We forget sometimes, I think, that writing is an art. Perhaps we don’t remember that often enough because we believe we’re not artists, thinking of artists first as people who can draw or paint or sing. But to be an artist means to be artful, which means to be skilled, to do something well or make something beautiful by knowing how to do it. Being skilled, being an artist, involves knowledge, and becoming skilled begins with learning about the medium in which one wants to work.
For a writer, that medium is language, written words that combine themselves into phrases and clauses. And these three things—words, phrases, and clauses—are the elements of the art of language; they are, together, the medium, the material, that we are to shape into sentences which, strange to say, can symbolize our experiences and carry over to someone else what we have seen or heard or lived through. To symbolize, or represent, ideas in a particular medium means to express them.
The art of language, like all the arts, then, is a means of expression, and the more we know how the elements work, the better we can assure ourselves that what are writing—what we are thinking about—accords with the truth of things. Doing something well or making something beautiful is a creative act, and creation (this, too, we forget) is messy, a furious impulse, often, that cannot have effect and point, cannot mean something to someone else, unless it is given a certain recognizable shape. Knowing how the elements of language work gives us a way to purposefully shape our creative impulse; then our readers read the form and take possession of our ideas. We allow ourselves with our ideas and thoughts and beliefs to be seen; and we then, in turn, engage what others think, and so have the chance to refine our own perceptions and rethink, perhaps, our first conclusions. The old philosophical word for this was dialectics, conversational thinking, the exchange of ideas—all in the pursuit of truth, not merely self-assertion.
To worry, then, about the shape of our sentences means to care that much about what we ourselves think. And this, to be sure, is the best justification for all the patient study that is needed to learn the elements of grammar and style. Grammar is the skeleton and style the flesh, and what keeps them together and accounts for their beauty is clear thinking, logic, reason. Artists undertake their skillful work in order to make sense of things, to go in search of truth. But finding what they—what we—believe to be the truth is not enough to guarantee that it is, in fact, the truth; and this is why we must put such importance on form, on the shape we give to our sentences. For then, when we embody what we think is the truth, it can be tested by someone else who is also in pursuit of the truth. We work together, in a common project to understand together and live together, well and beautifully.
Art is purposeful work skillfully executed, and we become part of that work, become artists, when we take to learning how we can work well in a certain medium. And once that knowledge is in our hands, the work has the chance to turn, at last, into pleasure, and even delight.