Monday, May 2, 2011

It's Not Polite To Let Your Modifiers Dangle In Public: Ruttan on Grammar

The other day, Dave blogged on grammar. I logged on, typed up a great response, and watched it disappear into cyberspace somewhere.

That's when I decided that the supreme overlord of the internet had eaten my comment to force me to blog about this topic myself so that I could set the record straight, and restore the significance of grammar to its proper place in the writing universe.

Or, at least, put a bit of a different spin on it.

Check this out.

Boy it sure is hotter than hell Fred said. "I got me toes burnt near right off in de back of dat truck" Sally Jean told me she's dang near ready to burst. "Its like the devil himself were workin the sun Ralph said. "I cant remember a time when it was hotter dan dis. Ya, and Sally Jean said you won't be wantin to tink of anytin but an ice bath and cold home brew needer.

So, you tell me. Who the hell said what?

Now, I've read drafts of stories where, line after line, paragraphs ran together. If you add in a story where the focus is on dialogue, and a writer that doesn't know the rules for punctuation, so they don't consistently use quotation marks and leave out dialogue tags... Well, it can be a nightmare. I mean... I've really had to review prolonged sections of writing like this, and I've really not had a clue who was saying what or what was going on.

And I don't know how on earth to address clarity and to just make sense of the ideas behind the writing when I don't even know who's saying what.

Which means the first thing I've got to address with a writer struggling with these issues is how to split paragraphs, and how to use punctuation when writing dialogue. If they can at least sort the text into paragraphs, then I can begin to move towards clarity.

But without at least attempting to use punctuation and structure? Please, just shoot me now. I mean, really. I've pulled my hair half out of my head trying to make sense of run-on sentences that are mashed together in run-on paragraphs that extend multiple pages, and after going cross-eyed and nearly overdosing on Tylenol, I reached a significant conclusion.

And before anyone throws names at me like Charlie Huston, just remember, even writers who break "the rules" have their own style they consistently conform to that serves as a guide.

To me, the technical aspects of writing are like one of the four wheels of a cart; without it, it's pretty damn hard to get the cart to move properly.

Creativity is another wheel. Storytelling - not writing - is another wheel. The fourth wheel? Organization and expression. By this, I mean sequencing your thoughts in a way people can follow, to maximize the impact of your story.

And as far as I'm concerned, they're all equally important. I mean, Dave's right in saying that if there's a typo, we can usually figure out what was meant. But in the example I gave above? That's not slapping a bandage on a small error; that's major surgery to repair significant damage. And I think that Dave's opinion stems primarily from the situations he's exposed to through his work and writing experience, which may be scenarios where only a handful of pages are being written for a story, report or essay.

My situation is different, and that's why I'm splitting hairs here. Because while (in my humble opinion) Dave isn't completely wrong, in certain circumstances, he's also not completely right.

The other day we were in a restaurant and the kids were working on activity sheets. One was to create a crazy story by filling in the blanks with specific types of words. My stepson, who's in grade 4, didn't know the difference between a noun and a verb. And he's typically ranging from A to B in Language Arts grades. When he told me they don't really teach that in school, I couldn't argue. I've seen the worksheets that come home, and the kids aren't being instructed in this. 25 spelling words a week, but no lessons on the difference between an adverb and a verb.

Which reminds me of the fact that my stepdaughter got her lowest grade ever in language arts this year, and the teacher cited the fact that she wasn't using a lot of varied words in her creative writing. But how can you expect her to use different nouns and verbs and modifiers if she doesn't even know what those terms refer to?

That isn't even my biggest complaint with their English language instruction. What frustrates me is that they haven't learned the difference between singular and plural. They is not gonna learn to speak proper English if they is never corrected on such things. And when mixing singular and plural is common in their speech, and that translates over to their writing, shouldn't someone be explaining to them why they've lost points for it on a creative writing assignment?

This is why, every summer, I do my own review with the kids, covering math and English, as well as science and social studies.

Now, I remember being in school, and recall taking phonics and learning grammar and punctuation rules in elementary school. I also remember taking spelling tests each week, and I remember a very long list of teachers who would deduct points from projects for incorrect spelling, grammar or use of punctuation. And not just in English class.

Perhaps that's why I learned to focus on writing clean. Perhaps it's because I'm anal. Or perhaps it's because if you maintained a 100% average in spelling, you got a spare. Those who had the spare didn't have to do all the grammar assignments for the spelling words each week.

I try to write clean. I try to write clean in everything from my emails to my blog posts. And using twitter really messes with me mentally, because I need to use text speak sometimes, and it goes against my instincts.

As an author, I am so glad I habitually try to write clean.

Like Dave, I work in education. I spent a lot of time in high school English classes. I tutor adult students taking creative writing diplomas online. I also have two stepkids in elementary school.

