Do Writers Really Have to Learn All That (Yucky) Grammar? by C. S. Lakin

Do Writers Really Have to Learn All That (Yucky) Grammar?

By C. S. Lakin

In a word, yes. In two words: absolutely yes.

I hear groans. I hear protests. You hated English Comp in school? Old, crotchety Mrs. Snigglegrass made you dissect sentences and name the parts of speech? You got a what as your final grade?

I feel your pain. Who ever makes grammar fun and easy? Learning grammar, to some people, is as much fun as getting a tooth pulled. Or having to memorize the multiplication tables or the capitals of all the countries in the world (remember when they never changed?). Terms like dangling modifiers, predicates, participial phrases, and subjunctive mood give some people the chills. Did you have to conjugate verbs back in junior high? Do you know the difference between the past progressive tense and the past perfect? No? Do you care? More than likely, you don’t.

Every Vocation Requires a Knowledge of Tools

But how in the world will you be a proficient handler of the English language if you don’t know anything about the tools of your trade? What would you think if you brought your ailing car to a mechanic and he didn’t have any tools in the shop? Or he had a box full of tools but hadn’t a clue how to use any of them correctly.

For some reason, many writers feel they should get to “pass go” and proceed to “the bank” without having to do the hard work of learning to write well and become a master (or mistress) at handling language. I often wonder about the logic of that.

I work on about two hundred manuscripts a year—critiquing and editing—and I’m astonished at how poorly written some are. I’m not talking about novel structure, which is difficult and tricky to learn. I’m talking about very basic grammatical issues—punctuation, spelling, sentence structure. Granted, many writers send me a rough draft to work on, so I don’t expect them to have edited it to perfection. But what I see a lot is a lack of understanding regarding so many of the basics of good writing.

A Time to Gush and a Time to Polish

Some of this is just sloppy or lazy writing due to hurrying to slap thoughts on the page, and I get that. I encourage writers to gush and let their prose flow in their first draft. But I would expect they would then follow through by rereading at some future date and cleaning up the mess. And more importantly, knowing how to.

I’m not saying every writer must have super editing chops and spend months memorizing the Chicago Manual of Style. Just as we don’t expect all doctors to memorize Gray’s Anatomy. (Should we? Do they?)

I’m afraid, though, that many writers haven’t a clue how to clean up their messy manuscripts. And even worse, many don’t really care. They think it’s their editor’s job to transform the mess into perfect prose. And we editors often do that; maybe you think I should be grateful for the job security. But, speaking for myself, I would rather work on a draft that’s been carefully edited and shows the writer not only cares about what she’s written but has a respect for the English language (or whatever language she writes in). The way some writers mutilate language makes me wonder if they have a love-hate relationship with writing.

A mechanic or building contractor will take good care of his or her tools, learning to wield them correctly, and will choose the best tool for the specific task at hand. Words are the writer’s tools. Shouldn’t writers treat words similarly? We expect that anyone wanting to become a teacher, nurse, commercial truck driver, or plumber has to hit the books and learn their vocation. So why do so many people feel that being a writer exempts from having to take the time to learn proper grammar? Who started that lie anyway?

Proficiency Leads to Competency and Confidence

One morning I asked my surgeon/author friend to describe how he prepared for each surgery. He went on to explain how he filled out a “menu” of the surgical instruments he would need, which varied depending on the type of surgery he was about to perform. He would put a check mark next to numerous scalpels and other items (which I wouldn’t know what to call) and then turn in his menu. When he entered the operating room, he’d find his requested instruments and accessories neatly lined up waiting for him. With those specific tools, he could perform his surgery efficiently, competently, and confidently.

Well, no one is going to die if I don’t have the exact grammar tools or know all the rules when I sit down to write my novel, right? (you may be arguing). True, although I’ll be daring enough to say if you are lacking a lot of those proper tools, the patient (read: your novel, story, article, or post) may die a slow (or quite fast) and painful death. Which could have an adverse effect on your career as a writer.

