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

Do writers really have to learn all that (yucky) grammar? 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

Say What? The Fiction Writer's Handy Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage 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. Where’s the logic in that?

I work on about two hundred manuscripts a year—critiquing and editing—and I’m astonished 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 http://billhobbs.com/ 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 expect them to 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 language. 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, learn to wield them correctly, and choose the best one for the specific task at hand. Shouldn’t writers treat words similarly? We expect anyone wanting to become a teacher, nurse, commercial truck driver, or plumber will hit the books and learn his vocation. So why do so many people feel that being a writer exempts them from having to take the time to learn proper grammar? Who started that lie anyway?

Proficiency in Grammar Leads to Competency and Confidence

One morning I asked my surgeon/author friend to describe how he prepared for each surgery. He explained how he filled out a “menu” of the surgical instruments he would need depending on the type of surgery he was about to perform. He would put a check mark next to numerous scalpels and other items, then turn in his menu. When he entered the operating room, he’d find his requested instruments and accessories lined up, waiting for him. With those specific tools, he could perform his surgery efficiently, competently, and confidently.

You may be arguing, “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?” True, although I’ll be daring enough to say that if you are lacking a lot of those proper tools, your patient (read: your novel, story, article, or post) may die a slow (or fast) and painful death. This just might have an adverse effect on your writing career.

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.

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!

Tell me your opinion: Do you enjoy or dread learning about grammar?

Do Authors Really Have to Learn All That Yucky Grammar

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About C.S. Lakin | @cslakin

C. S. Lakin is the author of sixteen novels and three writing craft books. Her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive gives tips and writing instruction for both fiction and nonfiction writers. If you want to write a strong, lasting story, check out her new release The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction, part of The Writer’s Toolbox Series, which provides a foundational blueprint that is concise and practical and takes the mystery out of novel structure.

Comments

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with this article. For a few weeks I was working through The Elements of Style in an effort to improve on this front, but lost interest despite the benefits of the exercise. Thanks to your encouragement, I will revisit this book and try to incorporate its suggestions into my writing. Thank you, C.S.!

  2. leonard kennard says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Yesterday read a number of tweets. What should have been “you’re” was spelled as “your” on several occasions. I know there is a need for economy when tweeting but it doesn’t help when dealing with simple grammar.

  3. leonard kennard says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Yesterday I read a number of tweets. What should have been “you’re” was spelled as “your” on several occasions. I know there is a need for economy when tweeting but it doesn’t help when dealing with simple grammar.

    • C.S. Lakin | @cslakin says:

      It’s so easy to make those mistakes. But a lot of the time writers have no idea of the rules so can’t tell they are making those mistakes. That’s why it’s good to make time to study grammar and improve.

  4. L. O. Fencer/Lora says:

    Well, I’m not quite sure whether I like learning it or not, but I’m certain I should. 🙂

    I’m not a native speaker but as I have a weird mind when I write a story which is set in England I prefer to write in English, otherwise I feel odd about the text. (That’s why I don’t really like translations either… but that’s another story) – for this reason, I must learn grammar.

    But my anxiety is for another matter. As I do not speak English as mother language, I’m afraid I don’t get differences between phrases perfectly. I know what’s the difference between galncing and staring but it can be rather difficult in other cases.

    I really like this article and I agree, we writers really should learn grammar because a badly constructed or senseless phrase can drive readers to madness – at least, it can do it with me.

    And I do respect you for editing. I sometimes edit my friends’ essays and such, and I’m terrified by their mistakes…

    • L. O. Fencer/Lora says:

      Okay, I should have checked my typos… but was in a hurry back to a lesson.

      So: “differences between *words*” and “glancing”

      And *I* said anything about others’ mistakes?

    • I couldn’t agree more with Lora. Since I’m also not an English native speaker, I tend to create a really mess text sometimes. The reasons I prefer to write in English than on my mother language are many, but of those I can pin point those: I read a lot in English, hell, I even prefer reading it in English; I think the grammar of my mother language, Portuguese, is so damn hard that’s actually easier on other languages; and I would like my text to reach everyone, without the need for translation.

