Hey, Grammar sucks, right? No, okay, it doesn't.
Dave posted last week a very well thought out piece about the teaching of grammar. Sandra posted her own views yesterday. It's fair to say I agree totally with Dave, but I understand where Sandra is coming from.
Dave's post was really talking about teaching. It wasn't about the professional writer. And the other thing is that neither Dave, nor myself, are saying that Grammar isn't important. We're just questioning the running order of those priorities.
My point of view is an argument I need to make in two parts. First I need to say why I hold those opinions, then I need to tell you why that qualifying statement doesn't matter.
I'm dyslexic. It's only been in the past year that I've stopped making excuses for myself, and hiding issues away. Although i've always been willing to tell people, its only recently that i've started writing about the effects, or showing the ways that i struggle. My wife might be used to filling in my forms, reading directions, and checking the labels in shops, but i'm no longer letting people "at the desk job," think that I'm stupid simply because my brain handles information in another way.
The more active i've become in talking about it, the more i'm noticing there seems to be a war on dyslexia, too. Many educational authorities still don't recognise it. Many people who are meant to be teaching these people are doing so without a basic understanding of it. There are many famous people from the past who have been identified as dyslexic, or of carrying traits that would indicate it's presence, and there are now increasingly blogs, websites and journals that seek to disprove this. I've had someone look me in the eye and offer to show me studies that prove dyslexia doesn't exist. I wonder if these same people would stand in front of a blind man and offer to show him proof that he can see. So I must warn you, it's an issue I'll be getting louder on in future.
Clearly my thoughts on this issue can't help but be coloured by my perspective. I come at issues of the written word with something of an outsiders point of view. However, that doesn't matter. That shouldn't matter. The fact that my views have been informed by this don't impact the views themselves. I'll clarify what I mean by that later on.
It goes without saying, in my opinion, that anybody working at a craft should learn the basics of that craft. The examples given previously in this discussion allude to this. Yes, we want a carpenter or a builder to know the basics before they build us a chair or a house. Yes we want a pilot to have take lessons before flying our plane.
But what are the basic issues of their craft or job? I don't care if the pilot knows the accepted order to press buttons in, as long as he knows how to get the plane up, fly it, and land it safely. He may well be fudging a few things, like everybody at every workplace ever does. He may miss out some protocol, or switch on the flux capacitor before engaging the doohickey, and I couldn't give a toss. I don't care if the carpenter knows how to use a spirit level, or how to correctly mark his angles or cut his joints. I just care that he can build a seat.
Look at us. what percentage of readers actually care what aspects go into the craft of writing? Do they look at how we judge when to describe the room, or what we think of writers block? No, they want to read a good story. And none of us wants to see how sausages are made.
My favourite band in all the world are The Replacements. When Paul was playing with Bobby Stinson, he was playing with a guitarist who couldn't explain musical theory to you, and wouldn't know to point out a scale on the fret, but let him loose and he could spit fire with that guitar. Twenty years later Paul could have his pick of expert session musicians, but can any of them tell a story?
Because that's the thing. Thats the basic fundamental. It's story. It's point. It's message. Everything that comes afterwards is the dressing and presentation.
And there are tools out there for adult writers. I have people who can help polish my stuff. We have steps we can take to present ourselves as professionally as we can, and those are steps that we absolutely have to take. The professional, semi-professional or aspiring writer has to take their work seriously. No question.
But there are deeper issues here.
You want confessions? Okay. Many of the things that have come up during this past week, issues of verbs, adverbs, nouns.....none of these mean anything to me. I'm 30 years old, and I know how to tell you a story, but i'm not going to be able to explain to you what any of those terms mean. I'm not going to be able to hold a conversation on how many words should be in a sentence, or when you should and shouldn't use quotation marks. Even at the thought of trying, i'm wondering where the nearest fire escape is.
There are people around me who know these things. My wife is a journalist. My agent is very patient and can explain to me various elements of grammar. But I think they both agree I can tell a story.
To go back to Dave's point, it is vital that we engage the kids first. Encourage them to join the topic, to give ideas, and to put those ideas down in writing. Everything else can wait. Everything else is just the rest of us forcing rules onto them.
Just this past week, on one of the message boards I'm known to check out, I saw a teenager join in a conversation. This was someone who was clearly not used to writing in this way, clearly not used to joining in a conversation and expressing thoughts in written form. And the first reply he got was asking if he was kindergarten because some of what he wrote was in text speak.
Way to engage. Way to encourage.
And you know what? I've been that kid. Sometimes I still am.
