Why I won’t be teaching grammar in How To Revise Your Novel

I’ve been reading comments here and on the poll, and I’m seeing a lot of folks angsting about grammar.

What people think of as GRAMMAR, (all caps, death knell, end of the world with hellfire and brimstone if you break the rules) is a complete nonissue in writing fiction.

In writing fiction, you write as you speak, you punctuate as you breathe, and you use the rules as you choose to use them.

In writing more than thirty-two novels, a bunch of non-fiction books and courses, an enormous website, many short stories, and a gawdawful lot of proposals, synopses, and other goodies, I have NEVER ONCE diagrammed a sentence. In your entire career, neither will you (unless you decide to write a book about diagramming sentences.)

We writers do not get our knickers in a bunch over the placement of the prepositional phrase, nor to we get hung up about the subjunctive case. These rules and names have nothing to do with writing fiction.

If you’re still angsting and determined to think that you have no grasp of grammar, I’ll tell you that everything you need to know about grammar to write novels professionally, you can grasp by reading through one short and exceedingly comforting e-book, The Basic Glossary of Grammar. The book is less than five bucks, and you can download it right now. I’m not an affiliate for the book. I don’t make a dime by recommending it. I’m simply a fan.

If grammar in school screwed you up and made you think it was some mysterious, arcane science that only the Revered Priesthood of Grammarians could master, you owe yourself this little book and the peace of mind you’ll get by discovering that you do, in fact, have a solid grasp of grammar.

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About the author: Novelist, writing teacher, on a mission to reprint my out-of-print books and self-publish my new ones.

22 comments… add one
  • Michele Sep 12, 2012 @ 9:48

    Holly:

    Thank you! I’ve recently finished my second novel, and I’ve received some amazing reviews. People say I’ve written strong characters, amazing dialogue, and an intriguing plot. They also say I’ve used too many adjectives. Too many adjectives! And this entire time, I’ve been focusing on not using too many adverbs.

    As I read through my novel, I understand what they mean. I’ve been weeding out the adjectives, strengthening the verbs, and polishing my work to the point where it shines. I’ve also been fretting about other types of grammar. If I didn’t know the rule on adjectives, what other rules have I missed? What if my writing isn’t nearly as good as I think, and I’m a total dunce in the grammar department? What if my grammar is so poor, I’m never able to sell my novel?

    For the past two weeks, I’ve been pouring over works on grammar. I’ve learned about prepositional phrases and modifiers; advanced comma placement and splices. In the process, I’ve made myself so nervous, I can no longer sit down to write. What if I get it wrong? What if my grammar is abysmal? What if my characters, my dialogue, my plot all shine, but readers laugh at my placement of a prepositional phrase?

    And then I realized something: so what? No reader is gonna read a work of fiction looking for grammar errors. And if they do? Then they’re reading the wrong books. My grammar is actually pretty advanced, and I refuse to adhere to the rules when it comes to writing fiction. It sucks all fun out of the English language, and makes writing a boring, humdrum chore. I love playing with words; I love playing with structure. You know what I don’t love? Turning myself into a paranoid freak when it comes to placement of the prepositional phrase.

    So thank you. Thank you for this enlightened post, and for making me feel better (once again) about my writing. You always seem to know exactly what to say.

  • Elizabeth Aug 25, 2009 @ 14:16

    I agree that lack of grammar knowledge should not stop you from writing. Particularly if you are a native English speaker, you shouldn’t have too many issues in your writing. (And if you do, hey, that’s what editors are for!)

    But, if you decide that you would like to learn more about grammar, or sentence diagramming, please see my website where I try to make grammar fun. It really can be fun- I swear!

    🙂 Elizabeth

    http://www.english-grammar-revolution.com

  • Ieva Aug 24, 2009 @ 0:59

    Well, there’s grammar and there’s grammar, I guess.
    I’ve never been good at learning rules and applying them because most of the time, I know where the comma must be. (E.g. in this sentence, I knew there’s comma after “time” but I don’t know the rule; and in Latvian, there wouldn’t be a comma there.)

    However.
    I jump up and stop and growl every time I see a wrong I/me thing in a sentence. Well, I can take “Ann and me went swimming” with a smile, but I totally blank out at “He took Ann and I swimming”. (As I gather, the first is the “stupid” mistake and the second is “overstressed” mistake…unless I’m mistaken myself.)

