Tuesday, January 23, 2007

An editor told me that while one of my short stories was gramatically correct, sometimes in fiction some writing has to break rules. Sometimes for the sake of mood, pacing, and voice, the author has to do things that would send E.B. White and his friend Strunk into a corner in a profound depression.

Another person took me into a corner and said: subject, predicate, subject predicate..don't get into a funk. Start with a participle from time to time. "ING" can be fun.

Another person, a poet, showed me a paragraph.

"That's not a poem," I pointed out.

The person argued it was.

"What makes that long paragraph a poem?" I asked. "It's a paragraph. You're describing a setting, but it's several sentences strung together in a logical progression. It's a paragraph." The poet smiled patiently and said:


What's the point?

The point is that I think a writer needs to have a strong grounding in fundamentals. We've all heard a teacher say: "You need to know the rules before you break them." And people, in my book, you better break them for a strong reason, not just out of laziness.
I know, you're thinking, I write fine. Well, great. However, there are many writers who should stop and look at difficulty with changing tenses in midstream, difficulties with POV, difficulties with sentence structure. Maybe some people get so excited when they write that they lose track and just want to get it down. Maybe some people get too close to their work and can't see the errors that other so quickly note.

I read an author's work last year, helping to edit an anthology which I knew would never be published (I'll just walk away from that story now). Her submitted work had spelling errors, it was poorly paced, and worst of all---grammatically weak. She loved run-on sentences. They were everywhere. I pointed out the strengths and weaknesses, and then suggested "Strunk and White". Just in case I need to elaborate, "Strunk and White" are the authors of a classic book on grammar and usage.

Some people will say: well, your writing here isn't always correct.

No? Really? (listen to the sarcasm)

A blog is someone's house. Sometimes the floor's not vacuumed. Sometimes the dishes aren't done. Me? I'm in my underwear right now and typing quickly on my laptop. Except for the most glaring errors, I am not going to do any heavy proofing on this entry or revision. Why? Because this is my house and I'm not interested. This is my writer's journal, and as we know, one doesn't edit one's journal. At least I don't.
Writing clearly to convey exactly what you intended to convey starts with having the proper tools. Grammar.

Again, rules are made to be broken, but one should know what rule is being broken and why. Clarity is everything. Whatever helps the reader most easily understand what the writer is intending to communicate is the most effective type of writing.


Lucas Pederson said...

I've got a serious problem with understanding grammar I think. I've read Strunk and White's book, The Elements of Style, but a lot of things just don't stick with me for some reason. I've got the book so I'll read it again for the fifth time. I start a lot of my sentences with, And or But. This is something I'm working on fixing for future works. I alway proof read my work before having someone else look at it, but it seems I've got to practice on my editing skills, switching to creative mode to editing mode. It's hard. I manage to catch some things, but not enough.
I agree with you about a person's blog. It's their house, and it can be as tidy or as messy as they wish. It's theres and extreme tidiness is over rated anyway.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Lucas, Strunk and White is not always the answer. I really suggest figuring out your area of weakness and going to some of the grammar sites on the net. Also, go to a used book store and look for an old high school English book.

I also agree with you regarding the difficulty of switching from writing mode to editing mode. I think sometimes those are two different sides of the brain at work. I think in the next week or so I am going to post about revising, but I want to talk to other people and get feedback on that topic first. Or perhaps we can all pick a day and do postings about revising and editing techniques that work for us.

whimsicalnbrainpan said...

oI think I do fairly well with grammar fot the most part. My biggest problems are spelling (thank God for spell check), fragmented sentences, and comma usage.

DesLily said...

I'm not an author but i think I know one thing... no one should proof read their own material! They read what they think they wrote instead of finding the mistakes!

SQT said...

I try to watch my grammar when writing, but it's tough. Sometimes I like to use simple sentences for impact and I think that's ok. But run on's are tough to avoid. I also go back over my stories just looking to make sure I'm keeping my tense constant. It's way too easy to go back and forth from past to present tense.

I don't worry about grammar on my blog either. I don't want to stress over something that should be fun.

Clifford said...

I have to read a grammar book every year or two or I go caveman. Strunk and White, while highly touted as the bar, never struck my fancy. My favorite book, sadly no longer in print, is: "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About English Grammar* (*but were afraid to raise your hand). The book is funny, complete, and full of real-world examples of grammar gone bad! In addition, it's the first book I ever read with the who/whom trick that doesn't require grammar.

jedimerc said...

