Elizabeth Brico on grammar and flexibility

Is Your Obsession With Grammar Hurting Your Writing?

First, a disclaimer. It is absolutely necessary to understand the basic tenets of grammar for the language in which you plan to write. I’m not saying you need to be able to teach it to other people…Hell, I’m not even sure that I could walk into a class right this second and competently teach grammar to other people. You do, however, need to know what you’re doing. Basic mistakes, like the infamous your/you’re or their/there/they’re errors, can really screw up what may otherwise be a decent piece of writing. If I read an improper “there,” I mentally file that story as “not very good.” After that, you pretty much need to be writing on the level of Ken Kesey in order to redeem yourself. If you’d done some basic proofreading, I probably would have been less judgmental.

So I am not arguing a case for ignorance. Know your stuff. Know it well enough to do it, if not to teach it to others. But don’t make the mistake of getting so caught up in the rules of grammar that you ruin your writing just for the sake of being correct.

this post was originally published on bettysbattleground.com

When Good Grammar Indicates Lack Of Confidence

The truth is, a rigid obsession with proper grammar often indicates the opposite of what the person wants you to believe: she’s not, in fact, as certain as she seems. If a writer– or worse, an editor–is nitpicking over the smallest grammatical infractions, it may indicate that she is not confident in her ability to write well.

Good writing is not just about knowing where to place your semi-colons; it’s also about creativity. The ability to be flexible is a strength when it comes to creative writing. By the way, I consider “creative writing” ┬áto be almost any form of writing, not just fiction, poetry, and playwriting. Any writing that is meant to engage an audience should employ creativity, storytelling, and a touch of ingenuity–whether it’s a novel, or a piece of investigative journalism.

Creativity isn’t only about shaping an engaging story. It’s also about writing in a way that pleases the reader lyrically. People often conflate the word “lyrical” with music or poetry, and sometimes even with terrible writing. Actually, all writing should be lyrical. Humans are rhythmic creatures. Why do you think we love music and dancing so much? But we also like writing that employs good rhythm. This is often described as “flow.” That can be created through sentence variation, but it also sometimes requires a writer to bend the rules of grammar just a little bit.

You Must Know Grammar To Bend Grammar

I touched on this a little bit above, but I can’t emphasize it enough: you must understand the rules of grammar if you’re going to bend them. Writing in colloquialisms can be a great way to add flavor to a work of fiction, but if you just flat-out write the way you talk, there’s a good chance the story will come out sounding unprofessional.

I’m not going to get into Ebonics and other cultural slangs, because that’s enough for a whole post on its own, but there’s a really interesting history behind those styles of speech. Ebonics in particular, which today is associated with Black American street culture, has its roots in social rebellion. Black slaves had their own ways of speaking, which often incorporated their native languages with English. Eventually, this developed into the dialect–or distinct language (the jury’s out on this one)–that we now know as Ebonics. A Black professor coined the term in the hopes of helping people understand all of these kids were not ignorant, but choosing a linguistic style different from that of the oppressor.

So I’m not going to say that Ebonics, for example, is “wrong,” but I will say that if you want to write in modern standard English, you need to know the rules of modern standard English before you can break ’em. Once you’re comfortable with the rules, feel free to shake them up for the sake of sound and storytelling. Just make sure you’re doing it intentionally, and with a knowledge of the rule you’re breaking. Otherwise, it will show, even if you don’t think it does.

What To Do If You Encounter A Grammatically Rigid Editor

It’s bad enough to read writing that is so chock full of “with whoms,” and “for examples” that you want to tear out your eyes half-way through, but what about if you find yourself working with an editor who is placing her rigid obsession with grammar into your writing?

Hopefully, if someone gets to the point of being an editor, she will have enough grammatical competency to avoid being so overly rigid, but every once in a while this kind of person slips through the cracks. If you’re very unlucky, you might be stuck working with one. That’s not going to be easy. For people who truly love writing, our stories are precious. It can be hard to watch even the best editors take apart our work. Imagine going through a similar process, but with an editor whose obsession with grammar causes her to butcher the flow of your writing.

It’s hard to say what to do in this situation. Working with an editor is a fine balance. It’s even more difficult if you hope to write for his publication again. I wouldn’t call myself an expert on editor relations. Or any kind of relations. (Here’s where PTSD rears its head) But my inexpert advice is to take a stand, but not too rigid of a stand. If his grammatical obsession ends up changing the meaning of something you’ve written, or changes the flow enough to intrude upon the reading experience, definitely say something, and stand firm. But if it’s something that doesn’t significantly detract from your piece, or could be argued to have bettered it (even if you don’t think so), then let it slide. Other writers may say something different, but that’s my opinion. At least today.

Storytelling Trumps Grammar–Always

Can I just make an aside about how much I hate the fact that the word “trump” has basically been ruined forever?

Anyway, grammar is important. Storytelling is more important. If your obsession with technical accuracy takes the reader out of the story, or makes the piece a chore to read, you’re not using grammar correctly. Grammar is a tool, not a boundary. Don’t just throw the rules out the window–at least not until you have an intimate knowledge of how they work–but don’t let them hinder you to the point that your writing sounds stiff. Even if you think it’s making your work sound professional or disciplined, a stubborn fixation on grammatical rules actually makes you look uncertain and less-than-competent.

What do you think? Should we always follow the rules of grammar, no matter what? Do you agree that creative flexibility is an asset in writing? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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  1. thanks Elizabeth! As I’m needing to write and create content for our Family Opioid Coaching site opioidcoaching.com, this piece intrigued and gave me hope that my work may be more engaging and useful with less focus on form and style. Plus it’s frustrating that there’s not more web traffic to our site, so I also want to give you a Comment; they make me so happy.
    I have a love/hate relationship with writing; sometimes one or the other, often times both. While I’m usually happy with the finished product, it’s incredibly hard to sit myself down and just do it; or at least start it. Now I’ll see if being less formal helps. I enjoy your tweets and looked you up.

    Have a great day.

    • Thanks Patrick. And thanks for stopping by. I enjoy your tweets too, I’ll check out your site. Believe it or not, I also have a love/hate relationship with writing. I love it when I’m doing it but getting myself to sit down and actually do it is hard. Deadlines help.

      • Encouraging to learn that such a skilled journalist has challenges; thanks for sharing. Keep up your great work.

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