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Sin and Syntax:
How to Craft Wickedly
Effective Prose

by Constance Hale

Field-Tested by Cheshire Isaacs

in Burlingame, California

In February 2003, Sarah and I had holed ourselves up in the under-reconstruction Crowne Plaza hotel in Burlingame, where she was taking the California Bar Exam. This was actually our second such encampment in that hotel, which was, seven months later, still undergoing the incessant bang! bang! bang! metamorphosis from stale, old, business-travelers’ way station to stylish, new-economy, business-travelers’ oasis. The exterior still looked old, even at this point (it wouldn’t be finished until sometime around our third and final occupation the following July), but the interiors set a radical new standard for largish, airport-proximate hotels: bold colors, unusually comfortable, overstuffed chairs, toilets at strange and beautiful angles, and towels that were not only plush, but unbelievably, not white.

It was the perfect setting in which to read Sin and Syntax, a guide to breathing life into your writing, no matter what you’re writing.

The book itself is hip and sharp, from the cover on through, and it looked right at home in the Crowne Plaza’s bathroom. The book’s structure may border on precious (chapters are broken up into sections such as “Bones,” “Flesh,” “Cardinal Sins,” and “Carnal Pleasures”), and the author gets a little breathless here and there, but that’s because she is absolutely in love with writing, perhaps obsessively so. She knows the mechanics of language inside and out, and when she breaks rules, she knows just when and how to do it right. You can’t build a smart, subversive sentence, or hotel, for that matter, without knowing the fundamentals of construction and just how far you can adapt them to your purposes without making a mess.

And best of all, she doesn’t get hung up on idiotic rules such as “thou shalt never start a sentence with a conjunction.” She understands that though much of grammar is grounded in a desire to communicate clearly, there are arbitrary elements as well that have been standardized, and they’re all fair game. In her world, which must be filled with hotels with toilets at weird angles, vibrant personality always trumps the status quo.

Cheshire Isaacs is a writer and art director in Emeryville, California.

Buy Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose

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