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 Times. Her 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
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.
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)