A reader asked...
For someone like me, without much formal education, but who wants to write fiction at a professional level, what are some of the tools of grammar the fiction writer needs to have?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 to teach you proper grammar. And if you're a decent day-to-day writer, you might even have the basic skill set already. Writing is so much more than knowing "i before e except after c."
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.
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 really teach you 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 work you can't put down.
But to go back to the question, what are the tools 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.
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: 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.
4. Understand tense
If you don't know what tense you're using you won't know what verbs to use. Is it run, ran, runs?
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 dialog.
I think that hits the high spots. You don't have to be a master at any of it if you have 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.