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The Importance of Good Grammar

In the age of self-publishing, and the ease with which anyone can be a writer and publish his/her own work on Amazon and the like, we find ourselves both blessed and cursed. On one hand, it’s great because anyone who’s ever wanted to write can do so. And be heard. On the other, there is no QA for the work.

Listen, I’m not trying to criticize any particular writer here. I’m sure we all have fine stories. And I applaud everyone who self-publishes for seeing it through, for writing terrible drafts and making them better until they finally have a product they feel is ready for readers! That’s the process we all take as writers. My first manuscripts were pretty horrific. But that was because I didn’t know much about storytelling. The grammar, on the other hand, has to be there.

This is something we learn in grade school all the way through high school, and into college. That’s how important it is. However, most people don’t take it seriously. Some people just don’t care to ever learn the rules. Well these rules aren’t just suggestions. They actually need to be followed, or you’ll have a bunch of words on the page that don’t associate with each other properly.

Take, for instance, the joke about “commas saving lives”:

  • Let’s eat, Grandma!
  • Let’s eat Grandma!

Those are very different sentences with entirely different meanings. Just a simple comma changes the entire outcome for poor old grandma. If that comma disappears, the characters become cannibals. Now this is a silly example, but it’s perfectly representative of the importance of grammar. It doesn’t just simply polish up your story, it makes it make sense. Without it, all you have is just a garbled mess of words. And it’s very hard to read.

I can’t just skim over a sentence group like this:

“We should walk over to the store.” She said to her daughter.

That’s deliberately a very weak example, which is easily decoded. I know what the writer is trying to convey. But even still, it takes a moment to decipher, because of the period after store, and the capital S on she. Proper grammar places a comma where the period is and a lower-case s on she. That, again, is a simple example. But when every sentence is like that, it really slows the reader down. And what about the other sentences that aren’t as simply decoded?

The bottom line is that proper grammar is not only preferred, but vital. It’s absolutely imperative. Spelling is important too, but there’s really no excuse for bad spelling in the age of word processors. Simply put, if you can’t take the time to brush up on your grammar skills and exercise them in your writing, I cannot be bothered to read your story. At the very least, if you know grammar is not your strong suit, hire an editor, or ask a friend who’s fluent at it to have a look at your material. If your story is worth trying to publish, shouldn’t you want it to be as smooth and polished as possible? You only make yourself look like an amateur if you publish your work too soon.

When I finished my first manuscript of Midnight’s Park, I sent it to my literary agent and paid him a hefty fee to edit it professionally for me. This was not a small sum of money. I’m talking a rent check. And when he returned it to me, there was enough red ink on my paper to fill a ball-point pen. He had marked on almost every page. But what it did for me was to teach me what I was doing wrong. I learned what not to do in the future. In short, I won’t be needing to pay big bucks for editing again. Of course, I’m not perfect. But I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. I took to heart everything my editor showed me and learned from my mistakes.

On the other hand, there are writers who never get it. Writers who never really learn the grammar or how to be better writers. Stephen King says you can make an okay writer into a good writer, but you can’t make a great writer out of a good one. I believe this. However, there are authors out there who have published many works and are terrible at it. They have copy editors. Other people take what they’re trying to say and form better structure from the mess. This is okay. But the point is, somewhere along the way, someone needs to edit it. And it’s always better to get a few “ideal readers” to have a glance at it before you go forward with publishing. The author is always too close to the work to see every little thing. Plot holes and whatnot can sometimes be resolved by a friend telling you, “Why did he walk into that bar when you said he was in a coma last chapter?” Glaring mistakes like that aren’t always all that glaring to the writer himself. Seriously. Get a friend or two (or three) to have a go at it with a notepad before you try to push it to the world.

Not every story can be great. But I believe every story can be written greatly. At least if you don’t tell a good story, you can tell it well.