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Jo-Anne Richards

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The secrets behind the practice of good writing: Respect the tools of your trade

25 MayImagine you were an artist. Would you sketch the broad outline, and then step back and expect someone else to execute the shading? Probably not.

The same is true of writing.  While the big idea is really, really important – the execution is critical.

If you want to be a writer, like Michaelangelo, you need to learn to use the tools of your trade. What you have at your disposal is language. Mould it, bend it to your needs, but use it well – and that includes its grammar and punctuation.

If you want to write – fiction, non-fiction or journalism – these are not nice-to-haves. Understand how your chosen language works and use it as competently as a stone-mason uses his hammer.

It’s not pedantic to care. I used to teach my journalism students to be professional – both about mistakes in their copy, and about grammar and punctuation.

My students would pooh-pooh. They were too busy drawing their readers’ attention to important matters of the day. They felt it beneath their interest to focus on a comma.

Yet, as pandas (and Lynn Truss) have taught us, a comma can change everything. By now, we all know that a panda eats shoots and leaves or, alternatively, eats, shoots and leaves. And that “Let’s eat granny” could have very different consequences from “Let’s eat, granny.”

Your most important task, as a writer, is to be clear. Without clarity, your grand idea will be lost.

I’m not making a point about people who write in a second language. People who have learnt a second language well enough to write in it often take the greatest care with its rules. It’s frequently the first-language speakers of English who take grammar for granted.

All you have as a journalist is your credibility. Get a fact wrong, no matter how small, and you lose your reputation. And, I would argue, a writer’s credibility also rests on how you use the language you write in. It’s all about the impression you make.

Publishers are inundated by manuscripts with poor grammar and slap-dash punctuation and will almost certainly be less disposed towards them as a result. Firstly, you give the impression that you don’t care enough to be taken seriously. And secondly, it’s usually a bad investment to sign up a writer who needs so much input.

Who has time to run after writers, correcting the fundamentals? That is not the essential job of book editors. Their eye should be on the larger issues: the characters, the narrative arc, the scenes which build the story.

Learn to use your tools well and your writing will instantly appear more polished and more professional.


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My 2016 blogs will continue to try to uncover the secrets behind the practice of good writing.

Please join the discussion and if you have discovered something that has made a great difference to some aspect of your writing, please send it to me. I’ll share it on the blog and we can discuss it.

Each blog will deal with a secret that may have occurred to me through reading or mentoring other people’s work. Or they may  be lessons hard learnt through five of my own books. Many will be applicable to fiction and non-fiction, while some might refer to one or the other.  When you tackle a piece of writing, you always have a vision of the perfect work it will be. As you write, you become increasingly aware of how it falls short of the perfection you wish for it. Writing (and rewriting) is the process of trying to bring it as close as you possibly can to that vision. Here, I will try to share those little gems which should bring all our writing one step closer to the perfect piece of writing – one blog at a time. Some might tackle the process of writing or how to keep writing, while some will look at language, characterisation or story. Some might be more general, while others will be very specific. But each will be a piece of advice that I believe in and that I hope will help make us all into better writers.


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