Thursday, August 03, 2006

How To Be a Better Writer, Part 1

In this day and age, the English language is in decline. Or some would say that it's changing, morphing into a new 21st century vernacular full of txt messages, c u later and colloquial slang. Change is all right, change is good. New terms, phrases and freestyle grammar has its place. But let's not get carried away. This is fine for the next generation of teens, footballers and their wives (have you noticed that foreign footballers speak English with more elegance and awareness than the English footballers?) but it's not quite the same for writers.

Literature has started to embrace the new forms and styles emerging for the mouths of babes (books with just an email narrative, text messages, slang etc) but the authors usually possess a good command on English in order for them to playfully indulge in the new methods of communication. There's no point advancing with speech when you've forgotten the basic foundations of the language.

So, in the first of a new series of how to make ourselves better writers, it's back to the basics. Grammar. This extract is taken from The Times Writer's Guide; there's a link at the bottom to Amazon where you can/should buy this comprehensive and accessible manual.

The Thirteen Gremlins of Grammar

1. Correct speling is essential.

2. Don't use no double negatives.

3. Verbs has got to agree with their subjects.

4. Don't write run-on sentences they are hard to read.

5. About them sentence fragments.

6. Don't use commas, that aren't necessary.

7. A preposition is not a good word to end a sentence with.

8. Remember to not ever split infinitives.

9. Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.

10. Alway's use apostrophe's correctly.

11. Make each singular pronoun agree with their antecedents.

12. Join clauses good, like a conjunction should.

13. Proofread your writing to make sure you don't words out.

And, above all, avoid clich├ęs like the plague.

From The Times Writer's Guide

--- UPDATE ---

A couple of other things.

First, John Yorke (BBC Controller of Continuing Drama Series and Head of Independent Drama, phew) gives a video interview at the BBC writersroom. Check it out. It's seven minutes long.

Staying with the writersroom, I saw this at English Dave's blog but they want to spread the word so:

Q&A: Writing for the BBC 2pm - 3.30pm Tuesday 15 August, Screen 3, Filmhouse
Interested in writing for the BBC? Want to find out about opportunities with BBC Scotland's Drama Department? Come along and put your questions on writing for BBC TV, Film and Radio to Kate Rowland, the BBC's Creative Director, New Writing, Anne Mensah, Head of Drama, BBC Scotland and Sandra MacIver, Executive Producer River City.

There will be an announcement about several forthcoming TV writing opportunities open to new writers. Free tickets can be reserved by phone 0131 228 4051 or in person at the Filmhouse, 88 Lothian Road, Edinburgh EH3 9BZ. Capacity is limited so book early!


Anonymous said...

Hi Danny - I've been reading your blog for a couple of months now and really enjoying it...

Now there ain't no-one loves da wikkid grammar more 'n' me. But let's be sensible here...

(1) Split infinitives. How would you recast the sentence "I plan to really enjoy the party" without sounding like Mr.Cholmondely-Warner ?

(2) Ending sentences with prepositions.
"This is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put." (Churchill of course).

Attention to sentence construction and good grammar generally makes the difference between great prose (ie old books) and rubbish prose (new ones). But if we're writing dialogue for people to say, rather than crafting stylish essays, surely we should reflect how people really speak rather than how Evelyn Waugh or Kingsley Amis might have recorded it in their journals ?

James Moran said...

Obviously, yes, there are exceptions ("to boldly go"), and of course you can ignore rules for dialogue, to reflect how people speak (except for spelling, commas, and apostrophes, naturally). And some rules, like split infinitives, are outdated. But if your scene descriptions are riddled with bad grammar and incorrect punctuation, it's an immediate black mark against you. I can't speak for Danny, but I know people who will just stop reading if the script is badly written. Unfair? I say no. Words are our business - if we can't be arsed making sure our spelling is spot on and our grammar (dialogue excepted) is reasonably correct, then how can we expect the script to be taken seriously?

Anonymous said...

We're all in agreement then. Phew!

I wasn't suggesting that script directions and letters to producers and CVs and so on should look like they were written by a drunk Paris Hilton. The day I don't happily spend some time browsing through "Modern English Usage" or "The Elements Of Style" is a day I consider wasted.

It just seemed very odd to me to see a collection of rules from a newspaper style guide being suggested for screenplays. There's just a part of me that thinks, OK, Stephen Fry cares about enclitics and proclitics and good for him, we love him. But somehow I can't see Quentin Tarantino going through his script removing split infinitives before submitting it to Miramax.

Keep up the good work everyone!

Lucy V said...

It's all very well having rules for screeplays like don't use adverbs, split infinitives, prepositions at the end of sentences...But loads of people, writers included, don't know what they are! People who grew up in the 80's like I did generally didn't learn grammar at school as it was seen as unimportant to communication (hah). I learnt grammar from my grammar-mad Mum, but loads of people just missed it out altogether. Hands up people under 35, don't be shy: who DOESN'T know what a preposition or adverb is? You're not alone, I must explain these two in paricular more than struture. Honest.

Lucy V said...

A screeplay, huh. Interesting. Remember we're talking grammar, not spelling ; )

BTW Danny, was talking about you last night...

Danny Stack said...

Screenwriting certainly has its own rules and regulations when it comes to its specific direction and expression. And that's fine.

Bad grammar for dialogue is totally acceptable - a necessity - because that's the way we speak.

But in terms of style and general narrative command, a writer needs his tools of language, and it's sometimes good to go back to the basics to remind ourselves what it's all about. Dangling participle anyone?

Lucy V said...

Oh I love a good dangling participle, darlink.

Bloody hell, how do you turn grammar into a double entendre?? I am a true geek. Yeah.

Anonymous said...

Oh, alright then.

I give up.

What is a dangling participle?

BTW, Danny. I gather all the banked Doctors ideas are having to be resubmitted. I hope you're also resubmitting all the ones that Beverley hated!


All tickets for the Edinburgh event were gone a week ago. And the Filmhouse ticket office was the wrong place to contact for tickets anyway, as I discovered after waiting an hour for somebody there - anybody! - to answer the bloody phone.

English Dave said...

Just been announced that more tickets have been made available David. But hurry!

Danny Stack said...

Dangling participle:

We walked through the field for a while, *followed* by an ice-cream.

It implies that an ice-cream followed you around. It's unclear.

We walked through the field for a while, and had an ice-cream afterwards.

Or something more specific like that.

Anonymous said...

Whilst I'm being educated (for free!) what are split infinitives and prepositions?

Lucy V said...

Hi Anonymous, here you go:

Split infinitives -

Prepositions -

This website is great for grammar, but if you're still stuck, check out grammar websites for non-native english speakers as they break it RIGHT down. Just search EFL or TEFL+ grammar in google.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Lucy!

Sal said...

Can't get to the thing in Edinburgh, is anyone going who can take notes and post them somewhere?

I've got a book called "Practical English Usage" which is fab - has a good section on UK/USA differences which is very useful