Do Writers Really Have to Learn All That (Yucky) Grammar?

In a word, yes. In two words: absolutely yes.

I hear groans. I hear protests. You hated English Comp in school? Old, crotchety Mrs. Snigglegrass made you dissect sentences and name the parts of speech? You got a what as your final grade?

I feel your pain. Who ever makes grammar fun and easy? Learning grammar, to some people, is as much fun as getting a tooth pulled. Or having to memorize the multiplication tables or the capitals of all the countries in the world (remember when they never changed?). Terms like dangling modifiers, predicates, participial phrases, and subjunctive mood give some people the chills. Did you have to conjugate verbs back in junior high? Do you know the difference between the past progressive tense and the past perfect? No? Do you care? More than likely, you don’t.

Every Vocation Requires a Knowledge of Tools

But how in the world will you be a proficient handler of the English language if you don’t know anything about the tools of your trade? What would you think if you brought your ailing car to a mechanic and he didn’t have any tools in the shop? Or he had a box full of tools but hadn’t a clue how to use any of them correctly.

For some reason, many writers feel they should get to “pass go” and proceed to “the bank” without having to do the hard work of learning to write well and become a master (or mistress) at handling language. I often wonder about the logic of that.

I work on about two hundred manuscripts a year—critiquing and editing—and I’m astonished at how poorly written some are. I’m not talking about novel structure, which is difficult and tricky to learn. I’m talking about very basic grammatical issues—punctuation, spelling, sentence structure. Granted, many writers send me a rough draft to work on, so I don’t expect them to have edited it to perfection. But what I see a lot is a lack of understanding regarding so many of the basics of good writing.

A Time to Gush and a Time to Polish

Some of this is just sloppy or lazy writing due to hurrying to slap thoughts on the page, and I get that. I encourage writers to gush and let their prose flow in their first draft. But I would expect they would then follow through by rereading at some future date and cleaning up the mess. And more importantly, knowing how to.

I’m not saying every writer must have super editing chops and spend months memorizing the Chicago Manual of Style. Just as we don’t expect all doctors to memorize Gray’s Anatomy. (Should we? Do they?)

I’m afraid, though, that many writers haven’t a clue how to clean up their messy manuscripts. And even worse, many don’t really care. They think it’s their editor’s job to transform the mess into perfect prose. And we editors often do that; maybe you think I should be grateful for the job security. But, speaking for myself, I would rather work on a draft that’s been carefully edited and shows the writer not only cares about what she’s written but has a respect for the English language (or whatever language she writes in). The way some writers mutilate language makes me wonder if they have a love-hate relationship with writing.

A mechanic or building contractor will take good care of his or her tools, learning to wield them correctly, and will choose the best tool for the specific task at hand. Words are the writer’s tools. Shouldn’t writers treat words similarly? We expect that anyone wanting to become a teacher, nurse, commercial truck driver, or plumber has to hit the books and learn their vocation. So why do so many people feel that being a writer exempts from having to take the time to learn proper grammar? Who started that lie anyway?

Proficiency Leads to Competency and Confidence

One morning I asked my surgeon/author friend to describe how he prepared for each surgery. He went on to explain how he filled out a “menu” of the surgical instruments he would need, which varied depending on the type of surgery he was about to perform. He would put a check mark next to numerous scalpels and other items (which I wouldn’t know what to call) and then turn in his menu. When he entered the operating room, he’d find his requested instruments and accessories neatly lined up waiting for him. With those specific tools, he could perform his surgery efficiently, competently, and confidently.

Well, no one is going to die if I don’t have the exact grammar tools or know all the rules when I sit down to write my novel, right? (you may be arguing). True, although I’ll be daring enough to say if you are lacking a lot of those proper tools, the patient (read: your novel, story, article, or post) may die a slow (or quite fast) and painful death. Which could have an adverse effect on your career as a writer.

You want your writing to shine. You want to show the world you are a terrific writer. Well then, Physician, know thy tools. Then you can perform your writing “operations” efficiently, competently, and confidently. And let me just add this: when you have the right tools and know how to use them, it always makes a job so much easier than if you don’t.

The fun thing about being grown-ups is we can decide how, when, and what we want to learn. The challenge is to erase the bad associations we have with certain subjects we suffered through in school (such as English Comp?) and find a new joy in the learning. It may sound trite, but it truly is a matter of attitude. Make the decision to adopt a healthy attitude about learning grammar. Set aside some time each day or week to dig into books or websites that can teach you what some of those yucky things are all about. Who knows, you may even learn to love those dang(ling) participles or misplaced modifiers!

So, Here’s a Book That Will Help!

If you’ve been following my blog for the last two years, you know that I’ve never promoted any of my own books outright. But I’m going to make an exception today! Fans of my Say What? section on this blog have requested I compile the posts so that they don’t have to keep printing them out and putting them in their notebook.

Say What front coverSo in keeping with this request, I’ve published this handy grammar guide! It includes three years of posts (including all the ones that will run this year) and offers dozens of writing tips specifically for fiction writers.

Who has the time to spend hours mulling through books or online sites looking for that quick answer to a specific grammar question? Not me. With these short, concise, and entertaining explanations of the most common issues writers face in regard to grammar, punctuation, and word usage, you can find your answer and get back to what really matters—writing!

