There’s only one absolute about writing and it’s this: if you want to write, you have to write. You can decide what kind of writer you want to be, a good one or a bad one, and you can decide what kind of things you want to write about because if you want to be published, at some point you will have to decide what genre you’re in, because genres are all about how and where to market what you’re writing.
There are of course many things you can do to learn the techniques of writing which amounts to lots of writing, more writing, getting feedback on your writing, rewriting, editing, lots and lots of reading and then some more writing.
It’s work, this writing thing. Emotional, intellectual labour. There are very few pieces of writing that flow from brain to keyboard to page and end up as the perfectly written piece that turns out to be art that you weren’t even trying to create. If you are one of those writers who can do that, I envy you. For the rest of us, we experiment and edit and play and engage in discovery, using the tools of words hoping that what we craft is not only readable, but a good read.
Now, a good read is highly subjective and influenced by lots of factors including culture, age, personal preference, marketing, size of type, feel of the paper (or screen resolution). Most readers want a good read however they define it: good story, interesting characters, or writing that grabs you and does not let you go, or something that stays with you a long time after you’ve finished reading it. Sadly, lots of books are not good reads. They are consumable reads, but not necessarily good reads.
Much of what makes for good reading is good writing, a writer’s good command of words and good command of the language. Those last two elements — good command of words and language — means we’re into the territory of grammar.
Grammar seems so quaint and old-fashioned today doesn’t it? Perhaps. But maybe grammar is a competitive advantage in a world of over 7 billion, where 3.5 billion want to be famous writers. An additional 1 billion write just to express themselves. Curiously, only 9 million of the 3.5 billion people who want to be famous writers actually want to read. A negligible amount want to know about how to use grammar to advance their writing skill.
So call me old-fashioned. I think knowing the rules to something you are involved in helps you to know if, when, where, and how to break them with precision and impact, and it’s such an added grace to name and explain with aplomb the rule you’re breaking when the grammar police — yes, they still exist — raid your office and ask you, with their sphincter muscles tightened in anticipation, if you knew you were breaking the grammar law.
English is one of those funny languages where our grammar rules change and evolve as our society changes and evolves. Sometimes what’s used colloquially becomes acceptable. I don’t always like that, but if the OED folks decide to battle it out over what gets in and what gets out, who I am to argue? (RIP Oxford comma). That’s not to say that stream of consciousness writing has to be grammarized: but if it can’t be followed, or isn’t paced in a way that makes sense to readers, you lose them. That might not matter if you don’t care if someone reads your work. But if you want to be a published writer, it matters.
Knowing grammar rules means that you have at your disposal an additional writing tool to use when you bring words together. It also means you can pick which rules to break and where breaking a rule adds to the piece rather than detracts from it. Next to spelling mistakes and really bad type design, nothing trips up readers more than bad grammar that seems to be there for no good reason.
Why bother with grammar? It helps ensure understanding between the writer and the reader. You might never need grammar if you are only writing in your head. But if you are writing to be read, grammar is an important tool to use that shows some consideration for the reader.
Grammar does not have to be perfect. Perfect grammar is textbooks and theses and school essays and policy papers and academia, all of which are often boring reads. Seems to me that for the English language, (as we use it here in Canada) grammar sort of reflects an approach to life: Know the rules. Know when to break ’em.
Of course you can do whatever you want in your own writing. Lots of writers have written without using grammar because they thought grammar got in the way of what they were writing about and what they were trying to convey to the reader. That’s certainly an approach; to make a conscious decision to avoid using grammar is a valid device to use for your own writing. That means KNOWING grammar and what it is and where it is and how it is used in order to never use it in your writing.
Your writing is one issue. What about when you write for someone else? Like a client?
Grammar and the Client
The funny thing about English grammar is that it’s not absolute. It’s opinion, consensus; crowd-sourced, so to speak. That means people argue about it, often with a lot of emotion involved. If you write for clients, that can be a problem.
Some clients think they are grammar experts and when they have finished expressing their expertise all over the copy that took weeks to craft and get by the committee of other experts, well, that’s often the time to check the contract and re-write rates.
Some clients say they use a style guide and a grammar guide and then don’t follow it at all and they make changes all the way to the printer’s premises and then on the proofs. Nice to have all that money. And, not care about readers. The audience. The reason for the writing in the first place.
Here’s the thing: most clients are human beings, with human being foibles. Most clients are not writers. And some of those clients think that writing is something that takes no time and no thought and their careful eye, together with their writing skill is essential to rewrite everything they told you to write. Curiously, that client’s rewrite is complete with fundamental errors in basic grammar. Even more curious is that the client is single-handedly trying to realize Manifest Destiny — all of the words with unique Canadian spelling of copy targeted for a Canadian publication have been changed to American spelling.
Perhaps it’s not so bad that some freelance writing is being shipped out overseas for $2 per page. <melodramatic sigh>
And so, to recap this latest adventure in the land of writing and writers:
Write a lot. Read a lot. Write some more.
Grammar Rules — Know them before you break them!
Readers rock even if some of them roll.
Clients are always right, except for when they are so, so wrong.
NB: If you can count the grammar errors in this post and accurately identify old vs. new style grammar, I just might consider you one very cool grammar nerd.