Throughout the twelve years of Writerspark’s existence, we have offered daily exercises that we hope have sparked creativity and helped writers find creative possibilities within the seemingly insignificant. Along with those exercises, we have attempted to offer thoughtful critiques that we hoped would help to improve our members’ work and build a more solid set of writing skills. Although the minutia of grammar, spelling and general sentence structure may have been touched upon within a given critique, in-depth instruction on those elements remain beyond the scope of this group. That said, I would like to offer the following for those who struggle with the basic concepts of the writing craft.
My field of “expertise” has always tended toward the technical; at least that’s where my career path has led. My “passions,” however, are and have always been creative, with creative writing chief among them. What most of you may not know is that it wasn’t until my second ex gave me the best birthday gift I’ve ever received for my 40th birthday that I began to take the craft seriously. That was 17 years ago. It wasn’t until then that I began to grasp many key fundamentals of writing. Before that I was like most people: If people can understand what I write, that’s all that matters.
What was that special gift my ex gave me? It was a creative writing class at a local community college. I will forever cherish that experience.
Why was that class so pivotal to my creative growth? The answer is both simple and complex. I’ll stick with the simple within this presentation.
Getting words onto a page is a relatively simple matter. Our minds think about a subject and we let our fingers transfer those thoughts onto a page. No big deal. And in most instances, anyone who reads those words, provided they can read that language, will understand most of what is written, regardless of misspellings, poor punctuation and lack of sentence structure.
For example, if I were to write: We ar going to the stor to get som pretzls and som grnola bars, you would recognize that I meant We are going to the store to get some pretzels and some granola bars. However, although you understood the message the actual reading of it would not be a pleasant experience.
The same goes for a sentence like this: There were three of us at the carnival Jake Tom and I had a blast riding the ferris wheel tilt a whirl go carts and bumper cars all night long eating pizza and drinking cokes without even throwing up once.
Besides the fact that “ferris wheel” should be “Ferris wheel,” “tilt a whirl” should be “Tilt-A-Whirl” and “coke” (being a trade name) should be “Coke,” the lack of punctuation makes the sentence a struggle to follow. We get the basic idea and facts, yet finding out which parts fit together is a chore. Not a pleasant reading experience.
Likewise, writing like this might give readers brain whiplash: I went to the store. I bought eggs and milk. There was a lady there wearing a mink coat. I guessed she was wealthy. But she drove away in a rusty Ford Pinto. I went home afterward. Omelets are great for breakfast.
Although the punctuation is correct, too many short sentences in a row can be irritating. Short sentences have their place, but sentence lengths should be varied to support what is happening in the story. Readers will not long have patience for sentences that are all short or all virtually the same length. This is part of understanding sentence and story structure.
I offer these three examples to get across this simple point: Reading for pleasure is more than just a matter of importing facts; reading for pleasure is a pursuit that should be pleasurable. Not having at least some basic command of writing fundamentals makes it nearly impossible to produce pleasurable writing.
Although I have always understood that concept, it wasn’t until my creative writing class that I truly began to realize the importance of punctuation and sentence structure to helping people better enjoy what I wrote. Readers want a journey; poor grammar, punctuation and flawed sentences are roadblocks to that journey. If such impediments are encountered in your work, readers will likely avoid future travels with your work.
That’s not to say that occasional misspellings, missed punctuations or run-on sentences aren’t normal parts of writing, but when your writing is plagued with repeated mistakes you will not long retain your readers.
How do you rid yourself of these ills? Creative writing groups, whether live or online, can help. Members will often point out mistakes and you can address them in future drafts. However, such assistance does come with one requirement: that you consider that advice and make improvements. If you cast aside valuable advice and keep on believing your work is fine just as it is, most members will eventually disregard your work, feeling that you simply don’t care to improve. However, not all advice needs to be taken to heart. You may even receive some flawed advice. But failure to recognize and remedy flawed writing will relegate you forever to the world of the unpublished and terminally unread.
Another great way to improve your craft – one that I am eternally grateful that I pursued – is to enroll in a community college class related to the kind of writing you wish to pursue. If it’s fiction writing, take a fiction course. If it’s poetry, take a poetry class. If it’s journalism, consider a journalism program. Many community colleges host non-credit classes in many of these areas that last from a few hours to a few weeks. These can be helpful. But I strongly recommend a full-fledged credit class in your desired area. You’ll not only learn what is required in order to succeed in that aspect of writing, you’ll receive insightful evaluation of your present skill level and recommendations on what other classes you may need in order to improve your work.
If your understanding of grammar and the basics is sparse, I can’t stress strongly enough how essential it is that you not ignore your shortcomings. Enroll in English 101 (or below) and relearn what you may have forgotten. Practice punctuating and revising the works of others, removing all punctuations beforehand, and see how near you come to what those successful writers have done in their finished work. You won’t get it perfect, as many punctuation elements can vary depending upon the writer and their style, but you should be close.
Finally, the absolute best way to learn proper writing techniques is to read-read-read! Read once for the story; then read again to see how the author achieved their goals. How was the story punctuated? What words choices stuck in your mind? How did they show you a scene rather than just tell you about it? How were their paragraphs constructed? How did they draw you in, make you want to turn the page? How did they end their story? While many of these things can be studied in a classroom or even online, there is no substitute for reading, especially reading the kind(s) of work you hope to master.
Passion for writing is essential; however, that passion must be matched with dedication. Remember, anyone can type words onto a page, but it takes a dedicated writer — one who is willing to admit shortcomings and then overcome them – who will make readers want to pick up your work and read it cover to cover.
© Bill Weiss – Writersblog, 2011