Publishing is a business, so to be part of that industry, you do need to write at a professional skill level. Understanding grammar and the mechanics behind writing is a must. Just like you can't figure skate in the Olympics if you don't know how to do any jumps, you can't publish if you don't know how to put sentences together correctly.
These are skills you can learn. There are tons of books out there that can teach you proper grammar. And if you're a decent day-to-day writer, you might even have the basic skill set already, since writing is so much more than knowing "i before e except after c." Technical skill is only one part of it.
I'm going to go a bit wild here and say your average person probably has the technical chops to write. They write for work, send emails, communicate with other people using the written form in some way. What they're lacking is the craft of writing.
(Here's more on storytelling)
Craft is the ear to know what words work well together. It's the ability to convey information in a compelling way. To tell a story that captivates a reader. They don't typically teach that in English class, and to be honest, there's only so much of it anyone can teach you. The storyteller's voice can't be taught. It can be developed, but you either have it or you don't. This is why you see beautifully written books that bore the snot out of you, and badly written books you can't put down.
(Here's more on developing your voice)
So, what tools do you need?
1. Understand the basic parts of a sentence
Nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, gerunds, prepositions, etc. You won't know what "use active verbs" means if you're not sure what a verb is. Know what an independent vs. dependent clause means. Know what articles are and which one goes with what. Stuff like that.
(Here's more on nouns)
2. Understand punctuation
Punctuation is the traffic cop of writing. It directs your words and tells the reader when to slow down, speed up, when to stop, when to pause. Put the comma in the wrong place and you change the meaning of the sentence. Look at the famous and hilarious: Let's eat, Grandma! vs. Let's eat Grandma. (commas save lives)
3. Understand words
A huge vocabulary isn't necessary, but words are subtle, and sometimes confusing. Their, there, and they're mean different things. Usually and often are not the same. Alright and alot are not words. All right and a lot are. Mark Twain's said it best: "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
(Here's more on some commonly misused words)
4. Understand tense
If you don't know what tense you're using you won't know what form of the verb to use. Is it run, ran, runs? It'll also be difficult when talking about events that happened in the past, or refer to events coming up in the future.
5. Understand subject/verb agreement
You need to be able to clearly tell the reader what you're talking about. If they can't figure out your sentence, they'll be lost.
Spell check is out there and it's vital, but there's so much it doesn't pick up. You don't have to be a great speller (I'm not) but you need to know the basic rules. That i before e thing, how to make a verb a gerund, the plural forms.
Know what a paragraph is and how to format dialogue.
I think that hits the high spots. You don't have to be a master at any of it to start, but aim for a solid working knowledge. Writers make mistakes just like everyone else. That's why we have copy editors. But the goal of editors is to polish already good, professional prose, not make amateur prose professional. This post by agent Rachelle Gardener says this quite well. (And is what influenced my ice skating analogy).
You can be a writer without formal education. The skills you need to make it can be learned on your own. But you still need those skills.
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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