Happy writing!

Feature Photo Credit: -mrsraggle- via Compfight cc

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  1. CJ, I have been working on improving my writing skills before I put my book on to paper. Jodie Renner referred me to your Live Write Thrive blog and I have been following each post. After the first two blogs I decided I need a hard copy of your book. I purchased your book on February 8th. I was about to order the kindle version when I read your free ebook offer in today’s blog.

    Was your offer for a free e-book available on that day? I would like to carry your book with me on my I-pad. Your book has become my grammar and writing resource. If your offer was available then I didn’t see it on the amazon page. How do I go about getting the kindle link?

  2. C.J., I have been working on improving my writing skills before I put my book on to paper. Jodie Renner referred me to your Live Write Thrive blog and I have been following each post. After the first two blogs I decided I need a hard copy of your book. I purchased your book on February 8th. I was about to order the kindle version when I read your free ebook offer in today’s blog.

    Was your offer for a free e-book available on that day? I would like to carry your book with me on my I-pad. Your book has become my grammar and writing resource. If your offer was available then I didn’t see it on the amazon page. How do I go about getting the kindle link?

    1. From what I understand, you just purchase the ebook, and when you do, Amazon will note that since you already bought the print book, the ebook will be free. I don’t think it matters when you bought the print book, so give it a try!

  3. Yes, I agree and good for you for being so direct about it. I ‘edit’ my book at least 5 times after I think I have finished it for content and spelling and grammar etc. Imagine my surprise when I ‘completed’ my first book after 2 years of writing. Off it went to the Simon and Schuster editor and 6 months later! the conversation between her and I and the editing was completed! I have no idea if that time frame is ‘normal’ or not but the book was so much improved.
    Now, I am a self publisher, so if you know any good editors that don’t cost a fortune! for a fiction love story, please let me know. I would really appreciate it.

  4. Great. I always thought that was what an editor was for but as an ex- nurse I do get the importance of knowing your tools. Gonna slip Improving Your Written Language of the bookshelf today. 😉

  5. I like the analogy of the mechanic with the tool box, but if you hit something with a hammer, you hit something with a hammer. If you have a Phillips screw head, you use a Phillips screwdriver. My problem with grammar is my head just doesn’t get it. Also with grammar, one person says do it this way, and another person says do it that way.
    If I’ve got a hammer and something needs hitting, it gets hit, there isn’t someone telling me I should tickle it with a feather!
    I have brought your book because I enjoy your posts, I’m gonna give grammar some serious hammering…Thanks

  6. CS, thank you for this! Having taught English composition for a long, long time, I understand the importance of using correct grammar, sentence structure, spelling, and punctuation in any kind of writing that’s intended to be read by someone other than the writer. These elements of writing are at the very least reflections of the writer’s competence, and it’s embarrassing to get them wrong. Quite often, though, they’re also really essential parts of communication, and getting them wrong can be misleading or even dangerous. Need I say that communicating what you mean is important??

    These things are especially true of writing for publication. Lately I’ve read — or started to read — several self-published books whose authors can’t self-edit and haven’t seen fit to pay a competent editor. Being able to self-publish is wonderful, but I think writers really owe us all the courtesy of self-publishing clean, correct prose. Otherwise we’re all judged by the very worst of what’s out there.

  7. AS a writer who’s first language is not English, I thoroughly believe that grammar is essential if you want to be an effective writer. Many readers today are very discerning and they can immediately notice grammatical errors – often in a not so nice way. I am still trying to improve my grammar. Thanks for this post!

  8. As a writer and poet I agree that certain levels of craft and skill are what divide a serious writer from one that is not. But I find your complaints as an editor to be mean spirited. It is true that your job is not limited to proofing manuscripts for spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors. Yet it is also true that you are not the author, and that you are getting paid in most cases. It is also true that there is a reason for proof readers and editors. The skills of creation are not the same as creation. You have no idea how insulting this blog post is.

    1. I’m sorry this offended you. I’m also an author of eighteen books, and I’ve had plenty of editors and proofreaders work on my books as well. So I’m very familiar with being on both sides of the table, so to speak. If you sense any mean-spiritedness, that isn’t coming from me. My point being that writers really should invest in their work and display professionalism–making sure their work is stellar and as error-free as possible, as it speaks to their dedication, skill, and seriousness about being a writer.

  9. I would love to purchase this book. I’m working on my first book, and I feel like I spend too much time reading and proofreading. Even after all of that I am still skipping errors. I love to write for fun I recently realized one of my books has the potential to be something great, and I plan to publish it soon. So I hope your book helps me with what I dread the most fixing grammatical errors. Some may feel offended, but this is important! We have the English language for a reason!

  10. I write for pleasure and still care enough about my work to get it as polished as my capabilities will allow. Thanks to the Internet, and many grammar checker programmes available for free, there is no reason not to polish our manuscripts to a point where they are readable. These programmes aren’t perfect, but they are a great help. Modern literature is full of grammatical error, mainly because the way we speak and communicate with others is usually grammatically wrong. Just get your story off your chest and then edit as best you can. The editing stage is where you craft your work.

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