Following on my current string of connected posts about creative writing “DO’s,” today we get to number three in the series. We’ve already talked about why you should listen to others when they talk and why you should always be the master of your plot (instead of letting it master you.) Our third fiction writing tip is simple:
DO go ahead and break the rules, as long as you know you’re doing it, and you have a good reason.
This involves, logically, a two-part process.
- you must develop and tweak your understanding of grammar, especially the subtleties. And especially punctuation.
- once you know the rules, you can effectively ignore them in your writing for emphasis, especially in dialogue or first-person narration. Deliberate, controlled rule-breaking is one thing that makes everyone’s individual style unique.
Now, I will admit straight up that I am a language and grammar NERD. I just love words and everything to do with them, in any language. I’m fluent in Spanish and learned French just so I could read Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” in its original language. I’ve always considered grammar a puzzle and a game. For me, grammar’s FUN.
Does that mean my knowledge of it is infallible? Oh heck, no! But I do strive to learn more and to widen my knowledge base so those errors become fewer and fewer.
Maybe, though, you don’t like grammar. Maybe there are some points that have always caused you trouble. Well, that’s no deal-breaker. Don’t let it discourage you from writing, because it’s nothing you can’t fix! Just recognize that you should have the self-respect and should respect your readers enough, as a writer, to put good grammar in your “toolbox” (as Stephen King says in “On Writing.”)
Do you know anyone who wants to be a carpenter who doesn’t learn how to use saws the right way? Any fashion designer who doesn’t know her fabrics and the advantages/disadvantages of using each?
Grammar is one of a writer’s major tools. I feel, very sincerely, that anyone who wants to be a writer has the responsibility to gain the best understanding of grammar that they can (and perhaps turn to a proofreader, who has even a better grasp).
IT’S REALLY LIKE THIS: Can you throw in a comma splice every now and then? Sure, but you should do it on purpose, not because you didn’t know better. Can you technically misuse a semicolon? A dash? Most certainly! Feel free to do so. Just do it with intent.
You want to avoid grammar errors. It’s not an error if you’re fully away of the choices you’re making and what would, technically, be “correct.”
THE STICKING POINTS
It’s always useful, whenever dealing with a large category, to break things down to determine where your real sticking points are. In grammar, you have:
- Verb tenses/moods (past, past perfect? the subjunctive?)
- Verb conjugations (Did she lie or lay on the sofa?)
- Pronouns (who or whom? him or he?)
- Punctuation (colons, semicolons, apostrophes, etc)
- Homophones (there/their/they’re, it’s/its, two/to/too)
- Spelling (when unsure always consult a dictionary.)
If you recognize that one or more of these categories gives you trouble, that might help you narrow your focus when you study up and allow you to make the most of your precious time. I know I still sometimes struggle with knowing when to use the subjunctive in English (because we aren’t taught that in school. It’s rarely used, but it’s why we say, “If I were you….”)
If grammar is a sticking point, there are tons of resources and websites you can turn to, including:
- Family and friends who know grammar well. Ask questions. Have them edit your work, and study the changes to understand why what’s correct is correct.
- Grammar Girl (http://grammargirl.com)
- Eats Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss (warning: she can be a bit pedantic)
- The utterly classic The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
So, do you guys love or hate grammar? What trips you up? Do you have other grammar-related resources to suggest? Please feel free to leave a comment!