Monday, 15 April 2013

Time For An MOT?


I’ve just booked my car in for its annual MOT. It’s a little frustrating having to sort these things out, but, then again, it is also re-assuring to know that my vehicle is roadworthy. It made me wonder whether writers should undergo an annual test, to check their roadworthiness for the written word! (Failing with poor emissions takes on a whole new meaning!)

Sometimes we can get swept along with the latest fads, developments and new markets. After Fifty Shades of Grey was published, suddenly, many more writers were writing erotica. Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning novels (Wolf Hall, Bring Up The Bodies) are written in the present tense, encouraging other writers to try writing in this tense. (It’s more difficult than it first appears!) Whilst following these trends exposes us to different styles of writing, which is a good thing, we should never forget the basics. Our writing should always be roadworthy. The car with the latest all-singing, all-dancing, built-in SatNav, still needs good tyres, good brakes, a steering wheel that turns and working indicator lights to get the occupant to their desired destination safely.

So, what should a Writing MOT test for? 

  • A basic understanding of grammar? Whilst it can be acceptable to break the rules (as long as you understand what the rules are and what you are achieving by breaking them), it’s important that you know why the words are in the order they are. 
  • What about accepting that it’s okay to look things up in a dictionary? My computer’s operating system has a built-in dictionary (The Oxford Dictionary of English), which means its information is a few clicks away. I’ve never used a dictionary as much as I do now. I question my word choices, and any hint of doubt has me heading for the dictionary. After all, word selection is vital for expressing our thoughts clearly.
  • And what about understanding the building blocks of engaging writing? It doesn’t matter whether you write fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or plays, our pieces need structure (scenes), and devices to draw in the reader (dialogue, observations, and plot).

The good news is, just like a car’s MOT, if we fail we simply make repairs to make ourselves roadworthy again. We can remind ourselves of the basics. Many writers have a shelf (if not more) of books on writing. Why not dust one off, that you haven’t read for a while, and re-read it? Remind yourself of the basics. Perhaps we should make it an annual effort: re-reading a how-to guide once a year. I know I benefit from doing so.

Good luck.

6 comments:

  1. Yes, have to admit my Bloomsbury 'Grammar Guide' (Jarvie) is not looking too 'dog-eared' or worn!

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  2. I like the idea of re-reading some how-to guides. A refresher always helps. Not too sure about a writer's MOT, I'd be terrified of failing and ending up at the scrapyard!

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    1. Well, my car passed its MOT, but as you say - I'm not sure I would!

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  3. When I was an English teacher I was the mechanic sorting out writing problems. Now as a writer I am more like the car salesman touting his wares!

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    1. Lovely! (Are you also on commission?)

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  4. Thanks Simon. You are very right that we need to check on language basics. This reminds me of what my teacher of English told me while in High School, "Always use plain English when writing a composition and avoid hackneyed cliches."

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