"Read lots. Read everything. Read more."
But I'm beginning to realise more and more that this sort of advice is, in many case, obsolete. If someone is serious about becoming a serious author, they will read. It goes without saying that they will read often and widely, if they truly wish to become a good author. This sort of advice, then, is irrelevant to those who are determined.
Recently, I've become aware of some different advice: some advice that is not shouted from the rooftops, that is not found in the mouth of all school teachers or lecturers. It's something that should go without saying ... but because of today's visually-minded society (and because of the education system in specific places), it is not emphasised.
When I was at school, grammar was pretty much my favorite subject. I ate my grammar books. They were awesome. There was something deeply satisfying about tearing apart sentences and seeing how they worked - about being able to put the name of a part of speech to every single word in a sentence.
Now, I live in New Zealand. I have to admit, I'm not clued up on the education systems of other countries. But what I do know is that in New Zealand, we have removed grammar as a subject from our school educations.
Yes, that's right: removed it. There's still English, but it's more like Themes in Literature. There's still composition. But it appears that there's no in depth study of parts of speech, sentence structure, tenses, diagramming, etc.
So when I went to university and did a year two editing and proofreading course via distance, the course material proceeded to tell me what a noun was, in painstaking language. I couldn't believe it. This was the course I had paid seven hundred dollars for? It couldn't be.
But it was. I was reminded of punctuation, tenses, spelling, capitalisation, and sentence structure - all things that I had learnt in detail in school. The end result? I received Top Student for that semester of distance students throughout NZ. Okay, it looks good on my CV. But hey, I'm seriously not that smart. It's just that I learnt all that stuff earlier, because I had a completely different education system. I was home schooled, and I went through a series of grammar books.
Having received Top Student is not a comment on my intelligence. It's a comment on the difference between the education system I went through and the one that most New Zealanders go through. I'm not attacking the New Zealand education system. I'm just saddened by the fact that this important subject is almost bypassed. This case was highlighted to me recently in a couple of novel-length manuscripts I read by fellow authors. Grammar just isn't being taught the way it used to be.
This causes a huge problem for young authors (like me) who (unlike me) went through the school system in New Zealand. They've read widely. They have excellent vocabularies; their powers of expression are exemplary; they have good notions of plot and character development; they can write decent dialogues ... but because their grammar is hopelessly flawed, every draft they write will need rewriting. And every time they try to get a literary agent or a publisher, they will get a rejection.
This is, quite simply, not fair.
So I'd like to try giving young aspiring authors (particularly those from New Zealand) some different advice:
Check your grammar. Read grammar books. Order grammar textbooks from the USA. Learn to understand the machinery of the sentence. Practise editing scenes that you have written. Find someone who can help teach you. And then, write like you never have before.
You deserve to succeed.