    I am guilty of article and preposition mix-up, and I regularly mess up verb tenses, and I know that if I don’t get them right somewhere along the line, my readers will be confused. (And I’d be so thankful if somebody could point me to an article where articles aren’t described in passing as “OK, everybody knows it, now let’s recap” thing.) They’re not being grammar nerds or anything, they simply jump up, stop and growl when I mess up a sentence, and it interrupts the flow of the story in a big way.
    (I know that at least with two books, I’ve been so traumatized by messed up grammar and messed up word usage–once in each book!–that I can recite the mistake better than the plot.)

    That said, there are very cool books about grammar out there, no need to repeat their lessons if nothing new can be added. 🙂

  • Elise Aug 23, 2009 @ 11:52

    I agree with Peggy. It’s easy to blow off grammar if you know the rules to begin with. Ungrammatical sentences are often unclear and hard to read.
    I also agree with Shiloh when (s)he says “You should see their faces when I tell them it’s perfectly okay to end a sentence with a preposition or split an infinitive, especially if the alternative is a darn awkward sentence.” I’ve reworked sentences that ended with a preposition and that hasn’t worked either.
    It’s another case of balance: following the rules enough to make your writing clear, but not so rigidly as to make it awkward.

    • Holly Lisle Aug 24, 2009 @ 13:45

      I’ll be working on writing style in the revision course. There are techniques you can use to make sure your sentences are clear.

      These techniques require a speaking knowledge of the English language.

      For folks who really, truly, cannot write comprehensible sentences, my recommendation for the little grammar book above stands.

  • tambo Aug 21, 2009 @ 22:19

    I totally agree, but so, so many of my reviewers don’t. I got a PILE of hate mail over a single I/me disagreement in my first novel and I lost track of how many emails detailing every freaking time I had an errant comma or whatever – most of which weren’t my fault since they were not in my manuscript or proof copies. I’m reasonably decent with grammar, but a lot of these people drove me crazy. One woman even refused a FREE BOOK at a SF writers’ talk – someone asked about fan and hate mail I mentioned the I/me thing. It just perplexes me how folks can get so, so upset over something as trivial as that.

    • Holly Lisle Aug 24, 2009 @ 13:46

      Think gutter margins. I got chewed out by a reader because of the gutter margins in my first novel. And since I didn’t typeset it or print it, I was definitely the wrong person to complain to.

      YOU CANNOT PLEASE EVERYONE.

  • PolarBear Aug 21, 2009 @ 18:08

    As I hinted at in my comment, I’d have shied away from this course in a heartbeat if I knew you were going in for extensive grammar (which I knew you wouldn’t), because I don’t see myself as having any problem with it. In fact, the only problem I have with it is that it’s too easy to look at that instead of what’s really wrong with the book. I want to gain the confidence to do real revisions so I don’t waste my time with playing with minute grammar ploys.

  • Adam Aug 21, 2009 @ 15:04

    This tip was something i really needed to read. Grammar had always been one of my greatest fears when writing, as it was all that ever got marked up when writing papers for school. i’ll just focus on coherent sentences and no longer concern myself with all the squiggly green underlines in word (and my peer edits that are all grammar related).

    knowing that editors/agents/publishers won’t be like my teachers and professors just made my day.

  • Peggy Aug 21, 2009 @ 11:51

    While I agree completely that strictly following the rules of grammar isn’t necessary, a writer DOES have to make sure that his or her sentences are clear and say what they’re supposed to say. So some knowledge of how modifiers, introductory phrases, and so on work is not a bad thing to have.

  • Shiloh Aug 21, 2009 @ 9:35

    As both a writer and an English teacher, I have to say that you’re right. I tell my students constantly that the grammar rules are based on how we speak, and as long as you’re writing in the “prestige dialect” and not the Southern or Afro-American dialects, you’re mostly going to be okay. Any grammar rules that don’t match how we talk are stupid and probably based on Latin, which doesn’t make any sense, because English isn’t a Romance language. You should see their faces when I tell them it’s perfectly okay to end a sentence with a preposition or split an infinitive, especially if the alternative is a darn awkward sentence.

    • Holly Lisle Aug 21, 2009 @ 10:36

      You’re wonderful.

    • Anne Lyle Aug 22, 2009 @ 1:49

      Someone (Winston Churchill?) once said of such rigid, Latin-based grammar: “This is the sort of thing up with which I will not put.” Which makes the point rather well, I think 🙂

  • Maryse Aug 21, 2009 @ 9:02

    I’m French, and I completed a minor in linguistic and French grammar, thinking it would help me write fiction… But the fact is I lost the fun of writing in French, and now have to write in English in order to feel free again. I connect much more with my muse when I write in English, because she’s not drown into a lot of grammatical details 😉
    And there is so much more words to play with 😀

    • Holly Lisle Aug 21, 2009 @ 11:03

      My sympathies. It happens to folks who write English as a first language, too. They drink the Grammar Kool-Aid (yes, references to Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre still pepper the language)—and they are forever after ruined for writing fiction, because they’re no longer comfortable in the skin of their own words.

