FROM THE BLOG
BY PENNY FREEMAN
Dodging the Grammar Police
We’ve been tackling that ticklish subject, voice. Of my six bullet points, we have thus far addressed:
Now, we’re finally sneaking up on the mother of all voice issues, grammar. How an author adheres to or defies the proper forms very strongly influences their narrative voice. Or, in other words, how you break the rules identifies your specific writing. But what is the difference between artistic expression and simply bad writing?
I would posit that reader comprehension lies at the heart of the answer. If a writer demonstrates ignorance of or disregard for the rules of grammar so flagrantly that the reader cannot follow the narrative, it’s time for an intervention by the grammar police. If the writer repeatedly interjects themselves into the reader’s consciousness by their language skills (or lack thereof), it is time for the red pencil of death.
I muddled on how exactly to approach this subject for several weeks. How do I say, to break the grammar rules, follow them? How do I explain what I mean without giving carte blanche to writers for rampant rule mangling?
Then, I happened upon a TED-Ex lecture given by sci-fi/fantasy author Orson Scott Card. Voila! I found my answer. Although the subject of the lecture ostensibly refers to fostering creativity in children, writers of all stripes can find useful advice herein, particularly in the first eight minutes of this eighteen-minute presentation.
The crux of the matter: before you can consciously break the rules of grammar (or perspective, or tense, or a legion of other writing guidelines), you first have to follow them. Rules provide any creative process form and structure, the proper foundation. It requires discipline, a sound understanding, and imaginative problem solving to achieve the effect you want within those strictures. A writer uses infractions of those rules to add emphasis to their written word, to create patterns and variances. To make the narrative voice distinctly their own. But, that disregard for the rules should not overshadow the content.
Have you ever strolled through an art museum and noticed the actual walls, rather than what is on them? Probably not, because curators know that plain, neutral backgrounds (often dark) allow the art upon it to draw all the attention. Consider gazing at a Van Gogh or Renoir hanging against paisley wallpaper. Would your eye be drawn to these fabulous works of art? Or would the masters simply get lost in the noise?
The same principle applies to writing. If your infractions of grammatical rules create a jumble of words without form or style, whatever is good and purposeful gets lost in the chaos. However, set against a backdrop of clear, clean prose, those same intentional variations can add power to the narrative and create an author’s unique linguistic fingerprint. It enhances, rather than detracts from the work.
If you aren’t certain if your bad grammar is the narrative voice or if it’s just plain bad grammar, school yourself. Force yourself to follow all the rules. Religiously. Punctuation, capitalization, paragraph structure, subjects and predicates, dependent clauses, dangling participles, split infinitives—all of it. Practice until that regimental style flows naturally. Once you have that skill, then you can start allowing yourself variations of speech because you are starting from a position of strength and clarity.
Finally, a reminder: most editors are not trying to destroy your voice. We’re helping you find it. We might be the grammar police, but we’re here to protect and serve, not just bully authors into submission.
Next time: It’s not just how you say it; it’s what you say.
Editor-in-chief Penny Freeman lives, writes, edits, and markets from her home in southeast Texas. She currently supervises several editorial projects, including our most recent invitation-only anthology contest, Mechanized Masterpieces 2: An American Anthology, which will be released February 28, 2015. Her latest release, Legends and Lore: An Anthology of Mythic Proportions, was released October 2014.