'Tis the season … so here's some unashamed regifting: a year-end roundup, featuring an all-star team whose members have appeared in these columns.
First, my Uncle Ollie, who sent me his copy of the New Yorker every week after he read it. If you let the quality of that magazine's writing and editing wash over you and if you follow its example, your writing will grow stronger.
Second, my mother, who taught me to read when I was 4, sounding out letters and words on a ketchup label. You can give your kids and grandkids the same gift.
Third, my sixth-grade English teacher, Miss Moore, who taught us to diagram a sentence, giving us a keen sense of the structure of language. Back to her later.
Fourth, my college English professor, John Finch, who taught us to create an outline before starting to write. The benefit: All your thinking goes into the outline; when you start to write, just follow the outline.
Fifth, the playwright August Wilson, who gave us this advice: "The simpler you say it, the more eloquent it is."
Sixth, William Zinsser, whose book "On Writing Well" is the bible for writers; he called curiosity the key to discovering what's worth writing about. He said, "I'm just trying to have an interesting life."
Seventh, and last for now, the wisdom of the master, Joseph Conrad: "My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything."
Now, as promised, back to Miss Moore. Her allegiance to the rules of grammar preceded the evolution of a new consciousness about effective communication. Her dictum: Never start a sentence with the word "and" or the word "but."
But these days, if you follow her rule, you sacrifice opportunities for emphasis. Starting with "and" or "but" can prove as emphatic as italics or boldface. And that, Miss Moore, is my respectful rebuttal.
She had another rule: Never write a one-word sentence.
Apologies to Miss Moore. She deserves better than that. But a one-word sentence, or a one-word paragraph — used sparingly — cannot fail to rivet a reader's attention.
Isn't that the goal writers strive to achieve? But it's important to know the rules of grammar, so that when you do break a rule your reader recognizes the effect you are creating.
In other words, break any rule … as long as it works.
Gary Gilson, a Twin Cities writing coach and five-time Emmy Award winner in public television, has taught writing-intensive journalism courses at Colorado College for 22 years. Contact him at www.writebetterwithgary.com.