My grammar changes depending on how formal I am. For example, if I prefer a more formal comment in a blog, I tend not to use contractions; however, in more informal posts or casual discussions I will resort to contractions and other parlance.

I think the hallmark of a writer should be their ability to change style as the situation permits. For example, I break more than a few rules in poetry (I try and get the spelling right, though I get some typo creep), mostly because poetry rules allow it, especially when you are trying to utilize a little stream of consciousness.

In short stories, it does depend on theme and how vernacular you are trying to be, but as you aptly point out, one needs to be able to get the message across. Some author's styles hearken to a more formal time, while others are appropriate for the MTV generation (or post MTV generation, whatever they are now :)

I understand that many blogs are exceedingly informal, and that is fine if you are simply starting in writing or do not care. That is the price of language in the Internet Age.

I do wonder, how many are cognizant of such rules still as 'there and here', 'using a semicolon before however', and the above mentioned 'starting a sentence with and or but'?

SQT makes a good point, too, about a blog being fun, but I worry about the image I project as a writer if I were too lax on grammar.

And I worry about run-ons as well (as you might guess :).

Great discussion, and in the end, you are right, clarity is key.

Ormondroyd's Encyclopedia Esoterica said...

Hot tip: Mary Oliver put together a FANTASTICALLY PRACTICAL AND USEFUL THING called A Poetry Handbook which might be thought of as a "Strunk and White" for poets. Like you, I'm always being handed stuff that's little more than a run-on paragraph or glorified song lyric or suffering through "poetry" slam exhibitionists and having to explain with very small words why that may be heartfelt, but it isn't poetry. I bought one for myself and then given it away twice now.

SQT said...


I can see what you mean about grammar on your blog, especially if you're trying to present some writing. But on an entertainment blog, like mine, I don't over stress grammar; though I try to make sure everything is spelled correctly.

Holly Kennedy said...

I love this, Stewart -- "A blog is someone's house". Such a perfect way to view it, and a sentiment I'll certainly pass on the next time someone "corrects me" for making a grammatical error on one of my posts. We should have blogger beware signs that say, ANAL VISITORS NOT ALLOWED here...

SourDad said...

I agree with a few others here Strunk and White is good, but it's a primer a Cliff's notes for grammar. I often need something more in depth, unfortunatly. I really like "A Grammar Book for You and I ...oops Me" It's comprehensive, but not boring even funny at times, and it has exercises and lots of examples in each section.

As for blog tidiness I agree with Jedimerc. I'm a habitual typo artist so I try to watch what I'm putting out there. This partly a fear of looking stupid, and because my blog is a writing exercise that probably probably takes up too much creative energy.

oee thanks for the link to A poetry Handbook.

molly said...

hmmm not a huge skateboarder but thanks for the tip haha

Charles Gramlich said...

Clarity is certainly the "first" thing. Unless your sentences say what you intend them to say, you might as well hang it up or just give stuff to your friends who won't be critical.

Jedimerc makes a good point about changing your writing style to fit the mode you're writing in.

As for starting sentences with "and" or "but," I think it works fine. In fact, it can really up the dramatic presentation of certain sentences, if it isn't overused.

Ultimately, though, Stewart is write that you need to have at least a decent understanding of why things work the way they do in grammar before taking the road less traveled.

mist1 said...

I break rules all the time on my blog. Sometimes, people point them out. I never go back and change anything.

Am mere mortal.

jedimerc said...

oee- I feel your pain on the poetry. Aside from writing a lot of it (most of which would be considered traditional poetry :), I have reviewed hundreds on a couple of writing workshop sites (writing.com and zoetrope.com) and my biggest criticism has been 'that doesn't feel like poetry', and it truly has to in order to be so. Even when I bend the rules a little in style, I do mention that I understand I am bending the rules (like experimenting in poetic prose or free verse rambling), not try and pass it off for what it is not.

On the other hand, I cannot rhyme worth beans, so to some, that is not considered poetry (but I did like the reference to 'glorified song lyrics' :)

ShadowFalcon said...

Normally for my job I have to be very picky about grammar, spelling etc but on my blog I just can't be bothered...

Avery said...

I was a habitual offender in the splitting of infinitives department. It took my mentor three months of pointing out each offense in bright red pen before the rule finally stuck in my brain.

I think my difficulty rests not in changing from writing to editing mode, but from talking to writing mode. Our daily language has become so relaxed that my "grammar switch" has rusted.

Lee said...

