Monday, April 23, 2012

Why do we care about grammar?

Today's post is informative as well as asks for group participation.  I have been asked to give a basic grammar presentation for a writing conference.  But they are worried about people actually attending the presentation, so they asked me to make it more "interesting" and "exciting" than "Grammar 101."

My initial thoughts are something along the lines of "You've written the killer story with amazing characters in a beautiful world, but no one seems to catch your vision.  Is it because they cannot understand your vision?"

But what do you think? How do we make grammar more exciting?  It's a necessary part of the writing process (some would say necessary evil).  And I frequently tell my students that the reason we learn the rules of grammar is so that we can effectively break them.  And the key word there is "effectively," certainly not "randomly."

Grammar is all about creating meaning.  We do not need "grammar" per se when we speak because our voices carry our meaning for us.  (For a HILARIOUS discussion of this concept, watch Victor Borge's Phonetic Punctuation.)  But when we write, we have to find some way to make our reader think the same way we do, and the way we do that is through grammar.

We've all had that experience - you spend a lot of time and thought on an email, and just when it's perfect, you click on that little send button, and inevitably, a reply comes back within a few hours or maybe a day or two.  Your recipient is angry, insulted, confused, or otherwise not interpreting what you wrote the way you meant it.  And you are left wondering what went wrong as you furiously type an apology for the miscommunication and frantically try to think of another way of explaining what you meant.

No, we are not going to make every single thing we say perfectly understandable, but that is what we strive for.  And grammar helps us do that.  There are certain concepts we were taught explicitly as we were growing up, but most of them were internalized.  As readers, we completely understand grammar.  For example, we all know that when we are reading a conversation between two characters and a new paragraph is started, that means the second character just started speaking.  It is a visual clue we have learned to recognize and understand as readers.  But understanding grammar as a reader is very different from understanding grammar as a writer.

As a writer, you have to know that every time your speaker shifts in a story, you better start a new paragraph or your reader will be completely confused about what is going on.  And there are countless internalized examples like this.  Your job as a writer is to learn how to express outwardly the internalized knowledge.

Most of us have probably also had the experience (teachers and editors more than others) where someone has said, "Read this and tell me what you think" (in some form or another), but when you sit down to read it, you don't even know what to say because you have no idea what he/she is trying to tell you.

So grammar is not your enemy; instead it should be a very close, a very dear friend.  It is what helps you tell your reader about this amazing idea you have.  It is what guides your reader along the path of your story.  When you have a strong sense of grammar, it is what gets your story noticed.  It is that funny thing that when used most powerfully, it is the most subtle.  No one says, "Oh, such-and-such author has such great grammar."  But it is easy to say, "Such-and-such author has terrible grammar."  And then the complaints usually continue from there: "I'm so distracted by all the grammar mistakes, I can't even read the story..."

And while we're at it, let's be realistic.  Life seems to get busier and busier for each of us.  Why wouldn't agents and editors be the same?  They don't have the time to waste to correct the mistakes authors should be fixing themselves.  It is much easier and less time-consuming to take a 7/10 storyline with awesome grammar and make it a 9/10 story, than it is to take a 10/10 storyline with terrible grammar and make it presentable.  So, which story will an editor choose?  The first one.

So if you really want to sell your book, edit it.  Or if you don't have the skills to edit yourself, pay someone else to do it.  It will really be worth it in the long run.

But how do you encapsulate all those ideas into a tiny, nutshell paragraph that would make someone want to take a class on it?