I’ve been thinking about writing a grammar post for a long time. Stop groaning; I can hear you all the way over here. I’m not going to talk about the technicalities of commas and capitalization. Instead, I want to talk about the motivation *behind those technicalities.
So, why do we care about grammar and punctuation? They are just nitpicky traditions, anyway. Aren’t they?
Yes and no. They serve an important purpose by smoothing the way for your reader/listener to hear your message instead of your medium. It is their JOB to be invisible but to make your words shine brighter. If you mess them up, your reader might have to struggle to figure out what you meant, which means they are no longer engrossed in your story. They might have to reread a sentence (or more), which means they aren’t reading forward. Or if you forget to break your paragraphs when you switch to a new character’s speech/action, your readers might have to reread to figure out who said or did what. By failing the technicalities, you have failed your reader.
Written punctuation also allows you insert drama and emphasis where *you want it. Yes, by making your reader unconsciously pause longer or shorter, you can shift emphasis to a particular word or phrase or idea. You can influence the voice of the character. You can slow the action or speed it up. You can shift emotions in the character *and the reader. That’s right— you can hijack your reader’s brain and make them think what you want them to think. And sure, the words do a lot of the work, but I assure you, sneaky punctuation can make them not even realize what you did…
So, am I just advocating for following stupid rules all the time? Nope, not what I said. I’ve been known to use commas incorrectly to help a sentence be easier to read. And then there are big rule-breakers, like fragments and run-on sentences. The “rules” say to never use them, but they are actually useful to a writer when used sparingly. Fragments can speed action and add emphasis. Run-ons can create voice or show emotion. Changing where your paragraphs break can add drama.
I just said breaking rules is okay, so what difference do they make after all? Okay, let me rephrase. You should follow the rules almost all the time, so that *when you break them on purpose* it has the precise effect you want. For instance, if half your sentences are fragments, then nothing has emphasis and your reader will struggle to figure out which half-sentences belong together rather than feeling the one-two punch of the isolated phrase.
Fine, you’re convinced that grammar and punctuation are the good guys. Why not just let your editor fix your mistakes?
- You want to be a professional. Learn to use your tools. Words might be your hammer and sentences your screwdriver as you assemble your story, but grammar and punctuation are your nails, screws, and veneer. (If you don’t want to be a professional, which is totally fine, please see #5.)
- Editors charge more to clean up a bigger mess. Yes, they do, whether they tell you that or not. So the cleaner your manuscript is, the less you will pay. No, you can’t possibly clean it up enough for it to be free— you still owe something for their time.
- If you are submitting to a publisher, which do you think they would rather buy? A good story with a ton of technical errors to fix, or a good story with few errors? “But,” you say, “I’m competing against the BAD stories, and I’m better, with or without errors.” Nope, you’re competing against the good stories. The bad stories already got kicked out.
- Remember me talking about creating the precise effect you want? Do you think your editor is going to know exactly how you want to hijack your reader’s brain? Um, probably not. He or she will certainly try, but if you want to be sure of getting it right, you need to do it yourself. Yes, your editor will still help you fix typos and misplaced commas. Nobody expects you to be perfect, just competent.
- If you are still at the beta reading stage, or if you are writing only for fun, then the icky technical details don’t matter, right? Wrong! Imagine for a moment that you are visiting a famous garden. You heard it was full of beautiful roses and acres of meadow flowers, but when you arrive, you discover it’s covered in weeds. “Oh, never mind that,” your guide says. “The flowers are still there, and we’ll get it weeded next month, before the Queen comes. For you, just pretend the weeds are gone. Look, there’s a flower. All those yellow things there are flowers. Over here are the blue ones. Smell how gorgeous they are.” And the flowers ARE there. But can you concentrate on them, or do you still see the weeds? And how do you feel about getting the weeds when the queen gets the flowers? Uh huh, that’s what I thought. So have mercy on your readers *and your story, and clean up the weeds before you show off your garden. This is actually one of my pet peeves. No, I can’t ignore the errors and just tell you about the story problems, because the weeds are setting off my hayfever!
Marty C. Lee
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