I would rather read a novel in text speak that had something to say, than a book written in perfect modern prose that failed to express a single interesting idea. And I would rather engage that kid who sits down to join in than throw a rule book at him and drive him away.
The figures in adult illiteracy are astounding. A commission in 1998 showed that 7 million adults in England alone are functionally illiterate. Google tells me that 37 million in the U.S. suffer the same way.
Now, we can't generalise as to what is affecting all of those people. We don't know their circumstances, we don't know their poverty level or their access to education. But I have worked with adults who struggle to read and write, hell, I'm one of them, and I can say we need to engage people first.
At junior school I couldn't pass a spelling or grammar test to save my life. Teachers would work on this with me. They would give me the letters all cut out and ask me to rearrange them, they would give me books that explained what a noun was, or what an adverb was. They would talk to me, and eventually tell my parents that I was lazy, or that I didn't apply myself. I spent time outside some of these classes, eventually, looking at picture books, because if I didn't fit their lesson plan then I didn't fit the lesson. Later, at high school, the other people in my class could double my scores at S.P.A.G but they couldn't touch me on comprehension. Also worth noting that at high school I was pulled to one side and offered the chance to withdraw from certain subjects by the head teacher, because I was lazy and unfocused, and they had exam scores to worry about. 20 years later, I'm the one who's on here now selling you my fiction and arguing my points.
Because I got story. I'd had story my whole life. Both my grandfather and my mother would spend hours sitting with me and telling me stories, engaging me with narrative. They would encourage me to tell them stories, and I would talk, and I began to write, and I would draw them comic books.
There are people out there in the crime community, like Allan Guthrie and Charles Ardai, who were good enough to look through early work of mine, work that didn't fit an acceptable standard of grammar or formatting, and to encourage me.
Narrative is what we pin things on. It's how our brain stores information, how it files our memory as we go along. Ideas are what make us pick up the pen, or open the laptop. Ideas are what make us run around the room as a child pretending to be an aeroplane.
We've all seen films that are technically brilliant, but where it's clear the filmmaker or the writer had nothing to say, or didn't know what they wanted to say. I'm sure we've read many many books that have perfect grammar, but not a single moment of life.
Because priorities can be off. The wrong thing can be encouraged. Format can win over content, and rules can win over imagination. I've seen it, I've lived it.
But as I said up at the top, my dyslexia isn't the point. If and when I throw it into conversations like this, then i'll get, "well, in your case..." or "of course, if there is a disability." It's a good thing to throw in to get people thinking differently, but it's also something that takes the conversation down a blind alley.
I'm not saying that kids with dyslexia should be exempt from the grammar police. I'm saying there is a problem with the grammar police. For all kids, and adults, who are looking to learn to read and write, the rulebook should be something that comes later. Get them engaged. Get them involved. Get them confident enough to express themselves. Get them to enjoy expressing themselves. Get them to the point that they care about clarity, and everything else, including the rulebook, will follow from there. We need to not make grammar into a song and dance. Not get it to the point when people -as I have done- can stare at a page panicking over whether or not the work fits the rules, or whether I'll look stupid.
On the rare occasions that crazy people come to me asking for advice on a piece of writing, or struggling to get something down, I only have one real question for them, "what are you trying to say?" Talking to Dave at the weekend recording an interview for his next release, I hit a wall in how to phrase a question and he did pretty much the same thing, "what are you trying to get to?"
That's what matters, and that is really the only rule. Elmore Leonard had ten of them, and he's a better writer than me, but I only really have one.
Get clarity. Get to what you want to say. Figure that out, and then figure out the clearest way to say it. If you do that, then chances are everything else will take care of itself.
What's the point in me coming all this way without giving a few tips to people who have the same panics as myself, people intimidated by grammar. I have a few things that I keep in mind when i'm writing, and they help me find that clarity that I crave.
1. Forget that it's writing.Think of the language as it was meant to be, verbal and flowing. Think of what you want to say, and the clearest way to say it, then right it down.
2. Any time you want to pause or take a breath, thats when to throw in some punctuation.
3. It's worth reading back through your work in reverse order, a section or paragraph at a time. If it's seems clear backwards, then chances are you've structured it well enough.
For the whovians out there, or just general podcast fans, i've take up a guest spot on the Fuzzy Typewriter podcast to talk about the new series of Doctor Who. I filled in a little of my history of the show in last weeks episode, and i'll be back in this weeks to talk about episode 6.2, Day Of the Moon. Chances are the show will already be available by the time this post goes up.