Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ack! Grammar!

So, let's talk grammar.

The good news: The rules of grammar can be bent, twisted, and in some cases, broken, in creative writing. As opposed to formal writing, in creative writing, we're allowed dashes (which I adore!), fragments (which I also adore), run-ons (which I personally don't adore), and many other errors that a formal writing teacher would be happy to slay with one stroke of her bright-red pen.

The bad news: The rules of grammar cannot be totally thrown out the window in the name of creative writing. Things like too many run-ons, lack of proper format and punctuation, misspelled words (accidental), wordy/wandering/meandering sentences that have no clear focus, etc. These should not be acceptable, even in creative writing.

Which brings me to this: if a writer cannot master the elementary basics of grammar, the reader will learn quickly not to trust him/her. And, worst of all, poor grammar distracts the reader from the point being made.

I've seen this happen over and over again with my students - they'll have a nail-biting plot, smooth dialogue, deep characterization - but I'm too busy marking the myriad of run-ons, the lack of punctuation surrounding dialogue, the missing indents for each new line of dialogue, and the misspelled words, to see the good stuff. Sure, as a teacher, I'm actually looking for that sort of thing. It's my job. But - the reader will catch it, too, and will be distracted from the sparkling text.

Bad grammar always gets in the way. It's almost like a crimson wine stain on an otherwise-pristine white carpet. What's our eye drawn to? Always the stain.

And, honestly, agents/editors won't give a stained-with-bad-grammar manuscript a second glance. They'll look at a poorly-written page, no matter how brilliant its text, and move along. On to the next writer.

So - know the basic rules of grammar first. Honor them. Only then are you free to bend them.

In the words of T.S. Eliot: "It's not wise to violate the rules until you know how to observe them."


  1. A very important point for writers!

    I'm linking back to you.

  2. I'm afraid some of the subtler rules, which are nonetheless markers of good writing, are disappearing even from journalism. I'm continually appalled at the number of misplaced modifiers and misused pronouns that I see daily in the newspaper. Between you and I, it's a veritable plague of grammatical dysfunction.
    (That was a nerdy grammarian's joke)

  3. LOL, Gayle - I liked your joke! Sadly, you're spot-on, about the rules disappearing where they shouldn't (journalism, particularly). I'm afraid it's only going to get worse. *sigh*

  4. I agree...grammar may not be as important in 'some' creative writing assignments. But always, in dealing with editors/agents, that 'first impression' can make the difference. Nice way of illustrating this...with the 'crimson wine stain' example.