And the lack of emphasis placed on good grammar, spelling and punctuation - what I tend to refer to as the technical aspects of writing - is a constant headache for me.

Now, in Dave's situation at school, perhaps he's primarily working on things that are only a handful of pages long. Maybe he teaches creative writing exclusively. If so, I can understand why he'd put more focus on creativity and clarity of expression than on technical execution if he chooses to.

But I work with students who are working on manuscripts. And I feel it's irresponsible for me to strictly focus on the creative side of the process without addressing the technical issues. I also feel that it's in the student's best interests to learn these things sooner, rather than later.


Do you want someone to wait until after they've started building the frame of your house before they take a carpentry course? Probably not. Just like you probably don't want to go flying in an airplane with a pilot who hasn't taken any lessons or learned how to land.

I know from first-hand experience just how much time is spent revising a manuscript after you think you've finished writing it. I know that typing 'The End' for the first time is really just the beginning. And I know that the next part of the process is often considerably more painful than the first part. Creating is fun. Expressing yourself correctly isn't.

So, sure, toss aside grammar and punctuation and spelling. Have at er. Go to town on your manuscript and sail right through. And then discover that you haven't used proper punctuation for any of your dialogue and you have to go over 350+ pages just to fix the dialogue punctuation alone. Plus, you never did learn that rule about i before e except after c, and there are so many wavy red lines that Word told you it's taking too much memory to track all your spelling and grammatical mistakes. And what is the rule about dialogue tags?

You see, in certain circumstances, Dave's not wrong. If I was strictly teaching creative writing - I mean, real creative writing, not the diploma course I do mentor that's called that - grammar would take a back seat. But coaching people through the process of writing a manuscript? Why on earth would I wait until the last chapter to mention that they now need to fix all their spelling and grammatical mistakes, and correct the punctuation?

As it is, when you get to the end of your manuscript, you're going to have to learn how to self edit. And self editing refers to more than just spelling and grammar. It includes believability. It includes internal consistency within the manuscript. It includes sellability and marketability. I mean, back when Charles and Diana were getting divorced, it might not have been a good thing to name your protagonist Camilla and have her having an affair with a married man. Legal issues and lack of appeal for the UK reading audience might be considerations. Hell, one of the things I had to do in my own early editing was to weed out my use of the word slight in all its various forms. Everyone was slightly tired, their eyes widened slightly, blah slightly blah. I was in love with the word. Now I can't stand using that word. We all have our little quirks, and sometimes we have to have someone point them out to us to help us break the habit.

I'm glad I have a tendency to write clean, because it means that I don't have to spend countless hours fixing mistakes needlessly. It takes far less time to learn to do something right to begin with, and build a solid foundation. I constantly check as I write. Some people will tell you that's not a good thing to do, but I guarantee you that I have the cure for writers block.

You think you have writers block? Start back on page 1 and do a line edit of your manuscript, and I guaranfreakintee you that most of the time, you'll be ready to get back to writing the story before you know it. Authors typically don't find it fun to edit their own work. It's a pain in the ass. And when I'm done, I like to have the idea that I might actually be pretty close to being done with a manuscript, instead of thinking I now need to go back to page 1 and correct thousands of spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors.

Now, as far as I'm concerned, every high school student and adult student should have some foundation of training in spelling, grammar and punctuation. Of course, that's what I'd like to believe. I've learned some teachers don't really cover those things. I mean, some don't even cover how to use a dictionary.

But most people have some basic knowledge. That means that covering the basic rules should be a refresher. There should be a foundation in there somewhere to build on. And it should come easy. It's much easier to explain the rules about commas and periods than it is to get someone to grasp how to breathe life into a character, and if I can get a student refreshed in the first few assignments and they start to fix those mistakes in their own writing, that's a lot less work for them to clean up later. I get get the housekeeping done at the start, and then focus on the other things that are far more nuanced and require individualized feedback.

And if it's just old folks who say it takes less time to do it right the first time rather than needing to go back and fix it later, then I'm old.

Old and right. Now, Dave says that people who nitpick on grammar and typos are taking the easy way out. I say bullshit. Because I have over 70 students taking various diploma programs, most working on novels, who have publication as a goal. And the courses guarantee that the students will re-earn their tuition, or the students get their money back. So, ask an agent if they'd rather get material that's been corrected after I've red-penned it, or something that hasn't had the grammar and spelling addressed? Focusing solely on grammar and spelling should not be the sole focus, but it is an important part of good writing.

Maybe this is a difference. I mean, I get paid to assess the assignments. When I'm working in the high school, I get paid the same, whether I correct the grammar and spelling or not.

