Writing at Typewriter

How Important is Grammar to a Writer?

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I have been reading The 28 Biggest Writing Blunders (And How to Avoid Them)by William Noble, to see what I can learn about improving my writing. He advises writers not to write for their eighth-grade English teachers or be slaves to the grammar gurus. He advises writers not to overuse the thesaurus or get tied up in a “sentence straightjacket.” He is against using adverbs and adjectives unless they are absolutely necessary and cautions against creating a style that does nothing more for your writing than to make it different from other writers. He also warns against trying to imitate writers like Hemingway, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and others with a distinctive style, because you will never master their styles as well as they did.

As writers, we are urged to develop our own unique writing voices. I found mine at Squidoo, now part of HubPages.  It’s not a perfect style, but it is in my voice. I’m not trying to imitate anyone, and I normally use the first person when I write about my personal experiences.

It was a relief to read this book, because, as do many writers, I have mental yellow lights go off in my head whenever I’m about to commit a grammatical “sin.” Noble gives me permission to ignore all my mental grammar police if I have a good reason. I can dare to use the passive voice, use a fragment, or end a sentence with a proposition.

I suspect most competent writers already follow Noble’s suggestions and they probably don’t need this book.  The people who need it most are wannabe writers who haven’t found a unique voice yet. They are the ones most likely to use unnecessary figurative language inappropriately to make their prose more poetic. They are the ones who will deliberately create their own punctuation rules with the hope of being seen as another e.e. cummings.

If you are teaching English and some of your students have somehow gotten hold of this book, or another similar to it, be sure to let your students know that the cardinal rule when it comes to breaking the rules is to know why they are there and why you are breaking them. To do that, you first have to know the rules. They are there to help readers understand what you write. Anything that impedes that does not communicate anything except that you don’t care whether your reader can follow you.

If you are a reader, you will understand this. You know what makes you want to put a book down. Maybe it’s unnecessary descriptions that are long and don’t really help you visualize the scene or person being described. Maybe it’s a dangling participle or a comma where there ought to be a period. Anything that confuses a reader for no good reason should be avoided. Any grammar and usage rules which help a reader understand you better should be followed.

If you are still a student, don’t let a book like this convince you that knowing all those rules isn’t necessary. Noble would not agree. He never advocates not learning the rules. You have to know them before you can know why breaking one will enhance your writing rather than reduce the effectiveness of your writing. If I were your English teacher and you broke a rule, I’d probably ask you why you did it and expect a good answer. 

I am often asked to proofread or evaluate the writing of others. My rule of thumb now is this: If your mistake screams at me as I read, you probably did not have a good reason to break the rules. The grammar police do reside in my brain and they shout at me when I see sentence errors that don’t serve any good purpose.

The average reader is not looking for mistakes and may not instinctively notice them the way an ex-English teacher does. If that reader is aware of your mistake. It is probably because… you have upset the rhythm. of his reading for no good reason. Did you notice my mistakes in that last sentence? That’s what I mean. Your writing should flow smoothly without disturbing your reader unless it is your intention to disturb your reader for a reason.

So, be diligent in learning all you can about grammar and usage. Practice following the rules in your writing. Don’t depend upon your spell checker or your grammar checker when you write, because they make mistakes. Learn how to spell, especially the homophones — words that sound alike and are usually spelled differently. Know when to use each word. Know when you need a period instead of a comma and vice versa. Your readers will appreciate it as much as your English teacher does. Once you have mastered the traditional way to use the English language, you will be in a position to know when you can effectively disregard it.


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2 thoughts on “How Important is Grammar to a Writer?”

  1. I think I was an English teacher in a former life. I do know that my eighth grade English teacher made a definite impression on me. I’m sure I break rules that I don’t remember but rather than stressing over it, I try to maintain a balance so that my writing sounds like me. Good to know that I have someone’s permission to do so!

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