Sin and Syntax

In my last post, I mentioned that after a few months working on my first novel, I decided I needed to educate myself on writing. I started wondering which books I bought first and now I think it was Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale. You can see from all the post-it tabs that I found a lot to love in this book.

Although I have no memory of how I found this particular book, I am a confessed grammar geek, so it’s likely the title led me to buy this one. Here’s an excerpt from a jacket blurb:

Sin and Syntax is one of the rare books that recognizes—and even celebrates—the fact that good writing has little to do with ‘rules’ and much to do with a true understanding of effective prose.” —Jesse Sheidlower

That’s my kind of book! It’s just my nature to question why, which I’ve done with every writing rule I’ve come across. It’s funny, but until I pulled this book from my shelves and started reading some of the parts I’d marked, I had no idea where I’d learned certain things that are now second nature in my writing. Sometimes, I’d question my own reasoning, wondering if I’d just “made that up.” I’m relieved now to know I didn’t.

Sin and Syntax offers these new principles of prose:

RELISH EVERY WORD.

BE SIMPLE, BUT GO DEEP.

TAKE RISKS.

SEEK BEAUTY.

FIND THE RIGHT PITCH.

Moving from the most basic to the most sophisticated, Sin and Syntax covers the parts of speech and how to exploit them (in “Words”), shows the parts of a sentence and how to arrange them (in “Sentences”), and reveals how voice, lyricism, melody, and rhythm give prose its mystery and poetry (in “Music”). —from the Introduction to Sin and Syntax.”

Why do I rarely use passive voice in my writing? Because I learned how not to from this book. Why do I sometimes use passive voice on purpose? Because I learned when and why to from this book. Why do I take care to place the adverb “only” in the proper spot in a sentence? Because this book taught me how the wrong placement changes the meaning of the sentence. I learned lots of goodies like that … but that’s not the best of it.

My favorite section of this book is the last, titled Music. Do you remember my post Your Sentence Deserves a Good Beating? At the time I wrote that, I had forgotten where I learned about sentence beats, but now I know … Sin and Syntax.

So, today I feel like I’ve reunited with a long lost friend. Excuse me while I go add this book to my For Writers page and then spend some time catching up with this friend. I recommend you get to know her too.

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10 thoughts on “Sin and Syntax

  1. I need this book! What a great title too.
    Have you read Stein on Writing? It was recommended to me as “The Bible of fiction writing” but some of the reviews were iffy.

    Dayner, I can’t remember if I’ve read Stein on Writing, though the cover on Amazon looks familiar. I’ll request it from my library.

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    1. Ha ha, great minds! I just requested it from my library. I thought I should look it over before I make the investment.
      I also picked up Sin and Syntex. I plan to start reading right after dinner.

      I live in a county with a dismal library system and there’s only one copy of the book in another town, so who knows when I’ll get to read Stein’s book. Good luck reading and I hope you pick up some valuable tips.

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  2. I wish I had this book right now…Thx for posting…going to Amazon books right now to order 🙂

    Welcome to my blog, Angela. I hope you find the book as useful as I did.

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  3. Linda,

    Like you, I learn easier when the info is surrounded by humor. So, I’ll put this one on my “to read” list.

    Thanks!

    Christi, this one isn’t as overtly humorous as Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s books, but any book that uses examples as varied as Robert Frost and Grandmaster Flash is certainly not dry.

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  4. Linda, I enjoyed this post. Love the picture with all your post-it notes. I love to reread my writing books. Seems as if I always learn something.

    I’m still trying to work up the nerve to write in my books, Cynthia. I never take everything in the first time I read, so rereading is sure to teach me something new. Especially with writing books, I don’t think you can learn everything at once. You take what you need now and come back later for the next level.

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