You want your writing to shine. You want to show the world you are a terrific writer. Well then, Physician, know thy tools. Then you can perform your writing “operations” efficiently, competently, and confidently. And let me just add this: when you have the right tools and know how to use them, it always makes a job so much easier than if you don’t.

The fun thing about being grown-ups is we can decide how, when, and what we want to learn. The challenge is to erase the bad associations we have with certain subjects we suffered through in school (such as English Comp?) and find a new joy in the learning. It may sound trite, but it truly is a matter of attitude. Make the decision to adopt a healthy attitude about learning grammar. Set aside some time each day or week to dig into books or websites that can teach you what some of those yucky things are all about. Who knows, you may even learn to love those dang(ling) participles or misplaced modifiers!

Say What front cover

Say What? is a compilation of three years’ blog posts on grammar from the award-winning blog for writers Live Write Thrive. Dozens of writing tips have been added that are specifically aimed at helping fiction writers tighten and improve their writing. Grammar doesn’t have to be boring or difficult! Although Say What? is aimed at fiction writers, anyone seeking to improve grammar and write better and clearer will benefit from reading the short, snappy entries designed to make learning these sometimes-difficult rules a lot of fun.

Amazon Print Book Link: http://www.amazon.com/Say-What-Fiction-Writers-Punctuation/dp/0991389409/

Amazon ebook link: http://www.amazon.com/Fiction-Writers-Handy-Grammar-Punctuation-ebook/dp/B00I49TO56/

BIO:

Pro photo for book coverC. S. Lakin is a multipublished novelist and writing coach. She works full-time as a copyeditor and critiques about two hundred manuscripts a year. She teaches writing workshops and gives instruction on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive. Her new book—Say What? The Fiction Writer’s Handy Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage—is designed to help writers get a painless grasp on grammar. You can buy it in print here or as an ebook here.

Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

C. S. Lakin has given me a review copy of her book and I plan on reading it soon. I’ll let all of you know how much I learn. I have a feeling my editor will really appreciate it.

For all my buddies in the US, happy President’s Day! I’m jealous that some of you will have the day off. I could really use another day of doing nothing. Enjoy it for me!

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About TBM

TB Markinson is an American living in England. When she isn’t writing, she’s traveling the world, watching sports on the telly, visiting pubs, or reading. Not necessarily in that order.
This entry was posted in Guest Posts and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

57 Responses to Do Writers Really Have to Learn All That (Yucky) Grammar? by C. S. Lakin

    • TBM says:

      In what sense. Hopefully not writing.

      • bulldog says:

        After reading that what would you expect.??

      • TBM says:

        LOL. To get inspired to learn 🙂 Besides I’m sure you’re learning from your editor.

      • bulldog says:

        I can assure you she is doing a fantastic job, if I’m learning anything, that’s debatable…

      • TBM says:

        I have a feeling that you are learning and I just know your book is going to be great.

      • bulldog says:

        I’ve just popped over to your post to read what others have said, and I’m astounded at what I read… sure some people think they can sit down and pen a best seller, others like me want to write our story because the kids encourage you to do it… not to make money, if some buy it good and well if none do I don’t care, am I reliant on the book? No.
        I have a software program unique to the world that at the moment is being negotiated to either be bought out in its entirety, or to buy into my company as a partner. Will this stop me writing no, I do it for fun, but what I’m reading here is that I shouldn’t as I’ve never studied writing at college or Varsity, I’ve never study analytics either but I written a program for it, Because I did not study it, should I not be allowed to try… what is the difference? It is almost as though they are saying if I can’t learn it “Get out of the ship”… well I don’t agree, I think anyone can try if they want and if it’s bad don’t buy it… just my say on the subject, sorry Ladies if this does not fall into your likes…

      • bulldog says:

        It just feels to me that this Lady says if you can’t, don’t, even if you have something to share…

      • TBM says:

        Or she might be saying, don’t be afraid to learn more about your craft to improve. All of us could use refresher courses on the stuff we learned many years ago.

      • TBM says:

        Hi Bulldog, I’m sorry that this post has upset you. I hope you don’t think I’m discouraging you from writing, since that isn’t my intention. And no, I don’t think a writer has to have a degree in writing to pen a novel/memoir or whatnot. I encourage all people to chase their dreams and if that means they want to write then write. If that means they want to write computer code than do so.

