Friday, June 27

Grammar and You: What You Need to Know to Write

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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.

6. Spelling

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.

7. Formatting

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.

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book 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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  1. Hey, nice summary. :)

    As a note, though, different grammar handbooks do contradict each other on some of the little (mostly punctuation) rules. It's a good idea to invest in one solid handbook, like the Chicago Manual of Style, and use that as your grammar "bible".

    The Elements of Style also covers a lot of common writing errors and is popular.

    Writers have to learn the rules, learn why they exist—and then, when we understand where and why we're supposed to use them, we can break them as we see fit. Fiction often breaks the rules. But if we try breaking the rules without comprehending why they're rules to begin with, our output demonstrates that, to our detriment.

  2. I have a degree in English, and was always considered 'top of the class' when it came to writing, but I still make mistakes all the time. I think it mostly comes down to having an eye for what looks right, and an ear for what sounds right.

  3. Well said. Of course many writing rules work best when broken, but you have to know them well first so that you can break them on purpose. Cormac McCarthy won a Pulizter for The Road because he broke almost every writing rule out there, but he did it with purpose, and he did it well.

  4. I'll give you a bit of a warning on Strunk and White - their grammar rules are useful, but can't be taken as gospel for the purposes of fiction writing. They're designed for academic or scientific writing, mostly, and if you follow them too stringently your writing will sound dry and without emotional dynamic. I'd like to pick up on Matthew Rush's idea of writing rules working best when broken. It's not about breaking the rules, but about knowing what it means when the rules get broken. Grammar rules are great because they work both ways: mean something when they work as planned, mean something different when they don't. Knowing the basic meaning well gives you the power to understand precisely what it means when those rules do get broken, as they often do in fiction.

    Great post, Janice!

  5. Beg to differ a bit on "Craft." To me, Craft is the *what* you do, which is the structure, level of characterization, having a high concept, decent grammar (when needed), etc. These can be learned from many sources as you point out.

    Art is *how* you do the craft. This is creating the rhythm, choosing the right words/phrases, mocking up the next plot twist.

    They truely work hand in hand. You can learn and practice Craft but you can only *do* your Art. There are methods which might help your creativity such as mind maps, but it comes down to your "wild" ideas.

    Wouldn't have it any other way.

  6. I'm doing my best, but since English is not my first language, I probably do a Hell of a lot of mistakes. I've found that reading English fiction is a good way to get a better feel for the langauge.

    Thanks for posting these hints >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  7. Just from the question, it appears that the commenter has at least a functional knowledge of English grammar.
    The most important thing is to get your meaning across as intended. If you can do that, you can edit your way to a polished product. Even experts in grammar can benefit from the services of a proofreader, though.
    Then. There is Thomas Pynchon The exception. that proves.... The Rule.

  8. Fine. Grammar sense is necessary. You have touched the issue of grammar in writing lucidly.


  9. This is really good advice and a great list. Now, I just need to learn the stuff.


  10. It was interesting to think about actually. I can see writing being intimidating if you think you need a masters in English or something, but storytelling is part of us. As long as we know enough to get that story to the reader, we're probably okay.

  11. Oh dear God. Alright is not a word??? hahahaha...just went and changed them all out on my wip. Geesh. I still have so much to learn myself. Been out of school a long time and I wasn't teaching much of this stuff to my kindergarten students when I was working as a teacher, so I'm a little out of practice. But, I have been constantly learning by reading blogs (like yours thank you!!!) and researching on the net. I have also found that reading critiques on people's work and critiquing in the SYW forums in AW to be EXTREMELY helpful. Thanks again for a very helpful post.

  12. This really is a great rundown. Even if you are a master grammatically, continued use and refreshing is a must.

  13. LOL Melanie. Nope it's not, but I bet it winds up being one before long. So many people use it. Critiques are great learning tools. SYW is doubly great because you can see what others say as well, and pick up tricks from what's said and what's written.

  14. Good post. I think the ART of story telling is ever so much more important than grammar, and much harder to master. However, a good story can become a great one with the use of the right words, written with clarity and grace.

  15. Couldn't agree more :) What's that adage? To break the rules well you have to first understand the rules?

  16. Thanks. Sharing with my writing students NOW. You make my job so much easier by saying it all in one place.

  17. Now you have done it Janice Hardy. I'm offended and for the record I proudly proclaim that I will never be accused of being a grammar nazi.
    That is the sort of English up with which I shall not put.

  18. Replies
    1. LOL. I loved that...article? Meme? Forget the context now, but so perfect.