On Grammar and Writing

Anonymous asked: “Hi Lizard, You see, my problem is that I have the ideas in my head yet I am stuck and unable to start writing because I feel I don’t have knowledge on the technical side of writing. For example, do I use dashes to mark lines of dialogue? How long should a paragraph be before it cuts off? I think punctuation, sentence structure and writing style is what’s holding me back. Any advice?” 

I think there are really two parties of writers that might come across this post – writers who care a lot about good grammar and the writers who rank it much lower on their priorities. How I see it, grammar is important. It’s not like plot or characters or technique that will actually enable your story to become great, but it matters. 

Grammar is one of those things that you don’t notice much when the rules are followed and the writer uses consistently appropriate grammar, formatting, spelling and so on. You do however notice it majorly as a reader when the grammar is poor. In my experience, I’ve been told good grammar is a pretty fundamental show of professionalism and that you are very serious about your craft. 

I think you can feel very serious about your writing and still be working on your grammar. Everyone has to start learning somewhere. With that said, if you are trying to publish a manuscript riddled with grammar errors, you are going to have a much tougher road. No writer should expect anyone to “fix” their grammar unless you’ve hired someone specifically to do it. 

I was always very fortunate to have people in my life who were willing to teach me things like how dialogue should be punctuated – I had a crash course on that in the 5th grade with a teacher who must have been very frustrated with my completely botched attempt at writing a conversation. Or later, when someone told me that my 17 page short story might benefit from being more than one paragraph. Even when you know the rules of grammar, you still get tripped up in things now and then. From my experiences, I’ve never had to sit down and learn how to write with good grammar because I learned it through the years. 

So with that said, while I encourage you to learn, I know I’m not the best resource. There are good books out there. I like Eats, Shoots, & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. I’ve heard really good things about The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English. There may be more comprehensive books that can directly help with grammar and fiction writing, but I don’t know of any that I can personally recommend. 

I’ve read enough unpublished work though to have more than a few pet peeves – understand, while I write, I’m writing this list very much as a reader. Writers are not bothered by grammar nearly as much as readers are. While this is nowhere near a complete list of things to know, these are definitely the ones that stand out (at least to me) a mile away. 

1. Indent your paragraphs. (Hit the tab button!) This is how you signify the start of a new paragraph. It pushes everything about 5 spaces to the right. 

2. Use a comma in direct address. I know it’s just a comma and I know it’s not a big deal, but this is the thing that hurts my head. If I’m reading something and see no comma, I add it with a pen because it bugs me just that much. If you’re not familiar with direct address, here’s a definition. Call me ridiculous, but this is the thing I get hung up on. Basically, when writing dialogue, use a comma around the character’s name when they’re being spoken to.

3. Punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. This one doesn’t actually bug me. This mistake happens a lot and when I see it, I usually assume the writer is still learning – whether that’s the case or not. It is something that writers should be aware of and learn to do correctly. Punctuation on dialogue goes inside the quote – that includes commas, periods, exclamation points, questions marks, etc. 

4. Dialogue requires a new paragraph. Again, not actually bothered by this one, but it is distracting. A good general rule is that you should begin a new paragraph every time a different character begins speaking. Writers break this rule from time to time, but you have to use it and become familiar with it before you can break it. 

5. New paragraph = new idea. There isn’t a length that paragraphs need to be. I grew up learning that a sentence = an idea. Compound sentences and more complex sentences work the way they do because they are still just of one idea. This feels vague but I don’t know of a better way to explain it. In this same way, a paragraph is a collection of linked ideas. New paragraph means a new idea. Reading aloud often helps me figure out where paragraphs should begin and end. There’s often some kind of a natural break between ideas. 

This is by no means everything, but these I think are what stick out in my mind. My grammar (especially in these posts) is far from perfect. I don’t claim to have perfect grammar. Reading published and edited fiction often though does help. It serves as a good guide generally and a reminder of at least, the basic rules. 

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