        I could be wrong and I hope Lakin pops in to correct me if I am, but it is important for anyone working in any trade to understand the basics. I’m assuming you couldn’t write your computer program without knowing the basic principles–I’m not saying you have to be an expert and have a degree in it.

        I really hope this makes sense and most importantly I hope you don’t feel like I’m discouraging you. That is never my intention.

      • bulldog says:

        Oh TBM, this post has not upset me, far from it. Sure to follow the penning of a master piece one should be well educated in the language and its grammar.
        What I’m saying plainly, is I’m too old to even try and learn the correct grammar for a best seller. I’m not aiming at a best seller. I’ve sat and listened to so many older folk recall their youth before the advent of computers, maybe even typewriters and I’ve always advocated that they write their stories down, before they are lost to their issue and further down the family tree.
        Computers with grammar and spell checks have made it so much easier for those that want to try. Probably most of them are advanced in age, like me, even speak a foreign language at home, like me, that just want to write for the fun of it. This day and age has made it possible for us to do so.
        In fact, as on my blog I have Italians commenting on my photos in their language and without Google translate I’d have no idea what they were saying. Maybe I should comment in Afrikaans.
        However what I’m saying is the computer age has placed us in a position to do what I’m doing, it was never my intention to even try and publish, but comments on the little I’ve shared have me wanting to try.
        But to go out and learn at this stage of my life is impossible, thus my comment, in the beginning…. I give up.

      • TBM says:

        Oh I’m so relieved to hear you aren’t upset. I was worried that some of the comments and the post irritated you. I totally understand what you’re saying. And as a historian I completely agree with you, people should write down their stories. It enriches not only the literary world, but the historical. Firsthand accounts are vital to history and to preserving culture.

        I won’t bug you to learn grammar, but I will bug you to continue writing since you have so many amazing stories about Africa and for me I can’t be there all the time. so having stories like yours help me relive my short time there and it encourages me to save more money to go back. Keep on writing 🙂

      • Bulldog, dude, I think you are taking this way too seriously. Obviously, some people are better at grammar than others, and some people even enjoy it believe it or not, but the point here is that we should always do our best, even in aspects of our job (or hobby) that we don’t like. The rest can be fixed up by editors because that is their job. I, for one, know I will never be perfect when it comes to grammar, but it’s important to me that I do the best I can in anything I write, even when it’s just for fun. Even when I make comments on blogs such as this, spelling and punctuation are important to me. One time I was even asked to proof read a manuscript, and I took the time to do some research online about grammar to freshen up on rules I had long forgotten. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, but we should always give it our best!

  1. I have to confess to being bored of hearing about dangling participles and misplaced modifiers. Ms Larkin is not the first blogger I have read who mentions them.

    I think getting bogged down with grammatical rules is ridiculous. Sure, people can’t, and don’t proof-read. I think that would be a start, and learning to spell might help too.

    i spent years getting paid to write, passed exams and all the rest of it. I do get racked off with everyone who thinks they can pick up a metaphorical pen and just make themselves a writer/journalist/author.

    It’s typical of a career/trade/profession, call it what you will, where everyone thinks they can do it as well as those of us who have been trained to it. Would you expect a surgeon/mechanic/builder to dip into a few books/websites now and again to learn how to do that job? No. So why is that OK for learning to write?

    Sorry for the rant!!

    • TBM says:

      I’m just curious, do you mean all writers should take creative writing or some equivalent in college? I understand journalism since there is much to learn about journalism, including ethics. However, I’m not sure poets and such need a college degree. They should understand grammar–I’m with you on that one. And they should have an editor as well.

      • No. Some people get lucky and can write without needing a course. What gripes is people thinking there is no skill or learning or experience needed. You must have seen as many blogs as I have, ‘Hey, I want to be a writer, I have a blog, so I am, and I am going to get published and famous and blah blah’ etc. ‘This is my new career and I can stay at home happily bashing away at the keyboard and get paid for it.’ I have seriously lost count of the number of blogs I have read where the author has said that. And is there blog any different or any more special than anyone else’s?

