He’s studied the Rules extensively, not so that he’ll know what to do and what not to do, but so that he’ll know what to do openly and what to sneak around at.
–The Bumbler’s Apprentice (Other Loves, 2008 )
“The Rules of Drafting,” the teacher writes across the top of the board, in large squeaky letters. Underneath, he writes “1” like he’s starting a list. He circles it, but he doesn’t actually list anything for “1.” Instead, he turns to the class and asks us to guess.
Well, it’s a first-year drafting class. There aren’t many guesses. Twenty students, all boys. The girls are all in home-ec. Yeah, I know, but this is many, many years ago. To give you an idea how long ago it was: you had to have a slide rule to take the class. What? Yes, I’ll wait while you go Google “slide rule.”
Oh, good – you’re back. You know what a slide rule is now? Cool. My chosen career path being what it was (industrial design), I thought “Well, I’d better get a good one. I’ll need it all my life.” So I blew about four week’s pay from a part-time job on a used fourteen-inch, 32 scale (I think), K&E Log Log Duplex Decitrig. Several years older than myself, it was made of laminated bamboo, with ivory faces (yeah, the elephant stuff – this was a long time ago), and a rock crystal cursor with an adjustable hairline made from a single strand of a horse’s tail. By the time my high school years were over, it wasn’t worth five bucks, shot as dead as any crippled horse by a smart-aleck electronic upstart called the HP-35.
Back to the drafting class. There were three of us who had taken similar classes before, and we offered our guesses as to the “First Rule of Drafting.”
“Always use the alphabet of lines?” asked the boy on my left.
“Not it,” said the teacher.
“Use the proper tolerances on your dimensions,” said the boy to my right.
“Not it,” said the teacher, but he hiked one eyebrow up above his scalp a foot or so, which we were to learn meant he was impressed.
“In the beginning was the centerline,” I say, cribbing from last year’s teacher, three thousand miles away.
He just points at me for a good five seconds, his eyebrow hovering up there like magic.
“No,” he says finally. “But that’s a good one. I’ll make that number two.” He turns to the board and writes “Anytime anything can be gained in clarity by breaking any of the rules of drafting, including this one, break it, but only when there is a gain in clarity.”
Drafting, he explained, is communication. You are creating a set of instructions and directions. In all communications, clarity is paramount. The rules exist to provide clarity, and nine times out of ten, clarity will be best served by obeying them. But when the rules stand in the way of clarity, go around them.
My career path turned out to have a good many more speed bumps and u-turns in it than I had expected, but it did eventually come back around to drafting and industrial design, and I never forgot the “First Rule of Drafting.” Somewhere along the way, I lost my slide rule and gained a scary understanding of such new things as PCs, MS-DOS, and linear track drafting machines. Then another upstart called AutoCad killed off the linear track. I acquired some advancements to my education, and I ended up in charge of a network of some pretty high-powered machines, but I never forgot that rule and that floating eyebrow.
Through the processes of interviewing and hiring, I discovered that the truly excellent drafter always looks like he’s obeying the rules, even when he isn’t, because the rare violations are so necessary and the need so obvious that the violation becomes its own kind of obedience, obedience to the higher goal, clarity. This philosophy carries over into other aspects of the drafter’s professional life, including résumé writing.
I never had to advertise an opening. In a typical week, I might get twenty résumés, of which I’d toss at least nineteen. I’d scan them in seconds, looking for mistakes. I didn’t care about schooling, or work experience, or references. Not first. You want me to hire you, you want me to sit you down in front of my computer, and give you the big bucks to crank out communication documents for my bosses, but you can’t take communication seriously enough to see to it that your own résumé is correct?!
So what’s my point? Why am I dragging in all this stuff about drafting?
Because drafting is communication. And so is writing. If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, it has to begin with you. Take yourself seriously enough to learn the craft, and to hone it every chance you get. Learn the rules, and learn when to obey them and when breaking them will better serve your purpose.
There are any number of good reference books. Many of them can be read online, and all of them can be purchased with a mouse click and a piece of plastic. Failing that, ask around. Find one of those “writer’ communities” online, and ask, if you need to know whether to say its or it’s, who’s or whose. Ask, if you need to know where the apostrophe goes (or if it goes) in a given contraction or possessive. Ask about grammar, syntax, spelling, diction, anything. If you’re embarrassed about asking, then email me. I’ll keep your secret, and I’ll help you become a better writer. And if I don’t know, then I’ll ask, and I’ll pretend it’s just for me.
Every piece you ever write, online or off, story or post, comment or novel, is your résumé. Every single time you fail to capitalize, every single wrong word, every error of grammar, is another reader lost.
Fiction’s forgiving. You can do all kinds of things and get away with it. You can always claim it’s character voicing, at the very least. But you see, you have to look good doing it. If your writings look like the scribblings of someone who doesn’t know the rules, or who doesn’t care about them, then you can’t expect respect.
Here’s a hint, a general rule of thumb: if you’re not reading at least a couple of hours a day, you’re probably not taking your craft seriously enough.
Just from where I sit, without even moving, I can see two dictionaries, the best thesaurus ever published, seven books on writing, four novels, and a book of short stories. That’s just the stuff that’s piled up in here since the last time I decided to get organized and put things away. Each and every one of the books in this pile is a way for me to learn, a place to see rules being followed and rules being broken (some successfully, some not), a place to hone my craft on the mistakes and successes of others. Build your own pile, and plow it assiduously, and you can’t help but improve your writing.
Read. Write. Repeat.
By the way:
Should you ever need to escape from zombies, remember that you have to actually chop them into pieces that cannot move on their own, or they will simply keep coming after you.