Thursday, December 9, 2010

Soapbox Series #2 (Reading, 'Riting, Ranting) -- "I Can Write Except for the Grammar, Punctuation, and Spelling."

Enter to win Falling in by Frances O'Roark Dowell through December 12! Scroll down one post.

Yep, and I could be a carpenter if it weren't for that pesky hammering and sawing.

Your tools matter. Your most basic tools really matter.

Because writing a book isn't just about getting a super, wonderful idea. Actually, many would-be writers do realize this, approach a published writer and say, "I've got this great idea. How about you write it and we split the take?" The published writer will *almost always say no, but it's too facile to say this is because he or she is too busy. It's really because the published writer already has the ideas and the writing. Until the would-be also has both, until the would-be is also the complete package, he or she will remain a would-be.

* Tim LaHaye, who is not a novelist, had the idea for the Left Behind series and asked Jerry Jenkins, who is a novelist, to write the books. But they are both writers, and LaHaye's particular expertise was foundational to the series.

Yes, a novelist is a storyteller. But the novelist conveys his or her stories in, well, prose (and occasionally verse). Which has rules. There are other ways to tell stories: orally, in movies, in song, in art, even in video games. If you want to employ those media, you have to gain whatever skills are required in order to do a quality job. If you want to write a story, you do need grammar, punctuation, and spelling to get that story across. Lacking these, your story will be different from, and less than, your vision for it. Lacking these, you won't get an agent's or editor's time of day. Because they can buy from people who are the complete package.

Doesn't an editor "fix all that"? No. An editor pitches to her employer's acquisitions committee the  most top-quality work she can possibly find, in both story and writing. The editor will write the author a revision letter, sometimes a long one, as the publication process begins, but those revisions won't be about mechanics. A copyeditor, whose job it is to fix light mechanical errors, will go over the manuscript too, but this is a far cry from fixing the work of writers who don't know how to use their tools.

As writers, we have many skills to learn, about storytelling, about writing, and about the particulars of conveying a story through writing. Writers and teachers argue over whether and which of these skills can be taught or learned. A sense of language and a "way with words," many say, must be innate. But grammar, punctuation and spelling are highly learnable, and they aren't something you either had to master in middle school or the chance is gone forever. Taking a class is always an option, but for self-study there are a number of funny, helpful grammar books. Funny? Yes!  Here's a sampling of titles:

Things That Make us (Sic), by Martha Brockenbrough
Lapsing into a Comma, by Bill Walsh
The Elephants of Style, by Bill Walsh
Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, by Mignon Fogarty 
The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, by Bonnie Trenga

This isn't an exhaustive list by far, and many of these authors have websites and blogs, too. And since, no matter our skill level, we all need to sharpen the tools in our box, I'm sure these enticing titles get plenty of workout from all sorts of writers. How about you -- do you have a favorite grammar/punctuation/spelling book? Do tell!


Vijaya said...

Great post, Marcia. I have several grammar books, but I love Strunk and White's Elements of Style the best. My copy is well-worn and used. Seems like I forget the basics often enough to have to refer to them over and over ...

Amykated said...

I can handle spelling. Grammar, while not my strongest point, is still generally okay. But punctuation, specifically commas, kick my butt all over the page.

Anna Staniszewski said...

SO true! You don't want to give agents or editors any reason to turn down your manuscript.

As far as grammar/punctuation books go, I love Lynne Truss's EATS SHOOTS AND LEAVES.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Great list, Marcia! An editor friend told me to use the Chicago Style Manual...

Marcia said...

Vijaya -- Strunk and White is so clear and basic. And because of its length, nonthreatening, I think.

Amykated -- A book I really like, Grammatically Correct by Anne Stilman, spends 27 pp. covering comma usage. It'd be hard not to misuse them at times when there's that much to know.

Anna -- I think of that a lot -- if editors look for reasons to reject, we have to remove as many of them as we know how. And mechanical errors are among the easiest to spot. I love Eats Shoots and Leaves too.

Sharon -- The Chicago Manual is fabulous, because it's "the house style" at so many places.

Andrea Vlahakis said...

Great post, Marcia. Two of my favorite grammar books, and the ones I turn to most often, are Woe Is I by Patricia T. O'Conner, and Rules or Writers by Diana Hacker.

Mary Witzl said...

You've listed all my favorites except for Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which I see Anna has also mentioned. I've got Strunk & White's Elements of Style and The Chicago Manual of Style, and they are great resources. In terms of learning the mechanics of grammar and writing, the thing that probably helped me the most was having a grammatically-minded mother who just never quit. That gave me a good foundation -- and a real aversion to using dodgy English without cringing inwardly.

Mary Witzl said...

Sigh... 'aversion' isn't the right word there. 'Inability' was what I should have written.

Just proves my point, doesn't it?

Laura Pauling said...

My favorite place to check a grammar rule is - google. I type it in and see what the universe says. :)

Michael O'Haver said...

Those grammar and punctuation guides are all well and good for writing pros. How about punctuation for poetry? I have yet to find a decent one for that.

Marcia said...

Andrea -- I really like Woe is I too. I chuckle every time I see the title.

Mary -- Eats Shoots and Leaves is another goodie. It was a bestseller and I wonder how many people had NO idea it was about grammar when they picked it up. I guess what helped me most with grammar was just being a voracious reader.

Laura -- There's no end to what we can Google. I really learned while Christmas shopping this year that if you can imagine it, Google it. It's out there.

Michael -- I found this article on punctuating poetry: I'm not much of a poet, but I've written a few poems and used regular prose punctuation as my guide for where stops and capitals go. You bring up a good point -- poets need guidance to get beyond just putting commas at the end of each line.