        I’m not up on poetry, the sum total of my poems ever written is still in single figures, although bloggers did write some very sweet comments. I never did write the one in Spanish that I had in my head for ages. I would say for poetry though, that unless you have a flair, that it would have helped to have studied Eng Lit to at least pre university level. How can you write about something when you have no understanding? Isn’t that the point that Lakin is in fact making about a different aspect of writing?

        Never mind how to write or even how to edit. I want to know how to get people to ask ME to edit!! Now that would be a good post.

      • TBM says:

        I’m not a poet at all. I admire those who are, but I never felt comfortable writing poems. I think poets should read and study poems and I think the same about fiction writers. They should read a lot! I listened to one author at the London Book fair who said she doesn’t read much since she gets bored. how is that possible?

        I’ve seen many books that encourage people to publish directly to Amazon without hiring an editor or proofreading just to make money. I am seriously opposed to this type of advice. it gives Indie authors a bad name and so many lump all Indies into this category–unprofessional.

        I can try interviewing editors to see how they built up their client list.

  2. Amen! As someone who taught college writing for years, I was always appalled by my students’ insufficient grasp of the basics.

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

    • TBM says:

      I’ve graded a few papers that really made me wonder if they don’t teach grammar anymore in elementary school. And I’m not an editor so if I noticed it was bad.

  3. I strongly believe that a language is solely dependent on its grammar. What’s the use of learning advanced philosophies if your basics aren’t clear? So yes, I think it is ABSOLUTELY necessary to learn that (yucky) grammar in order to become a decent writer. 🙂

  4. I was a strange kid but I actually loved dissecting sentences in school. When other kids would groan, I’d get excited. I saved my groaning for the math problems LOL.
    But I know I’ve forgotten many of the rules I learned way back when so this book sounds perfect for me. I also have an addiction to commas that I’m trying really hard to break in order to clean up my writing. I’m definitely going to check this book out. Thanks for sharing, TB!

    • TBM says:

      math was my nemesis as well. Geometry class nearly killed me. If we ever play pool together you’ll see firsthand.

      It’s nice to have a book like this to help refresh our memories. I’ve been told I love to use the comma as well. It’s a hard habit to break. Good luck!

  5. Wow, you’ve really opened up a can of worms with this one my friend LOL!! I’m not a writer, nor am I a professional editor. However, as an avid reader (and occasional amateur proof reader) I can’t tell you how much it annoys me when I read a book full of grammatical, punctuation, and spelling errors. Obviously, writers don’t have to be super grammar experts or editors wouldn’t have jobs; however, I have always been a firm believer in doing things to the best of my ability and learning from my mistakes. If it’s something you take pride in, you should want it to be perfect, and again from the point of view of the reader, it aggrivates me to no end when I pay money for a book and then it is full of errors. Let’s face it, although I look at writers as having a most amazing job, it is still a job and as such has aspects that nobody likes. There are many parts of my job that I hate, but I still have to do them in order to do my job fully.

    • TBM says:

      I agree with you. I’m always trying to learn more and I hope I keep improving. I’ve actually signed up for some classes to help me learn more and to work on my trouble areas. Writing is a job and you’ve heard me complain about editing. but I still do it. And I hire professionals to help.

      As a reader I wholeheartedly agree. why should I pay money for something that’s riddled with errors? I’m not saying a book should be perfect because that’s nearly impossible. But it should be as close as possible.

      yep, a can of worms. It’s nice to see all the different opinions and reactions. dialogue is a good thing.

      • Books used to be perfect. Seriously. But I can’t remember a book published in the last ten or maybe 20 years that I have read without a proofreading error. Editors are a) not earning their money or b) not being paid enough. There was a class one that I have read, can’t remember if I posted about it or not, if not I’ll do it at some point, prob when I write about ghastly twilight part 4. Aghh! got a great link for you for that, must find it. Not part 4, but the first ones, too funny.

      • TBM says:

        I totally forgot about the Twilight post. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on it.

