Posted in Writing

Why You Need to Take Grammar Seriously

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In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

You’ll also want grammar on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t annoy me with your moans of exasperation or your cries that you don’t understand grammar […] Relax. Chill. We won’t spend much time here because we don’t need to. One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not.

Grammar is an element of writing everyone struggles with, that’s for damn sure.

I like to think of myself as pretty adept at the grammar side of things, and teaching freshman composition for the past five years has certainly helped with that considerably. I also had amazing high school English teachers who drilled the fundamentals of grammar into me like you wouldn’t believe. I definitely came out of tenth grade feeling like I’d just been through an advanced college course in everything grammar!

And yet, I still make mistakes. Trust me. I have people all the time tell me I use commas too often. I have people make the kinds of corrections to my sentences that make me hang my head in shame. This article will likely have a few grammatical errors too, and I’m sure one of you will point them out!

We are all going to make mistakes in grammar. First drafts are especially messy when it comes to things like grammar. Because you’re going to be revising your manuscript considerably, the grammar in the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. You can have typos all over the place. You can write so fast that when you look back over your work weeks later you might not have a clue what the occasional sentence even means. As I’ve discussed before, what you want to do in your first draft is get your story down. Don’t panic about vocabulary, grammar, things like that.

At the same time, you are not, under any circumstances, allowed to turn away from the rules of grammar, write sentences and paragraphs however you like, and then expect your beta readers or your agent or your editor to fix what you consider “minor issues.” Grammar is minor, sure, especially in the large scope of your novel, but when your beta reader or workshop classmate can’t get through the first page of your manuscript because it’s riddled with errors, there’s a problem.

I’ve participated in about ten creative writing workshops in my life, workshops meant for serious writers with serious talent, and it always baffled me and frustrated me when a student entered a workshop story that had a hundred typos, and a grammatical error in practically every sentence. Nobody will EVER take you seriously if you don’t take your grammar seriously. It’s one thing to make mistakes in the first draft and then fix them to the best of your ability later. It’s another to just brush off grammar as that annoying outlier that doesn’t concern you.

So if you struggle with grammar, do your homework. Read some craft books. Write a lot. Revise a lot. As is the case with anything, you will get better. And as long as you take the grammar element of writing seriously, you’ll be just fine in the long run.

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