On Writing

(Aside:- I wrote this some time ago. No slurs on any author whose books I have read recently need be inferred.)

It is often said that a bad workman blames his tools. The implication is that when used correctly the tools will not result in a shoddy job. That may or may not be true but even a good workman cannot produce a fine product using tools that are inadequate – or perhaps blunt.

A writer’s tool is language: words, especially their meanings, and how they fit together to convey information. This applies whether that information is factual or used to create a story. Like a practitioner of any craft the writer must know his or her tools and how to use them. The best writing is almost invisible, nothing breaks the seamless appearance of the prose; it flows, each word or phrase is perfectly chosen. It cannot be a case of throwing words at each other and hoping they cohere. The odd strange word, new to the reader, isn’t a barrier, context may supply the meaning and in any event there is always the dictionary. Using a completely new word is more problematic – even if in Science Fiction it’s almost obligatory. Provided, though, its use is consistent the reader may sail gaily on, unperturbed.

However, since reading is in effect a dialogue between writer and reader not all texts mean the same to everyone. With fiction, this interdependency is crucial. Clumsy use of language creates a barrier between the story and its reception, wrenches the reader out of suspension of disbelief and interrupts the creative act in which reading consists. The trust a reader must have in the author is destroyed. Any sense of believing what is being read, that the story is in some sense a representation of the world (or in SF, a future/altered world) that the reader should care, disappears.

In the writer’s case the tools are entirely innocent. (Yes, words may change in meaning over time but in the instant they are written – and possibly for decades after – that consideration does not apply.) The orders in which they are placed, the ways they are set down, the structures they might create, are, though, entirely the writer’s responsibility. In other words a writer has a duty of care towards any reader. This is especially so if that reader has been expected to buy – or has already bought – the writer’s musings.

An intimate knowledge of how language works, of what the rules are – so that when the writer breaks them it is for a good, a necessary, purpose – is essential for written communication to be effective.

Misuse of the tools, failure to understand the nuts and bolts of language – the parts of speech, why spelling is important, what words mean, of how they fit together – interrupts that dialogue between writer and reader, erects a barrier which leads to frustration and even anger. At least in this reader.

Because, sadly, that duty of care is not always exercised.

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