      Even though I have this thoughts for such a long time, I’ve never really studied English grammar properly (hence the heck of mistakes I still make). Think I’ll ask my old teachers some good books for that, since I totally agree, if you want to write and want others to read it, you just have to know your grammar.

      Thanks for that post, it really made me think!

    • I’m glad it helps! Hope you get my fun grammar book and learn a lot from it. It makes learning easy!

  5. K.M. Weiland says:

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Susanne!

  6. I absolutely agree with you, that one would not hire a carpenter who couldn’t use a saw properly. The problem, however, is not restricted to published or aspiring authors.

    How distressing is it, that the media – printed, on-line, television and radio, regularly and persistently employ journalists, newsreaders etc. who are patently unable use the tools of their trade – the English language – effectively.

    I’m not talking about grammar for its own sake, either. My main concern is that language should be – yes: correct, concise, coherent and complete, but above all else clear and unambiguous.

    I believe that to be of greater importance than the niceties of Fowler or the New Hart’s Rules.

    • C.S. Lakin | @cslakin says:

      I wish every person valued the gift of language and respected it by learning to use it well. Maybe a lot of misunderstandings and arguments could be avoided with all of us utilizing the English language correctly 🙂

  7. Yes and no. I think you need to know the basics. Not so much beyond that. Gerunds and future-paraphrastic-whatever things? I have a degree in English Lit, had a successful career in marketing/advertising, and never needed any of that. For some reason, those things just would NOT stick in my brain no matter how much I tried to care.

    • Annie, I don’t now if it’s the same thing but, I have a degree in Computer Science and a Masters under Artificial Intelligence. I used to think that I haven’t used 10% of what I learned at college. Well, some things I really didn’t used (not working on that particular area), but the rest of the stuff that I *thought* I wasn’t using? I was actually using it every single day. Unconsciously, in the back of my mind, that stuff was always there guiding me and giving me advices to other problems I was facing at the time. Maybe its the same thing with grammar, you can use grammar more with your guts than with your text book.

  8. Hi Scott, I’m not. I don’t think it would work to do audio since most of what is taught has to be seen due to spelling, the look of the punctuation, etc. Thanks for buying the book and I hope it helps improve your writing!

  9. Thanks for all the kind words. I found that learning grammar has really helped improve my writing and freed me up to write more, better, and more creatively. I hope that proves to be true for all of you!

  10. THANK YOU! I just gave a presentation today on preparing a manuscript for submission, and one of the topics I covered is the importance of learning the skills.

    Your English teacher wasn’t lying to you: Spelling, grammar, and punctuation DO count in the real world.

    • C.S. Lakin | @cslakin says:

      You’re welcome. Sometimes we writers need a little reminder that we are professionals, and pros should know their tools 🙂

  11. Fortunately, grammar is the one area of writing that comes fairly easy for me, though it did not in high school. It’s the novel structure and writing that I’m struggling with. Hoping that eventually “clicks” too.

    • C.S. Lakin | @cslakin says:

      Practice and studying is the best way to learn that. Katie’s blog is a terrific resource, and my blog, Live Write Thrive, has a ton of great instruction. All free–doesn’t get better than that, right?

  12. Writers = language and grammar. We need to know the rules before we can break them… the easiest way to learn grammar is to read the classics. I adore Victorian literature.

    There are lots of fun grammar books you can study so you understand the basics; many are written with sly humor. Try reading PG Wodehouse — he’s fun, and is a master of language.

    My point? Grammar is FUN. 🙂 Don’t take it so seriously that you become a grammar nazi.

    • Yes, exactly, Angela. I was an A student in English. I liked doing the exercises to improve my abilities in grammar. My English teacher in my senior year of high school told the class that grammar is important but not to the point where it bores the reader. With this in mind, sometimes a sentence needs to be a fragment. Sometimes it needs to be wordy. Sometimes it needs to be passive. It’s all about getting the ideas of the story or article to the reader.

