Writer staring at corrected manuscript.

What to Do If You Are Bad at Grammar

Today we’re going to talk about what to do if you feel that you aren’t good at grammar, you don’t know the rules of writing.

(If you prefer audio, you can listen to this episode on the Smarter Artist Podcast)

I’m going to put that in air quotes “I don’t know the rules on writing, I’m not good at writing,” and the reason is if you think that you probably aren’t actually bad at writing.

You probably don’t have any deficit that would keep you from doing what it is that you want to be doing when you’re writing, but that something that’s artificially imposed a lot of times by prescriptive things that happen in school.

A lot of us who have gone through schooling have that memory of being in an English class and being told that the rules of grammar were such and such and you never end a sentence with a preposition, and you never speak in fragments, and you use commas and semi-colons and all these things in these ways.

There are definite rules that you probably shouldn’t break, and you don’t want to break them unwittingly and just march on as if you’re doing it right, but are actually doing them wrong.

If you’re just using semi-colons incorrectly, that’s probably not a stylistic choice. That’s probably something that is wrong but who says you need to use semi-colons?

Most of these things that are actual nuts and bolts things are the sorts of errors that editors can help you fix.

But you shouldn’t let them stop you when you’re actually writing.

shutterstock_397576393If you do enough reading I think you’ll start to notice that there’s a lot of rules that some of the really good writers break.

My favorite example of this is probably Chuck Palahniuk. There’s plenty of others. Cormac McCarthy breaks all sorts of rules too.

But my favorite is Chuck because if you read one of his books, it’s like it’s not an assault on grammar, but it’s an assault on what we consider to be “proper writing” according to the English teacher’s definition.

Chuck writes in strange tenses and fragments and points of view, and he just generally breaks all those rules.

If you understand what you’re doing, you can more fluidly break the rules that you may think are ironclad.

In general, you want to have more of a voice and an ear for your writing. If you read books and if you listen to dialogue, then you will understand the basics of how to tell a story.

You understand story from movies, from TV, obviously from written stories, and the prescriptive rules about grammar shouldn’t stop you.

My favorite is don’t have sentences that are fragments. Don’t begin sentences with and and but. That’s the way that people talk.

People all the time say “And this is going to happen too”.

Or they’ll say, “But don’t forget about this.”

You can put that sort of thing in your prose, and if your readers and beta readers don’t have a problem it, then you’re probably fine and you shouldn’t worry about what the Chicago Manual of Style says in terms of whether you’re being grammatically correct or not.

Because grammar and rules of language are something that’s both important and not important. Depending on context, usually my first line recommendation is know the basics of the rules.

Check out Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and I would definitely read Stephen King’s book On Writing. The first half is a lot about style and structure, and which rules that are okay to violate and which ones are the ones you should know.

shutterstock_353032424Read those to get the basics, but then beyond that, understand that you’re going to have not a first line of defense, but certainly a backup, in your editor.

If you hire a professional editor to go over your work, which you should do then they’re going to catch just about anything that you don’t feel that you know.

It’s your job to make sure that you’re good enough that you’re not lazy and relying on them as a crutch to handle everything for you. But understanding that they will catch things and so you should be more free to just do your writing.

The rest of it just comes down to practice and finding your voice.

A lot of what would be consider grammatically incorrect in Chuck Palahniuk’s work, or anybody else who breaks the rules like that, really comes down to what is their specific writing voice.

It’s not really correct to say that they’re doing things wrong, they’re just doing things their way. The difference ultimately is do they understand the rules that they’re breaking? Are they doing it in service of voice? Are they doing it for a reason?

The reason that Chuck Palahniuk writes so fragmentarily is partially because that’s just how he writes, but in part because he’s writing about people who are sort of fragmentary people.

These are people who are never quite down the center. They’re always sort of odd people, and they wouldn’t think or narrate a book in a sensible way, in the way that maybe a mainstream person would who would use mainstream grammar.

The ultimate on this is sort of to not worry about it, but worry about it enough. Know that you have your editor and know the basics of any rule before you break them, but definitely don’t let it stop you from writing.