I had occasion to read the first 3 chapters of a friend’s manuscript the other day. This is his first completed manuscript, and he wanted a second pair of eyes on what he was sending out to agents. I started off my critique by saying: “There’s good news. All your sentences are sentences, and all the words you use mean what you think they mean.”
Obviously, my friend wasn’t immediately gratified by this response,* at least, not until I explained how very often this isn’t the case. I had another friend (please note the past tense) who, when I suggested a word he used didn’t mean what he thought it meant, told me loftily that he knew that, but he was just trying it out to see if it would fit. He had, he explained, dashed it all down when he was drunk.
Which brings us to a piece of advice attributed to Ernest Hemingway. Write drunk. Edit Sober. Please note the order. Given Hemingway’s reputation, the assumption has always been that his advice was to be taken literally, but I’m not so sure. I know that people have achieved marvels while drinking/drunk, but I don’t think these were cases of cause and effect. Alcohol or its cultural equivalent can smooth the path of genius (at least for a while), but it doesn’t create the genius in the first place.
I choose to believe that what Hemingway meant was, write while inspired, edit with a clear head. All kinds of things might inspire you to write, and I often find that when the juices are flowing (creativity’s, not the bottle’s) I’m not even so much as aware of the passage of time, let alone the exact nature of every sentence and punctuation point.
That said, I do think you should try to be conscious of what you’re writing as you’re writing it; I agree with what Lawrence Block said, which I’ve mentioned last time, that you should write each draft as though it could be the only one – if for no other reason than to keep your mind sharp.
I also know that it’s possible to while away the morning looking up words, because, you know? the damn things are fascinating. So there has to be a happy medium. Don’t zoom along so fast that you embarrass yourself (or someone else) on re-reading; don’t bog down and lose your train of thought while fussing over the placement of the comma.
What many writers do is reread in the afternoon what they wrote in the morning. Or, they begin their days by rereading what they wrote the day before. They check the words and the sentences. Why? Because words and the sentences we make out of them are our tools. We are professionals, and like all professionals we keeps our tools sharp and clean, ready for use.
They check words for meaning and sentences for sense. Above all else, you’re trying to convey ideas, to communicate. As John D. MacDonald once said, “The written word is the only possible vehicle for transmitting a complex concept from mind to mind.” That’s what every writer is trying to do, and editing is one of the methods we use.
Everyone who writes anything regularly knows that there’s a severe limitation to the programs that check spelling and grammar. Spellcheck is handy, and so long as you remember that it’s no substitute for proofreading, it will do no harm. Programs that “fix” your grammar, however, also fix your style, so I’d advise you not to use them. Not really sure whether a comma is needed? Can’t remember the exact difference between “continuously” and “continually,” or, my particular bugbear, “that” and “which”? There is help for us, and it’s called The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and EB White.
Want the word that means precisely, exactly, expressly, and unerringly what you mean to say? Honestly, there is no substitute, replacement, or alternative for Roget’s Thesaurus. And by the way, if the word you like the look of in Roget’s is one that’s unfamiliar to you, look it up in the dictionary, check that it means precisely what you want it to, or that it doesn’t have a connotation you don’t want.
Remember that while the rules of grammar aren’t a straitjacket, you should still know what they are, so you can break them elegantly:
Character 1: “Who do you think you’re talking to?”
Character 2: “You shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition.”
Character 1: “Oh yeah, right. I meant, ‘Who do you think you’re talking to, A-hole?'”
I wish I could remember where I read that, so I could tell you.
So anyway, maybe all your sentences don’t have to be, exactly, sentences. But above all, your words should mean what you think they mean.
*There were a great many wonderful things to say about my friend’s ms. but that’s not pertinent here.
Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures, as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she writes the soon-to-be released Halls of Law series. Visit her website: www.violettemalan.com.