The Writer’s Toolbox: Introduction

Welcome to The Writer’s Toolbox!

I share these blogs on writing in hopes that they will prove helpful to anyone who might be curious about the nitty-gritty details of writing. I write for those who are unsure of themselves as writers and for who view writing as a chore—a necessary evil of surviving in this Information Age, where we are so often required to take up our pens (or keyboards) to compose memos, essays, e-mails, and letters.

But effective writing goes far beyond the ability to engage in necessary, mundane correspondences. Writing is the stuff democracies are made of. And it’s much more than that: it’s one of the qualities that make us human. The more we develop our writing, the more we develop as people. This knowledge should not be limited to colleges and universities. It’s for everyone. With that thought in mind, I feel that my mission as an English educator extends beyond the four walls of my classroom, where I will reach about twenty-five people per section. My responsibility is to share with anyone who is interested in learning more about the art of writing.

So read, write—and enjoy.

Why Learn the Rules?

Writing is a lot like chess.

Like novice chess players, inexperienced writers do not know for certain that the decisions they make are the right ones. Unsure how to proceed, they simply guess. A writer, for example, who is unsure whether to use a semicolon or a comma to combine two sentences must end up taking a blind stab at it. It becomes a fifty-fifty guess, a leap of faith, one that will make the writer look either skilled and knowledgeable, or clumsy and ignorant. In the same way that the novice chess player sighs, “Well . . . I guess I’ll move my rook forward and just hope it works out,” so too does the novice writer resign himself to the fickle hand of fate.

Other novices take a different approach to the chess game of writing. They play it safe. This cautious, play-it-safe writer—although she would like to combine the two closely related sentences—is unsure how to do it. So, instead of taking that chance on writing the best sentence, she backs down and sticks with what she knows: she separates the two sentences with a period. The writer is not happy with it, but she knows that it’s “grammatically correct.” The play-it-safe writer settles for less than her best, while the unfortunate reader is left with disconnected, choppy prose.

The experienced writer, though, knows how and when to make even the most complex moves. She knows how to combine sentences—and she does so with full confidence. (In fact, she knows about five or six ways to combine any given set of sentences—and all of these possibilities are at her disposal.) Through mastering the real rules of writing, the experienced writer liberates herself from the chains of those pseudo-rules that are so often forced upon students in grade school English.

Contrary to popular perceptions, those who know the rules of grammar and mechanics are not the ones who are bound by them. The ones who are bound are those who do not know the rules. They are bound by their uncertainty and by the many false rules that they learned about writing at an early age. Perhaps recalling bad experiences in past English courses, these people have been scared, quite literally, out of their wits. I am writing this blog to free such writers so that they can compose the sentences that reflect the dreams, ideas, and assertions that they want—and need—to express.

The first step to liberating your writing is to develop what I call a writer’s toolbox—a set of essential writing techniques that the writer can call upon at any time. In the same way that a carpenter works with many more tools than a hammer and a saw, so too should the writer work with more tools than the period and the question mark. With every technique you add to your toolbox, both your confidence and your eloquence will increase. You will write a memo to your boss with confidence. You will be certain that you used commas in all the right places. You will know when you make your readers laugh. In short, you will know that your writing is effective: that it will achieve your goals. At that point, writing will no longer be a chore; it will be a pleasure—or, at least, an invigorating challenge.

Up to this point, I have been discussing the rules of writing, but really I prefer to talk about practices instead of rules. To find out more about the practices of writing, read on by clicking the link below:

Effective Writing Practices: More Important Than Rules

If you are interested in skipping to subject-specific article series, feel free to visit these links to begin reading. (Note: These articles will be added over time. The links may not be available today. Stay tuned.)

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).