I came across Holly’s blog rather randomly, but was immediately captivated by her sense of fun and hilarious illustrations and I’ve made it one of my regular reads. Don’t be misled by her comedic talents, it is not just another funny blog but has something truly important to say. Sometimes comedy is just a disguise for lack of substance, and a social conscience can be at the expense of the ability to laugh at oneself, but Holly is that rare combination of someone who can make you laugh out loud on one hand, but really make you think on the other.
How to write good and stuff.
I have always loved words. I don’t mean stories, reading, or writing, though I love those too. I mean words. According to my mother, when I was very little I would sit alone in the back seat of the car, convinced that no one could hear me. There, I would repeat certain words I’d discovered over and over again, like some mystical mantra, or, more likely, like someone who’d just escaped from Arkham Asylum.
Once I could read, it wasn’t long before I became that weird kid at school, who sat alone in the playground reading instead of playing on the monkey bars. I was banned from bringing my own reading material to school because it was “inappropriate”, but, luckily for me, there was always a dictionary available. The dictionary soon became one of my favourite books, which is how I became the seriously weird kid, who sat alone in the playground reading the dictionary.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the day my grandfather gave me a copy of the Shorter Oxford was one of the happiest in my life.
Of course, words are amazing in and of themselves, but it is how we use them that really gives them power. How we use words is how we give them context and, ultimately, how we imbue them with meaning. It is easy to understand this in terms of words which have multiple meanings. The word ‘run’, for example, could mean anything from an uncomfortable physical activity to an unfortunate hosiery situation, until it is used and given context. Yet, I don’t think this is a concept I truly understood until I studied Latin.
When we translate texts from another language, the multiplicity of word meanings and the potentialities that this creates become apparent. We make decisions in translation that might be a correct translation of the words, but which affect the meaning of the text. We decide, for example, whether to use particular four letter words when translating Catullus, and in doing so, we affect how a reader understands that poem.
This is what writers do every day. They create meaning by collecting words and curating them in such a way that a story develops from the profusion of possibilities.
In order to create meaning from words, writers need to know and understand the rules of writing. This knowledge helps us to select and use words in a way that creates new worlds and enriches the texture of those imaginings.
There are many things a writer can do to improve their knowledge of language and the intricacies of grammar. Without a doubt, the best way to improve such knowledge is to read. Read all the books you can, then find more, and read those too. Just keep reading. Keep a grammar guide handy if you’re unsure about your technique, but, if you’re really serious about your writing, learn a second language, then learn a third and a fourth. Once you understand how to put words together in another language, writing within the rules of English will come naturally (except, of course, in those cases when English is totally nonsensical).
There are also a lot of “how to” guides for writing all over the Internet. If you are unsure about a grammar form, you can Google it. If you are uneasy about the definition of a word you’re using, hello dictionary.com (though please, do double check with your Oxford). There are also a lot of people telling you what you must and absolutely must not do in your writing. Sometimes I feel bombarded by articles telling writers how to write. You know, like this one.
I see article after article alleging that the passive shouldn’t be used, and articles claiming that to occasionally split an infinitive is the worst crime a writer can commit. Microsoft Word constantly harassing me about fragmented sentences.
Yet, I have to wonder, are they missing the point?
It’s important for writers to know and understand the rules of writing if they want their work to be meaningful. However, it’s also important for writers to know that it is okay to break the rules. Sometimes it’s best not to take these things too seriously. Sometimes it’s best to realise that the rules really are there to be broken.
Given the option of frolicking in the sunshine with the other children, reading “appropriate” texts such as The Baby-sitters Club, or settling down with the dictionary, I would choose the dictionary every time. However, even the most avid lover of words occasionally needs more than a dictionary to entertain her. When banned from my desired reading material, I didn’t simply give up. The teachers never knew of my secret stash of novels, which I carefully accessed whenever they were out of sight. They also failed to realise that behind the pages of my dictionary was plenty of space to hide more illicit reading material. I was such a rebel.
Of course, as any good rebel will know, you have to know the rules to break them, and then breaking them is half the fun. I’m not suggesting that writers should feel free to throw the rules completely out the window. They should not, for example, stop worrying about whether a verb agrees with its subject.
Seriously, don’t. That would really hurt me, deep in my soul.
What I am suggesting is that you should use the rules to your advantage. Follow the rules to ensure that your meaning is clear. Then break the rules to create new meanings.
Words are the real playground for writers. They are our sites for fun, play, discovery, exploration, and creativity. Enhance your use of words by understanding and respecting their correct usages. Just don’t allow the rules to restrain your relationship with words. The ever expanding content of the dictionary should tell us that the possibilities are endless. Therefore, the way we use words should be about anything other than restraint. We should use words and create with freedom.
Because, the thing is, sometimes the best way to write well is to write wrong.
Holly Kench is a writer and feminist, with a classics degree and a fear of spiders. She enjoys writing fantasy and humour, for adults, young adults, and children. Holly seeks stories that contemplate the world as much as books that provide escape, but doesn’t think the two are mutually exclusive. These are the sort of stories Holly tries to write. She is convinced we can change the world through popular culture. Holly writes about her life as a stuffed olive at www.stuffedolive.com.au and has recently started a new project for the promotion and publication of inclusive young adult fiction at www.visibilityfiction.com.