And I actually have worked with kids who will sit and stare at a paper and can't write anything. I have actually worked with kids who're in high school and can barely read, never mind put two sentences together. My reality is different than Dave's, so I'm willing to say maybe what he's saying is reasonable for his situation, but it really isn't appropriate for mine, and it does drive me mental when anyone wants to declare an absolute truth on this subject. There are times grammar is MORE important that creativity, and I would think that should be clear to anyone involved in writing.

As a tutor, my biggest fear is that my students will go read Dave's post, totally blow off all the technical aspects of writing, and then get a hard dose of reality. Their draft will be done, they'll no longer have a tutor, and they'll have hundreds of pages of mistakes to correct on their own. And you know what? If that happens, it's not my problem. I mean, technically, they have to do the work to clean it up. But the parental side of me, and the educator side of me, is always trying to help people avoid mistakes, rather than letting them set themselves up for failure. I've known people who loved the creation part of storytelling so much, they could write for hours, but never could figure out how to correct their manuscripts so that they were publishable, and eventually gave up on the entire process, because rejection after rejection wore them down, and learning how to fix their mistakes seemed like a Herculean task after they had stacks of manuscripts written.

I don't want my students to finish their diploma and then fall flat on their face because of something like this, that I could have helped them with along the way.

Ask a parent whether it's better to have their child do a short tidying of their room every day, or a big clean-up every week. Oh, those moments of discouragement when someone who's been putting off their chores comes face to face with the fact that nothing else is happening until their room is cleaned. And everywhere they look, there's a mess. How many times have I said that if things were put away after they were used, we'd be able to find them?

It's logic, on multiple levels. As a society we're pretty good at putting off to tomorrow what should be done today. As an educator, I feel it's irresponsible of me not to address all the critical aspects that should be taught in order to help my students succeed in expressing themselves with the written word. And I feel comfortable agreeing to disagree with Dave based on the situations I work with, because his approach wouldn't be appropriate for the goals of the students I'm working with, who want to be published, not just graded.

Oh, and by way of confession, probably every single "nitpicky" thing I point out to my students is a mistake I've made at one time or another. I'm supposed to bring them years of experience from working with authors, editors, agents and going through the process of being professionally published. If they're paying for that voice of experience, they should get it, whether I'm pointing out resources for using punctuation, tips on how to write a query letter, or anything else that's related to becoming a published writer.


And in other news!

Suspicious Circumstances sold over 400 copies in 5 weeks, and became and Amazon Top 100 Bestseller last month! The book is now available on Smashwords as well as Kindle.

Also, my short story Childhood Dreams is now available exclusively on Smashwords for free.


Dana King said...

I agree with Dave in principle, though he's too forgiving.

To use the example from early in your post, that's as far as I would have read. No comments, no critique, I would have found a polite way to tell this person to learn the basics and I'll be happy to look at it when it's readable. The writer's primary obligation is to give the reader a fighting chance of knowing what the hell is going on without having to decode the damn thing like it was a Dead Sea Scroll. I'm not a grammar Nazi ( was never taught to diagram a sentence and picked up most of what I know on street corners and Mickey Spillane novels), but there is still a minimum level I insist on.

Jay Stringer said...

Dark secret time;

"Verb" "Adverb" "Noun" Pronoun"....these are words I understand not.

Couldn't explain to you what they are. Have to ask my wife to explain these things to me on a regular basis, just as i have to ask other people to do maths and to fill in forms.

School teachers spent years trying to teach me these things, before rolling their eyes and deciding i couldn't be part of that class. my grandfather would sit with me for hours after school, because we couldn't afford private tuition, to try and explain things to me.

None of it made sense. None of it would stick. And i got fed up of being told at school that i was lazy, or unfocused, or needed help.

But story? I got that. I'd been told stories my whole life. I'd watched films, i'd read comic books, i'd played with my toys and created narratives for them. Kids in my class could pretty much double my score on any SPAG test, but few of them enjoyed reading and only a couple of us did any writing outside of class (though my 'writing' usually involved a fair amount of pictures.)

Once you get STORY you get CLARITY. And CLARITY is the only rule you need. Everything else is window dressing.

I guess i'll need to weigh in on this little DSD round robin from my point of view'll be like a trilogy.

Elizabeth said...

"It takes far less time to learn to do something right to begin with, and build a solid foundation."

Hear hear. And that's what concerns me with the "Well, I know what they mean" approach. If people are allowed to "slide" on the fundamentals of grammar just because you "know what they mean" they will never learn to do it properly, and thus never form good writing habits. And once bad habits are formed they are damn near impossible to break, even more so the longer they are allowed to slide.

The proper use of fundamental language concepts such as knowing the difference between plural and possessive, subject/verb agreement, or distinguishing between their/there/they're or your/you're or to/too/two is not a creative endeavor open to interpretation. It's either right or wrong.

