Monday, August 27, 2012

"Grahmmar? We don' need no steenkeen' grahmmar!"

       I get that a lot. 
       During the last dozen or so years, two things about writing and publishing have shown themselves to me to be true beyond serious argument:
  1. Aspiring writers--most of whom don't even admit to being aspiring writers--don't think grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other nuts and bolts of writing are anything more than collateral considerations in fiction writing, side issues that aren't very important as long as they tell an irresistably delicious story that will grab the house readers by the short hairs and won't let go, that will make them so intoxicated by talent that they won't give a damn whether the author knows the difference between "your" and "you're." And, big surprise, just about all aspiring writers think they write just that kind of  irresistible story that transcends the need for uninspired cookbook-type skills like language facility.
  2. Other than sending your story to the wrong publisher--science fiction to a gardening magazine, like that--the thing that will shoot you in foot faster than anything else is something most of you don't even believe is important. Grammar, spelling, yada yada yada, collectively comprise the single biggest reason manuscripts are quickly rejected by house readers within the the first few hundred words. More than for plotting, more than for storyline, more than for any literary or artistic aspect of your work. Ask any publisher's acquisitions editor and she or he will tell you the same thing. The way they figure it, and you can't blame them, is, well, why in hell should they care about your writing if you don't. Why should they show you the respect of a good read if you insult them by presenting them with such poor workmanship. You might have the greatest story in the world in your head, but it'll get you nowhere if you lack the functional writing skills to tell it.
       Now, Item (2.) above doesn't mean grammar and punctuation are the most important components of your story. They certainly are not. It doesn't mean your story and how well you tell it aren't the most important things. They certainly are. You might construct a short story with five hundred grammatically bulletproof sentences, perfectly assembled with nary a hanging modifier or misspelling or misplaced punctuation to be seen, but if your story isn't any good nobody is going to want it. A grammatically and stylistically pristine train wreck of a story is still a train wreck. But trying to tell a great story without expertise in the nuts and bolts of writing--grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc.--is like trying to create a great painting without a knowledge of colors and brush techniques and other nuts and bolts of painting. In both crafts, you can't bend, interpret, or even ignore the "rules" as your artistry calls on you to do if you don't even know what the rules are. If you don't believe this, do future potential publishers and future prospective readers a favor and don't waste their time . . . or yours, either, for that matter. Just give up any notions you're harboring about being a professional author right now and enroll in barber college, because you're probably not meant to be a writer.


  1. Over the years in my teaching career, there was less and less emphasis on teaching grammar. We were to teach writing but not grammar. I did not subscribe to that and still don't. Good writing requires knowledge of grammatical rules and use of them. Writers should know the rules before they can dispense with them.

  2. As a long-time English teacher, I completely agree with both you and Jacqueline. In READING LIKE A WRITER, Francine Prose offers my favorite defense of being careful about grammar and related areas. A novelist friend of hers, she says, "says that writing is a bit like inviting someone to your house. The writer is the host, the reader the guest, and you, the writer, follow the etiquette because you want your readers to be more comfortable, especially if you're planning to serve them something they might not be expecting."


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