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Great vs Adequate Writing Part I
By M. Y. Mim
May, 2006, 12:04

Mastering the art of writing requires learning the basics then running wild.
reat writing requires four essentials:

  1. Mastery of writing skill
  2. Something to say
  3. Passion and drive to say it
  4. That touch of genius

These elements apply to all forms of published writing, from the Great American Novel that burns in the heart of so many; to technical writing; to journalism; to menu item descriptions. In each type of publication lies both the satisfactory and the sublime. The four essentials create a sturdy, four-legged foundation for great writing. Remove any one of the four, and you've created a three-legged stool: A reasonably sturdy piece, but a shakier basis on which to seat your thoughts.

New grammar books understand, as the nuns taught me some 35 years ago, that the purpose of grammar reflects the purpose of manners. It helps readers find their way around sentences and keep them within tricky paragraphs. Grammar, punctuation, and word choice are as comforting as a post light, and, actually free the writer to adopt an individual tone contained within the clarity of grammar.

Writing well if not greatly really is simply mastery of these skills, much like learning the skills to horseshoe or tailor well. And, yet, so few have taken the time - exposure and practice over time being the only way to learn a skill. Those who have mastered it can make a great living in any writing genre. For example, Robert Ludlum, a great writer and perennial bestseller but not a great novelist, knows well the tricks of the trade.

Not mastering the skills simply sets up the would-be writer for embarrassment. And here we meet the Grammar Beasts. Some Beasts want to jettison the skill portion of writing because it cramps their style. Many of this type, clutching their Allen Ginsburg who would have Howled again at being misused this way eventually abandon the ship and insist on writing narcissistic prose poems, unreadable save only to the audience that counts the author. They cannot be rescued from their own solipsistic narcissism.

Other Grammar Beasts object, "Rules of grammar are hidebound, artificial, and archaic!" This usually comes from people who have been force-fed grammar and have not learned enough of the skills to see how they are indeed applied properly to new writing. A fun grammar course usually brings these folks around.

Most Grammar Beasts, if they are serious writers, eventually learn the safety-with-nets approach. They find that knowing the rules is the only key to breaking them.

"Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet,'' begins James Joyce's sublime short story The Dead, the key story in the collection The Dubliners. Was Lily literally run off her feet so that the poor girl continued serving the buffet on stub legs? Of course not. The genius of Joyce here is that he broke the rules. He used the language to reflect Lily's perspective. Joyce could break the rules, and did so to great effect, because he knew them. By using Lily's colloquial thought-language, readers immediately sense the scene, while completely understanding the way Lily thinks.

To be a talented and successful writer, begin by embracing these basic tools. Learn how to use them well, and then let your creativity run wild.

In the next two parts of this series of articles, we'll examine the other three essentials for great writing. Until then, practice good grammar, punctuation, and word choice.

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M. Y. Mim is a freelance journalist based in Santa Barbara, Ca. You can reach her at, or through her agent R. Almqvist, 805-705-5349.

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