Nitpicking a typo in someone's FB status update just to be a dick is, well, being a dick. As is jumping on a typo in a post to avoid addressing its substance. But pointing out (multiple) grammatical mistakes in something that's supposed to be a final product (be it an interoffice memo, cover letter, restaurant menu, church bulletin, etc.) is not being a Grammar Nazi, it's merely expecting people to utilize correct, fundamental language skills.

Kevin Burton Smith said...

Of course grammar and punctuation are important. Although it may be impolite to say, surely one of the major attractions of self-publishing for many rookies (be it POD or ebooks) is the avoidance of being edited.

For grammar, for spelling, for making sense.

God forbid that in this world of meathead instant gratification and ego-driven entitlement that some editor would dare tell some hot young Hemingway or Chandler that they need to -- GASP!!!! -- revise.

We edited our fiction at THRILLING DETECTIVE, and it resulted in some distinct unpleasantness with a few writers over the years. Some stories were withdrawn, some were rejected, and I'm sure there are still some writers out there who bear me serious ill will. But I don't regret it at all.

We were right -- clarity, precision, legibility. They matter.

A great story poorly told is not a great story.

Dave White said...

I think I'm focusing on more a piece riddled with a lot of minor mistakes. I agree that if something is unreadable (ie your dialogue paragraph) that needs to be fixed first and foremost. But I feel that most of the people (including students) I deal with know what a noun, pronoun, verb, adverb and so on are. Or at least know how to use them. Comma usage and some other punctuation needs work. Other tropes of grammar need work.

But I still insist that, as long as something is readable, grammar is not as important as thought. I'll take 1000 "Me and Yous" in a well-thought out piece rather than something that is grammatically correct but has no substance.

Professional writers also need to be held to a different standard. They're professionals, and usually they have a team of editors working with them trying to catch this stuff.

But really, things like prepositions at the end of a sentence... not grammatically correct, but not a big deal. I mean I actually prefer "Who are you referring to?" over "To whom are you referring?"

Again, in my post I say grammar is important. But perfect grammar isn't as important as meaning. Here's an interesting article by Brad Parks:

Sandra Ruttan said...

Dana, I can appreciate why you'd respond the way you would to the example. In different scenarios, I'd respond differently myself. A critique by way of a favor - go fix it. High school, explain it. My tutoring, explain it. And then I expect the student to go fix it.

I think what concerns me most is the context of these discussions. If we're talking about would-be authors who aren't paying for instruction, that's one thing. But if someone is taking a class or paying for course, shouldn't they expect to be taught?

Jay, there are some terms I have to refresh myself on semi regularly, and I have the advantage of being in high school English classes all day.

But I do take issue with a teacher saying that your child has gotten a low grade because they didn't use a lot of different adverbs if the teacher never taught them what an adverb was. And honestly, as an author, I don't give a crap if people can't tell me the difference, as long as they know how to use them. But as a parent, I do actually expect an attempt at educating my kids, and if they've had the curriculum and never get it, it's on them. But if the school's don't teach them, don't call my kids dummies.

Elizabeth, we agree. :)

Kevin, I can relate to your editorial stories! We've had our share of issues behind the scenes as well. And I do fear that self publishing is a major draw for those who don't want to learn the technical aspects of writing, because face it, it isn't fun. I guess I'm inclined to think opposite to Dave, in that I think it's a cop out to avoid the grammar, but then, in my work situations the demands are different.

Oh Dave, you'll get no argument from me that a work should have substance. And I'm positively giddy when I discover a diamond in the rough, a student who can really shine with just a little bit of polishing. That's wonderful. But it's still important to make sure they do polish the work. Anyone who read the string of comments on the review of The Greek Seaman knows dismissing the importance of grammar can kill your sales.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

I'm with Sandra. I'd rather have a clean manuscript after the first draft because at least then most of the mountain has been scaled. I just have to get up and over before I can really say I'm at THE END.

And like Dana - I'm not a grammar Nazi, but I want to be able to understand what you are writing with a minimal amount of effort. If I can't, I'm not going to read past page one. Sorry!

Kevin Burton Smith said...

While I tend to agree with Dave (not one of TD's problem writers, BTW) that story can trump minor grammatical errors, there's something else at play here:

The dumbing down of writing.

Too often I find that the same people who loudly sneer at the "rules" also sneer at logical, clear storytelling, and tend to be some of the most self-indulgent (and least satisfying) writers on the planet.

There should be a certain level of respect towards readers -- especially when money changes hands. Sloppy, lazy writing (and editing) are a slap in the face to the customer.

I stumble with grammar myself, but I know how to really piss off a new writer. Tell them they need to revise their story because it isn't believable. Or consistent. Or it doesn't make sense.

It was astounding how often they would deflect that criticism (sometimes publicly!) by leveling charges of editorial grammatical nitpicking.