You Can’t Cheat the Muse


Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.
—William S. Burroughs


First things first: I don’t advocate cheating at all, but I will look for the most efficient ways to expedite a job. It’s called looking for shortcuts. This does not apply to skills at all—no less to writing than to any sport that requires athletes to practice up to eight hours a day or more. Granted, some people are more talented than others, their talent is what gives their work an innate grace and beauty that the merely skilled do not have. Some people might be more creative than others and be able to produce work after work after work; that does not mean the work will be outstanding. So many people want to be writers, want to be published, but aren’t willing to put in the work to ensure their writing is of excellent quality. That’s why we have so much pulp fiction on the bookstands. Even if the writing per se is technically excellent, those works do not find their way to the must-read lists. Those works will not win awards or recognition except, perhaps, finding their way to occasional bestseller lists—and disappearing from reading lists as soon as the next new book shows up. These works most likely will entertain readers momentarily, but they are not the works people will want to keep on their limited bookshelf space to read over and over again. The quality of writing begins with a strong foundation in the most basic skill of writing good sentences. Masterful writing necessarily uses masterful sentences, and there are more than enough guidebooks, lessons, tips, and courses that teach us to write masterful sentences. Sometimes, it’s all just a matter of remembering what we learned in school, unless we were not fortunate to have a teacher who ensured we could write really good sentences. To write excellent sentences, we need to know grammar and trust it as well as we know our bodies will function without our having to tell them how. We need to become intimate with figurative language so we can use it at will and manipulate words to create the images we want to paint. We need to accumulate a vocabulary broad enough for us so the words tumble out of our pens and we are not left grasping for ways to describe what we observe. This three-point foundation is what we build our writing on. Lacking that, I suggest always having at hand a good grammar book, a book on writing style (Strunk & White’s Elements of Style is a popular and favourite go-to source for many writers; many more have been written since and can be just as useful as well as entertaining), a good dictionary (I always defer to the Oxford English dictionary, but I also check Merriam-Webster’s localized editions, e.g. a Canadian edition, that includes Can-spelling and Can-idioms), a good thesaurus (Roget’s Thesaurus is the default), and a dictionary of idioms (I collect dictionaries and have several books of idioms, no two of which are the same). Lacking physical editions of these valuable references, you can always check the Internet for unlimited resources. The Internet has several standard online dictionaries (Oxford, Merriam-Webster, and WikiDictionary or Wiktionary), dictionaries of idioms, rhyming dictionaries, and thesaurii. The nice thing about the Internet is the search throws a very wide net and offers answers, suggestions, examples—all in a matter of seconds. Unless your typing takes minutes.

On writing and blogs


Sometimes, I think blogs are a bane rather than a boon to writing. Anyone can start a blog for free and write pretty much whatever they want. Often, you find blogs with atrocious writing–terrible grammar, bad spelling, illogical structures–and lots of gratuitous sex and violence. The worst part is that a great deal of this incredibly cringe-worthy writing gets published as fan fiction, simply because of the number of people who follow that kind of writing. I sometimes wonder if half of their fans are not followers because of some morbid fascination over how horrible the writing can be, or simply because it seems like something they understand–because the language sounds exactly like theirs, the stories things they wished they could have told themselves. Rather than uplift the average or below-average reader by exposing them to better literature, this class of literature celebrates and perpetuates ignorance by passing off as fiction. True, they will never ever be good enough to win prizes or recognition from prestigious award-giving bodies, but they might occasionally creep into the New York Times Bestseller list by virtue of selling a million copies or more. Even fine literature falls victim to marketing and crass commercialization.