I blog like I talk...a lot of babble...a lot of tangents...a lot of run-on sentences. Frankly, I don't know where I'd be without the run-on sentence. I wouldn't be able to communicate at all!

There are lots of rules to making visual art too. I find them constricting. I understand the value of knowing what defines what (Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism, Post-modernism, blah, blah, blah), but when making my own, I like to throw it all out the window.

Rach, Los Angeles Photographer said...

great advice. I don't follow any rules when I write, but then again I'm not looking to get published either.

in photography they also say you can't break the rules until you learn them.

Stewart Sternberg said...

whimsy, I thank god for spell check as well.

deslily, the sometimes its hard finding someone to read one's work..especially finding someone who you trust to give you intelligent feedback.

Cliff, I agree about Strunk and White. I have many grammar books I use with students at school. Different people have different learning styles.

Jedi, I agree. A good writer can change voice when needed.
Mist...you're just a rebel.

Thanks Holly, and Micheal thanks for giving the tip on poetry. I personally steer clear of poetry. It's not my form.

Charles, yes, you and I agree, but then you and I usually agree.

I love Molly's entries. She always responds here to something I posted on her blog. Just in case anyone is wondering, I wrote to her about skateboards in the sixties: a thick slab of wood with four roller skate wheels. No special tricks. Just go downhill and try not to die.

Stewart Sternberg said...

rach and shadow, thanks for coming by.

DesLily said...

that's true stewart.. i just know from my own things that no matter how many times I reread to proof it I ALWAYS find something I missed. Even if I put it away for a long time and then read it.. but I can find mistakes in others writing easily...sigh. I can't be alone in that???

Avery said...

You're not alone, deslily. I'll read the same flawed sentence six times, not notice anything amiss, and then hand it over to my writing partners -- who'll both notice it immediately. For me, the sentences I write stay in my head, partly memorized, so I'm not really reading, but assuming. Assuming -- incorrectly, in this case -- I'm a competent writer, I suppose.

Kate S said...

Hey, Stewart--weren't the pet stories due today? (nudge, nudge)

As for this post, I hesitate to tell people I edit for a living because you'd never know it by my own writing. I just can't see my mistakes because as deslily said, I read what I think I wrote rather than what's actually there. Doesn't mean I can't do it for others, though.

SQT said...

Ahem, my pet story's done. :D

Lori Witzel said...

Stewart, thanks for all your empathy on the fubar computer situation. I'm typing this now on a work laptop before some evening meet-and-greets.

I think you make a very important point about craft.

Some of the most elegant (meaning beauty-through-economy) writing I've read has come from journalists. Not simply those who report -- but those who can write what they report, and who work with editors who can help them be clear.

Craft mastery to me maps to what my track coach called "automaticity." If one learns a craft skill, those habits become less something one reminds oneself about, and more automatic, freeing an artist up so something powerful, engaging, unique can emerge.

And old-school newspaper journalism was a grand lab for automaticity -- write lots, write frequently, have editors chew on what you wrote, and you'll either curl up and die or get some good craft skills.

The ultimate trick for those who've got their craft down solid? To not let that highly developed knowledge of skills and craft rob the work of a heartbeat, of "juice."

Anyway -- why do I sketch and make myself post sketches even when I'm not happy with 'em? To keep me honest and focused on the most essential elements of visual craft -- seeing accurately, fine and fluent kinesthetic response, finding and sharing salience.

I have a long way to go, but I'm on a quest for automaticity and craft skills that will one day be a transparent filter for something gloriously juicy.

Donnetta Lee said...

Hello, sir. I'm a new blogger. Just found your site. I think I'm going to learn a lot from you! Already thanking you for the guidance. Donnetta

JR's Thumbprints said...

Hey Donnetta Lee,
Don't do it! The House of Sternberg is like a cult. I'm tellin' ya--"TURN BACK BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE!"

You're scaring me Stewart with your new blog profile.

Stewart Sternberg said...

desi, proofing is always hard for me. I get frustrated when I miss something so obviously stupid.

kate I used to edit, and when I made mistakes, when those mistakes showed up in print, boy I heard about it. Especially when they were pointed out to the publisher by some anal reader.

lee, by the way, I love your posted work.

Lori, God I remember those days on the school journalism team. Ye Gods.

JR, I am really a meglomaniac who likes to feed on fava beans and chianti. Be afraid.

Donetta, welcome.

Donnetta Lee said...

JR, I'm afraid it's too late to turn back now. (Sounds like a song, huh?) Wealth of advice and information here. But I am shaking a little. Tremble. Tremble. Donnetta