The Terrible, Necessary, Unavoidable Triumvirate

by Janis Patterson

In last month’s blog I talked about musery, and how the concept of a mythological goddess whispering ideas and words into a writer’s shell-like ear was a catch-all used to combine the rock-bottom basics of inspiration, imagination and skill. You see, to be a writer – a writer of any worth, a writer with any hopes of publishing – you need all three.

Inspiration is the beginning; this is the start of creating something from nothing. A ghost of an idea. An isolated incident that could be pampered and grown into something more. A starting place.

Imagination is what takes the ephemeral, insubstantial bud of an idea and feeds it, molds it, multiplies it into an acceptable storyline. Like a cook creating a recipe from the beginning idea of two ingredients, a writer will spin a complete storyline, adding in heroes and villains, buffoons and sages, problems and victories, and eventually bring it to a desired and logical conclusion.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, it will come to nothing if the writer does not possess the final part of the triad – skill.

In this context the simple word ‘skill’ has a labyrinth of meanings. The most basic form is what we used to call fifth-grade English – mastery of spelling, grammar, sentence structure and punctuation. In other words, the solid skeleton of language on which you can hang the gossamer flesh of your story.

Unfortunately, these days it seems that correct and standard usage of English is if not a dying at the very least a fading art. Typos and plain mistakes that would have been unthinkable a couple of generations ago are now not only tolerated, but hardly noticed. Where once a single typo in a published book was a point of shame, now it is regarded as a triumph.

But this post is not to rant about the relaxing of standards, it is to point out the need for plain old skill to use the language to create your world and your story. Everyone knows the example of ‘eats – shoots – and – leaves’ and its two very different meanings. ‘Eats, shoots and leaves’ is a very different sentence from ‘Eats shoots and leaves.’ A single comma changes the sentence from the reporting of a violent action to a descriptor of an herbivore’s diet.

It’s the same thing with ‘she took a peek’ (i.e., she snuck a quick look) to ‘she took a peak’ (she conquered a mountain top). Such mistakes can pull a reader out of the story in an instant, to say nothing of confusing the action. Doesn’t make the author look very good, either.

Our imaginations might be our stock in trade, but our command of language – and our skill in using it – are what makes it possible for us to communicate our stories to others. Inspiration, imagination and skill – the essential tools a writer must have.

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6 Responses to The Terrible, Necessary, Unavoidable Triumvirate

  1. As someone who both studied and later taught creative writing as well as expository and technical writing, I can fully agree with you. Creativity and inspiration are important, but writers need to develop their skills in order to write well.


  2. susanoleksiw says:

    Your points are spot-on. I don’t think you can emphasize enough the importance of strong writing skills.


  3. Paul McDermott says:

    Janis, TG I’m not a “voice crying in the wilderness” – something I’ve been feeling more and more frequently over a lengthy period of time.
    Personally, I could never look myself in the shaving mirror with a clear conscience if I suspected even for a moment that my latest offering to a Publisher or Agent had NOT been edited to Death (or best of 3 Falls & a Submission) before I hit “Send” – Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation are simply Good Manners, neither more nor less!
    Time for us Pedants and Perfectionists to make their Mark!


  4. pamelasthibodeaux says:

    Great info that’s always timely!
    Good luck and God’s blessings


  5. marilynm says:

    Unfortunately even with many edits, other eyes, mistakes slip through. That happened with my latest Rocky Bluff P.D. which my publisher called my best ever (he didn’t notice either). Believe me others did and told me. Fixed now.


  6. EARL STAGGS says:

    Poor, improper, and incorrect use of language, written or spoken, has always been a cringing event for me. And it’s getting worse in newer generations due to lack of emphasis in school and acceptance in daily speech and digital communication. (r u listening 2 me, all you texters out there?) And, yes, we’re seeing it slide by more and more in publishing where competent editors are nearing endangered species status.


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