Do I have your attention now?
How can an editor say grammar doesn’t matter? Isn’t that like a doctor breaking the Hippocratic oath? Will grammar primers and dictionaries around the world suddenly burst into flames??
Read on, and find out what I’m talking about…
Grammar isn’t everything
When it comes to writing books, grammar is not the only thing.
It’s not even the most important thing.
Let me use an example to show you what I mean.
Many of us studied The Diary of Anne Frank at school, also known as The Diary of a Young Girl. It’s the personal journal of a young girl hiding from the Nazis in the Netherlands during WWII. The family was betrayed and Anne died in Bergen-Belsen shortly before the concentration camp was liberated. Her diary provides an extraordinary glimpse into what life was like in those times of fear.
- When that diary was first presented to publishers by Anne’s father, do you think they said, “What splendid grammar, spelling and punctuation this girl has! We absolutely must publish this diary because this girl really knows her gerunds from her past participles!” Do you really and truly think her writing technique was the most important thing about that manuscript? Of course not.
- Alternatively, imagine if they’d said, “No, it’s fascinating, but her grammar is not precise, so we can’t publish this.” One of the most influential books of the 20th century would have been lost!
Story is everything
We don’t all live in circumstances as historically exceptional as Anne Frank’s, but we do all have a unique story. She had a story to tell, and she was a good storyteller. That’s what made her book worth publishing and reading and publishing again.
Are you a good storyteller? This applies no matter what you are writing. Even a book on how to play the stockmarket will sing if told by a storyteller.
Releasing your inner storyteller is more important than grammar, spelling and punctuation. Stop fretting so much about technique, and spin us a yarn! What is so fascinating about your topic? Go on, make us interested.
And why grammar DOES matter
Ha ha, gotcha!
You knew an editor couldn’t bear to just leave it like that, didn’t you?
But pay attention… it’s important to know why grammar, spelling and punctuation ARE important. And it may not be for the reasons you’ve assumed.
- It’s not so you can be Right.
- It’s not so you can feel superior to someone else.
- It’s not so you can appease the grammar dragons at the bottom of the literary garden.
It’s about much more important things than that.
The single most important reason to aim for correct usage of the English language is MEANING. You want to communicate with another human. And you want to convey exactly what you mean.
You may have heard of the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves. It’s the manifesto of the Punctuation Police, but the important thing to note is that the placement of a comma can completely change the meaning of those four words. “Eats, shoots and leaves” describes a killer. “Eats shoots and leaves” describes a panda. Who knew a comma could be so powerful?
The spelling example I use is:
“a whale of a time at the beach” — a happy family seaside outing
“a wail of a time at the beech” — an unusual woodland ritual.
Which one did YOU do on Saturday? 😉
Spelling, grammar and punctuation, when they come unstuck, can make your words mean something quite different than what you intended.
And the absolutely most important reason for getting them right is so that meaning is transferred as accurately as possible from your mind to the mind of the reader. (Is it just me, or is grammar starting to sound like some kind of Vulcan mind-meld?)
And here’s the sting in the tail… even if YOU don’t know the difference a comma or a grammatical construction can make to meaning, many of your readers WILL know. And they will assume you meant what the words appear to say. They are not psychic. (Most of them aren’t, anyway. I can’t speak for everyone.)
So it’s important to get it right.
It’s all about communication. Communication communication communication. Got it? 😉
2. Being taken seriously
The second reason it matters is your reputation and potential for success.
- If you are self-publishing a non-fiction book to support your business, you might do your reputation more harm than good if the writing is a technical mess. At the very least, get it copy-edited. If the budget is incredibly tight, there are online services that will link you up with people in other parts of the world (but try to get someone whose first language is English!)
- If you are self-publishing any kind of book for any purpose, and your grammar is a catastrophe, you will get bad reviews. And that will undercut your sales and your ability to reach readers. Even if you hire an editor, you’ll pay a lot more for editing because they have so much work to do to bring your manuscript up to scratch. And that reduces your chances of making a profit from the book, and being able to write more books.
- If you are shopping a book — non-fiction, novel or memoir — to literary agents, they are unlikely to move forward with you if you lack fundamental writing skill (unless of course you have the next Diary of Anne Frank. 😉 ) This is not because they’re posh and elitist, but because they are running madly trying to meet deadlines, and if your technique is bad, they’ll have to do a lot more work to get your manuscript to a saleable standard. These days they just can’t afford to spend the time renovating a great concept that’s been badly executed.
So, what now?