    • L. O. Fencer/Lora says:

      I learned and still learn a lot from novels, and I do prefer the classics. 🙂

      I even dare to say I that they have taught me more than my high school teacher whose lessons were so boring… little English, lot of personal stuff not in English… But reading is fun. Usually, I realize that words come to my mind that I didn’t even know I knew.

  13. You forgot to mention the fun way to learn grammar, by reading. I have no idea what those phrases you mentioned at the beginning of the post mean because I had very limited grammar learnin’ throughout school. I did however always have my nose in a book. For me it is a much better way to learn.

    • Susan, I totally agree with you. Just like you I’ve always had my nose in a book, and since English isn’t my mother language, I always tried to make that book be an English book. That helped me a lot trough the process of learning the English language. sometimes when I’m writing or talking I just feel that there’s a wrong way of saying things, and here’s the correct way. Then it’s a mater of choosing which way I’m going to use.
      I have a friend that has a degree in English literature, whenever I have a doubt I ask him and he comes with a lengthy grammar wise answer. I learn a lot but, in the end, my gut was (almost) always right.

      • L. O. Fencer/Lora says:

        I am just like you.

        And many words and even phrases became part of my English vocabulary.

        @ Mateus: I’m so glad that I’m not the only non-native English-writer. It’s truly encouraging – even more, as my sister keeps telling me I should write in my mother language. Especially after I started to translate a piece of my work to her and suddenly (without realizing) continued in English. I don’t know if you had been published already or not, bet best of wishes! 🙂

  14. C.S.
    I used to ask my college writing students whether they’d ever read something with lots of spelling errors and grammatical mistakes. Hands would go up. Well, I asked, what was the effect? It was funny, someone would say. I once read where someone wrote he had raped a calf, when he meant roped a calf. Moments like this would make my point: small things count. It isn’t a matter of being right. It’s a matter of being taken seriously.

  15. I like learning about grammar. I know that I don’t always use perfect grammar, but I try. It’s fun.

    Let’s eat grandma.
    Let’s eat, grandma.
    Save lives, use commas!

  16. I totally agree. I subscribe to Live Write Thrive and enjoy it. I’m 66, so I grew up when teachers stressed proper usage. I have connected on line with a novelist who has a tendency to use dangling participles … a LOT. Her plots are thrilling and her characters are likable, but I can’t concentrate on them half the time because the sentence construction makes me grit my teeth. I suggested that her editor is not doing the job for her, but she says that she and the editor have agreed that this is her style. Well, it’s a free country, I guess. But I wonder if it affects her sales. I often decline to purchase books, or even download e-books for free, if the “Look Inside” preview includes a number of errors. Too many do!

  17. This is very good subject matter a lot of people can get inspiration for a story and want to study the craft, but don’t have the perseverance to master the technical aspect. It’s definitely a hard barrier a good writer from a bad one. Grammar’s definitely something I hope to learn more about. Thanks a lot!

  18. I used to hate grammar, but because I chose to become a writer I have to force myself into liking it. What I love about your post is that, after I read it I was smiling. 🙂 I didn’t feel pressured into loving grammar more. I felt like grammar is opening its arms for me. 🙂

  19. I hated grammar in school. HATED it.

    Now that I’ve started writing more seriously, I’m going back and teaching myself (using books mostly) grammar. I like it now. I even understand it. (Mostly. Some rules still don’t make much sense.)

  20. Summer Holgate says:

    Grammar and I have a love/hate relationship…

    Mostly, I am utterly forgetful of anything I’ve read [about grammar] and I find myself making the same mistakes over and over.

    This is the issue with me and Grammar, we don’t always see eye to eye, but when we do, I’m not fully committed and become careless.

    When it comes to grammar, I also have to have grammar books near me, I usually try to use them when I become confused about the Oxford Comma or the difference between a simile and metaphor. But I don’t want Grammar to ball and chain me to grammar books and keep me from enjoying my writing.

    Love/Hate,
    Summer

Trackbacks

  1. […] couple weeks ago I ran across this blog post: “Do Writers Really Have to Learn All that Yucky Grammar?” Now, I am what is commonly […]

  2. […] Why do so many people feel that being a writer exempts them from having to take the time to learn proper grammar? Who started that lie anyway?  […]