  6. No matter where I’m submitting my work, it will always be the best I’m capable of, after all, my name is on it. Personally, I would never hurry and slap thoughts on a page, but that’s just me.
    Whoa, heated discussion for a Monday, TBM! 🙂

    • TBM says:

      I know! I wasn’t expecting this today at all, but it’s good to get it out there so some people can vent. Putting yourself out there as a writer is scary and can make a person feel vulnerable. Like you, I try to do the best that I can. And I hire professional help to make it better.

  7. Excellent post. Excellent. 😉

  8. Colline says:

    I feel that in general people write sloppily. Emails are not read over before they are sent, assignments are handed in without a read through. And of course grammar is not taught at schools (seems we are to learn it through osmosis). That, though, is another discussion entirely …

  9. I completely agree about the importance of grammar. It may not be fun, but it helps make a manuscript, and even things like a blog post, seem all the more professional…

  10. pattisj says:

    Excellent advice. Our world has changed so much, I need a current geography lesson to learn the country names that have changed.

    • TBM says:

      Funny I was just thinking the other day if I could still name all the countries in the world and their capitals like I could in the fifth grade. Probably not.

  11. This is a fantastic, must-read post! If writers aren’t using correct grammar, and we’re all guilty of that in first drafts or even colloquialisms we don’t catch, a good editor should. That’s where we just have to take a deep breath and trust the judgment of an impartial critique. Well done.

  12. Carol says:

    I actually love grammar and spelling, even if I often type too fast and hit post without proof-reading. I was one of the only kids who enjoyed diagramming sentences in elementary school.

  13. Sherri says:

    Wow TB, just came over to catch up and didn’t expect this little bombshell! I jest of course, but it looks like this post stirred up a few. When I started writing (properly) I thought goodness, what am I doing, I don’t have a degree in English! I really thought I needed that, and so I did the next best thing and signed up to a creative writing course 3 years ago. I was surprised that what I learned was how to submit manuscripts etc., not how to write. I’m talking about non-fiction here. I thought my work would be slated. However, I soon saw the stupid punctuation mistakes I frequently made and I was also surprised that my spelling had deteriorated significantly! Thank goodness for spell-check eh? I wouldn’t dream of getting my book – when it’s written! – anywhere near publication without an editor looking at it. The old adage of putting your work away and then looking at it many days later really works. I’m always amazed at the mistakes I find! Thanks for this Post, I found it very interesting 🙂

    • TBM says:

      Yeah this post hit a few nerves. it wasn’t my intention. It’s been years since I’ve taken a creative writing course and it’s a shame now that some are more about the publishing aspect than about the writing. I wish I could spot my own errors easily. I can see the big ones, but after a few readings, my eyes glaze over and I just can’t stand reading my own words. Thank goodness for editors. I love mine–so patient, yet firm, and she isn’t afraid to tell me what really needs work and what is good. No one is perfect–well maybe some are. Not me.

      How is the writing coming along? It’s been at least two weeks since I bugged you about it 🙂

      • Sherri says:

        Editors certainly do seem to be worth their weight in gold, that’s for sure.
        Well, I was wondering when you would ask me about that…lol! Actually, believe it or not, not too bad but not as good as it could be. With my laptop going kaput and then doing all these award’s posts I got behind but I have submitted a short story to a competition and written a little more of my book. These past couple of weeks have been so busy for various reasons but starting next week things will start to calm down a bit so I plan to get down to it again.
        Thanks for checking in on me though, don’t give up on me will you? 🙂

      • TBM says:

        Best of luck with the competition. let me know and I have my fingers crossed for you. Happy writing!

      • Sherri says:

        Thanks TB, I will indeed let you know 🙂

  14. cleemckenzie says:

    If you don’t know the rules, you can’t break them effectively!

  15. As an English teacher and writer, grammar is important to me. I’m glad that over the years, with more writing and teaching experience behind me, my writing is what I consider clean. Even with a basic email, I reread, revise, and edit.

    • TBM says:

      I need to get better about rereading my emails and comments. I get in such a rush and then regret not taking those few seconds to make sure it makes sense.

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