If you long to be a serious writer, but your weak grasp of grammar, spelling and punctuation is holding you back:
- Stop letting it hold you back. Are you a good storyteller? Do you have a good story to tell? (Yes, even non-fiction is a story.) Just start writing and allow the story within you to Become. 😉 Grammar, spelling and punctuation, we can fix. The story is what matters the most. Let it out! Some inspiring books to read on the subject are Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by the Hollywood screenwriter Robert McKee, and an intriguing one I’ve just started reading myself, Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content by Mark Levy.
- Start valuing yourself as a writer. You are worth developing. Book into a course at your local community college, or an online course, or read some books on the subject. One of my favourites, which I’ve mentioned before, is My Grammar and I Or Should That Be Me?: Old School Ways to Improve Your English — short and light and funny and not too legalistic. If you’re serious about writing as a career, passion or calling, upskill to make it easier for yourself to achieve your dreams.
What’s your experience? Are you a slave to grammar, spelling and punctuation? Or do you feel free to concentrate on your Story? Scroll down and leave a comment!
Virginia King says
This is a great description of the storymaking process. Thanks, Belinda. When I was teaching children to write as a publisher, not a classroom teacher, I had seven-year-olds in my workshops sobbing because they were afraid to write a word if they didn’t know how to spell it. I started each workshop with a five-minute writing blitz with a stupid topic and the rules were: make lots of mistakes, don’t stop, don’t cross out. It was liberating. I had kids in love with writing. Grammar comes later. And then of course, you need to know the rules to break them, with panache. 🙂
Belinda Pollard says
Yaaay, Virginia! Your comment made me so excited. I love it when people (of any age) can get past their fear of technique and just tell the amazing story that lives inside them. Grammar is the decoration on the icing on the cake, not the fundamental ingredient. 🙂
Virginia King says
Very intresting.And it’s the reason why I always tell people at my-diary to not apologize for their spelling mistakes in their stories.Even I misspelled “assasain”so many times in Warrior&Healer(short story on my-diary)that it was the only”unintentioned”spelling mistake in the whole story.
I just let my story flow,and worry about grammar later.
LadyLagoon-The Italian Chick/Aspi/Manager/Diary Writer/Storyteller/www.my-diary.org/read/d/809141
Belinda Pollard says
Thanks Lady Lagoon, yes it’s important not to stop the flow of the story. We can dampen creativity when we get worried about details mid-flow. We can use spellcheck, editors and proofreaders to help us clean up the details later. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂
i’m confused, what i need to do, learning grammar as much as i can or remembering many of vocabulary as much as i can, or learning grammar correctly
if i could use english grammaticaly, but my chat friend can’t, doesn’t it has same meaning
so, why do we must spend many of our time to learn Grammars
i’m from Indonesia, Bali island, sorry if you don’t understand with those word
Belinda Pollard says
Hi Samuel, the power of grammar, spelling and punctuation is in being able to communicate. So, if you can already communicate successfully with your chat friend, the details of grammar are not important. But if you are having trouble communicating with each other, that’s when it’s helpful to learn some grammar.
Congratulations on writing in English. I’ve tried writing in another language that I was trying to learn, and I find it very hard. Best wishes to you in your communication!
Donna Thompson says
Thank you for your insightful article Belinda. When you are in the throws of the muse , follow as they say on Twitter. A gifted editor plus your own, all be it painful , quest for grammatical conquest is key when you walk , skip run, through the revision(s). The ability to hone grammar should come naturally, like eating and digesting food . Unless……your are wanting it faster faster x 3. Help!! comparative adjectives are overtaking my sentence structure. The seond scenario looks like this. You’re distracted by the other compexities of the novel -you know the list- and that takes up mind space as well as a few other distractions that may enter at any given moment. Such is life! Riveting really! Thanks for providing a forum for discussion and for spilling the jellybeans. I do !! enjoy your work, Belinda.
Belinda Pollard says
You’re welcome, Donna, and thanks for dropping in to my blog. Hope your writing is going really well. And where are those jellybeans???? I love jellybeans…. 😉
L. Darby Gibbs says
So, so right. Or is that “So, so write!” You made a great point. Tell the story, then make sure the story you told is the one you wanted read. I tell my students all the time if deciding where the comma goes is slowing down the muse, just write and deal with that issue later. However, if you know the rules, you’ll automatically write correctly, (most of the time. Even a grammarian is imperfect when in the throes of creation).
Belinda Pollard says
Haha, nice bit of wordplay there, Elldee. 🙂
Yes, the pros write a lot of muddle at times, just to get it out of the head and onto the page/computer. You can fix muddle later, but don’t break the flow!
I also meet lots of people who have great stories to tell, and they don’t do it because they think they’re not good enough on small technical points. To mishmash an old cliche, they’re kept from seeing the wood, by focusing on an insect that’s crawling on the bark of one of the trees. 😉
Sounds like your students have a good teacher!