      Language is simply how you talk to people. As a novelist, you’re talking to people on paper. Have something to say. Say it clearly. It is as simple and as sweet as that.

  • Kerryn Aug 21, 2009 @ 6:09

    I haven’t ever been afraid of grammar but there are a few sticky points that baffle me almost every time. Like affect and effect. Early on I read The Elements of Style by Strunk & White (http://www.bartleby.com/141/) available free online. Now I keep in touch with the curly and not-so-curly grammar questions with Grammar Girl (http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/Default.aspx).

    • Holly Lisle Aug 21, 2009 @ 10:35

      I strongly recommend getting a style book. I also strongly recommend reading through it at least once so you understand where you may be making mistakes you don’t know you’re making. I have The Encyclopedic Dictionary of Style and Usage, by Mary A. DeVries. And a couple others, but that’s the one I use most often.

      But knowing which word to use is not really grammar. Word usage is, per Mark Twain, the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. As a writer, you need to know words and their meanings. You get this by reading a lot, and by falling back on a usage guide when you’re uncertain.

  • C. Clark Aug 21, 2009 @ 1:11

    I did bring this up on the poll and I love the idea of using the rules as you choose to use them. But then what should I do if a crit comes back marking up all the grammer – comma, semicolon and etc? Should I just ignore crits like that and move on?

    • Holly Lisle Aug 21, 2009 @ 10:28

      Who is doing the crits?

      Because I’m awesome at grammar—at the rules and the diagramming and the whole damn arcane around-your-ass-to-get-to-your-elbow convoluted rule-set mess. And I break hell out of grammar in every book I write ON PURPOSE because people don’t talk grammatically and they don’t think grammatically, and they don’t twist themselves into convoluted pretzels to say what they mean while using rules that having nothing to do with practical usage. I’ve never had an editor mark up my grammar. In fact, copyeditors routinely insert, in the STET section of their copyedits of my work (the STET section means “Don’t Touch This”) “Uses commas, not necessarily grammatically, for purposes of style. Follow author’s style.”

      The people who get all bent out of shape about grammar in novels are not professionals. Professionals only want your sentences to make sense. If you can read through your sentence one time and know exactly what it means, tell your anal comma-semicolon-colon critter where he can stick his commas.

      If you can’t clearly understand what each sentence means in one read-thorugh, then work on coherence. Don’t work on grammar.

      • C. Clark Aug 21, 2009 @ 19:48

        I belong to Dreaming in Ink and The Novel Club via fmwriters.com and both are great sites. Some critters will point out grammer and such before they’ll point out anything else though. So it’s rather strange. Maybe I’ll have to put in a note with my writing to ask for comments on the story rather then the grammer 🙂

        • Anne Lyle Aug 22, 2009 @ 1:59

          I think inexperienced writers will often focus on grammar and spelling when doing a critique because it’s the one area where they feel capable of supplying solid factual feedback, rather than offering an opinion on something more complex like characterization or pace, which they fear may show up their ignorance of the craft. Which is a pity, because even if a fellow critter hasn’t the experience to offer a solution, they nearly always have enough reading experience to see the problems.

  • TimK Aug 21, 2009 @ 0:22

    Hi, Holly. I love this post! I have to say something, as a grammar-phile, a guy who not only knows all the so-called rules of grammar, but also the exceptions to the rules, who knows the difference between the active, past, and subjunctive by heart—one is a voice, one a tense, and one a mood—and who can do this (to some extent) in 4 different languages—even though my vocabulary is so bad that I need a dictionary and thesaurus on-hand whenever I write. And who can even tell you all the grammatical and mechanical errors I made in this paragraph.

    As a grammar-phile, I have to say that you are absolutely right. And I’ll go one step further. In my experience, not only is grammar unimportant in writing fiction, it’s also unimportant in writing anything. The best non-fiction uses the same style as good fiction, and even uses the same storytelling techniques. The best ads all but completely shed grammar, in order to invoke empathy with the reader (who also, by the way, usually doesn’t care about grammar).

    In fact, the only situations I can think of where grammar is really important is if you’re writing academic papers for professors who are going to mark you down if you break one of their conventions. Or if you’re writing a book about grammar. 🙂

    -TimK

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