Science First, Art Second
Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was Middle-Earth. Long before anyone knew who J.R.R. Tolkien was, he was learning the rules of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. And the same can be said for every successful writer under the sun.
What do Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, and Louis Sachar all have in common? Aside from their all being notable American authors, they all had to learn their ABCs.
Every successful person in any field always starts small. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the old saw goes, so too did J. R. R. Tolkien not create Middle-Earth all at once. Rome started off as a minor fortress in the middle of ancient Italy, and Tolkien first began formulating the ideas which would turn into The Lord of the Rings while serving as a soldier in the First World War.
The point here is that even the greatest authors of all time had to learn the mechanics of their language before moving on to more artistic, literary elements of their craft. Before one can learn the art of writing, one must first understand the discipline’s science.
Far into their respective pasts, the authors I have mentioned all mastered technical skills with clearly demarcated, codified rules before moving on to more advanced subjects. An accountant must understand the type of basic arithmetic which every fourth grader is expected to know thoroughly. So too does an author need to know what an adjective is, when and when not to use contractions, and how to spell “necessary.”
Matters of style, such as when to purposely avoid run-on sentences and when to employ them for special effect, are next on the list of things to learn. The same is the case for the use of adverbs, not to mention how to create an arresting opening at the beginning of a piece. How quickly was I able to get your attention at the beginning of this blog post when I name-dropped three famous writers in the form of a question?
With this solid foundation in English composition, a writer is free to move on to more sophisticated topics, such as plot, characterization, and theme. The writer who can grab the reader’s attention from the beginning while knowing which indefinite articles to use in specific instances is ready to learn three-act structure.
Similarly skilled authors are ready to try and infuse a unique voice into each fictional person once they know the ins-and-outs of quotation marks. A particularly sharp novice writer might even know that it is in fact acceptable in many cases to have a character say “gonna” as opposed to “going.” “Gonna” is an example of incorrect spelling which would be unacceptable in a research paper. But it is more than proper to use that word when trying to subtly imply a tone of voice or dialect which a fictional character might possess.
If these bits of advice sound intuitive and obvious, then rest assured, because they are. But plenty of novice writers who dream of literary success simply will not reach their full potential because they do not understand such principles. Such novice writers dream of being the next Isaac Asimov, but they cannot correctly employ commas or define what a homonym is. If such neophyte authors cannot master such basic rules of the English language (or any language), then how can they effectively communicate something as profound and complex as what constitutes love?
The solution is simple, though not necessarily easy. Those wishing to be writers must write and write and write and read and read and read. Stephen King cut his teeth as a wordsmith writing for his high school’s student newspaper. Lee Child won his bread for almost twenty years by writing television commercials and news reports before introducing the world to Jack Reacher.
And you, dear reader? If you have read any work by any of these authors, then chances are that you can appreciate their talents. If you are a member of Critique Circle, it is probable that you want to improve your skill as a writer. And if you are reading this blog post, it is almost without question that you intend to truly study your craft as well as acquire casual feedback from your peers. If you want to be a master, you must first be a student.
And it all starts with learning that “A” stands for “author.”
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