner, and it will also provide an epiphany or two along the way. It’s a book to read and reread whenever you need clarification and affirmations.

Okay, so book reviews should be useful, but this one isn’t in one very important way. This book was first published at the end of the last century by a small press in the US, and it does not have a UK publisher. I think I picked it up in the Boulder Book Store’s excellent writing section some ten years ago (because I love St Ursula, nay I worship St Ursula – I holiday in Ursuline convents, in fact). I’ve been recommending it for years, and British writers could order it online. But now I see that it’s trading for, like, £33.18 used and £72.33 new! And I can’t see an ebook. Perhaps readers overseas could order a print copy direct from the US? Though I see it’s hardly cheap there …

I think we need to ensure this book is brought into print in an edition that is available internationally. I shall badger publisher friends working at suitable imprints, and I shall ask friends in Portland if they ever run into her in the legendary Powell’s. And maybe I shall email St Ursula and her representatives with a copy of this post, and ask what can be done?

Really, this is one of the best of books on writing, and probably my favourite. It tops my list because of its writer’s voice: reassuring, wise, good-humoured. It makes you want to be in this writer’s presence, but on reflection, in fact, it succeeds in bringing you into her presence. That is something any writer or reader wants to achieve.

Thank you, Ursula Le Guin.

* Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew (Eighth Mountain Press, 1998)