Professional copyeditor and writing coach Susanne Lakin explains how learning the rules of grammar will improve the fortunes of self-published authors, creatively as well as financially. She makes particular reference to grammar in fiction writing, the focus of her latest book, “Say What?”
Writers know they have to learn grammar. At least some grammar. Back in the day, the only hope of publication for writers was to get their novel picked up by a traditional publisher. And back then, little to no emphasis was ever put on the need for a writer to learn grammar, self-edit, polish his manuscript, or hire a professional copyeditor. There were in-house editing teams waiting to do the unpleasant task of cleaning up the undoubtedly messy manuscript.
But in this new era of self-publishing, which also sees severe competition for the few slots in a big publishing house’s catalogue, writers are expected to present perfectly edited manuscripts. Those who submit error-ridden novels to agents or publishers are often rejected without hesitation. Those who self-publish books full of mistakes get dinged by negative reviews.
Why Self-published Authors Should Learn Grammar
But why should a writer take all that time to learn yucky grammar? Who really needs to know what a predicate or participle is? Can’t writers just learn to write well by reading well-written books? Maybe you are thinking it’s worth the money to give someone else that unpleasant task of cleaning up your mess.
Although one can certainly defer all that tedious grammar correction to a professional editor for hire, the more a writer learns to write well, the better off she will be – financially and creatively. Not knowing how to correctly structure sentences is a liability.
My eighth-grade English teacher repeatedly pounded his students on the head with this aphorism: “Say what you mean. Don’t say what you don’t mean.” When writers lack knowledge of correct grammar, punctuation, spelling, and word usage, they often end up saying what they don’t mean. Which is counterproductive and often wastes time.
Are There “Rules” for Fiction Writing?
In my work as a full-time copyeditor and writing coach, I critique and edit more than two hundred partial or complete manuscripts a year, from clients in six continents. That’s a lot of diverse writing I examine, in just about every genre. But although these works are very different from each other, I see time and again many of the same grammar and sentence structure mistakes. The same words appear again and again misspelled or misused.
Not all questions about grammar are simple, and often there are grey areas and situations that are matters of style. This becomes an even greater component when dealing with fiction, which introduces elements of characterization, regional speech, and creative writing style.
Most writers want to “follow the rules” of grammar, yet don’t want their style encroached upon. However, the more a fiction writer knows and understands the rules of grammar, the better equipped she will be to write well – and to make sound decisions regarding when or if to break the “rules.”
Aside from the obvious reason for becoming a proficient handler of language (you’re a writer, after all, and language is the tool of your craft), learning grammar will make your job easier and your writing much better in the long run. And those are goals, it seems, most writers would embrace and strive for.
Susanne's guide to grammar for fiction writers, Say What?, is now available to order. More details are available on her LiveWriteThrive website.
What's your attitude to grammar? Please feel free to leave a comment and join in the conversation!