Don’t let grammar hamper your writing
by Jennifer Frost
He said he wanted to stay on bed, err, in bed, uhm, at the bed?
What is the right preposition for this sentence?
You pressed the backspace button 11 times already.
And your protagonist, who has a critical mission tomorrow, couldn’t sleep yet.
When you are writing a book, grammar rules are nightmares. They haunt your commas, your italics and quotation marks, and even the spaces between words. There are two faces of grammatical errors among writers, especially fiction authors: one is when a mistake is made out of ignorance and the other is when a “mistake” is deliberately committed to achieve stylistic objectives.
The second one can be forgiven, especially if readers can easily identify the context or reason. The first one, however, is tricky.
What happens when you think of being grammatically perfect all the time as an author?
- Fear of starting – How can you begin when there are voices in your head discouraging you to write because you are not good with grammar?
- Low productivity – How can you continue writing a dialogue when you can’t figure out if the period comes before or after the quotation mark?
- Creativity blocks – How can you focus on developing your characters and keeping your scenes interesting when grammar ghosts won’t leave you?
On the other hand, what happens when you intentionally disregard grammar? Your ultimate worry—that people would say you are unprofessional and not good enough—might hit you hard.
- Your potential publisher might get the impression that you lack discipline and attention to details.
- The reading experience of your readers might get interrupted because of errors.
- The result of all this is not just about sales but your wonderful stories in the future won’t be read.
It can be frustrating.
But like in any story that you write, there is a resolution. And you, the protagonist of your own story, should take action and not get stuck on a corner.
What can you do?
- First, realize that grammar is not necessarily an enemy; it’s something to befriend. And friendships require efforts and attention. Grammar helps us to communicate our thoughts with less misunderstanding. What always matters is the message, but if we can’t deliver it properly, it might go to waste.
- Know the basics. Understand the ones you always use to connect your ideas and materials. A singular subject requires a singular verb. Use the preposition “at” to refer to a certain point or location, use “on” to denote the surface of something, and “in” is used to indicate a place, location or an enclosed space. When you’ve mastered the basics, you would be more confident to explore and experiment with your writing.
- Be judicious. For example, you typically hear that one should always use the active voice. But sometimes, using the passive voice can intensify an action, smoothen rhythm, or give the necessary attention to the receiver of the action because it matters to the next few scenes. So no matter how many grammar rules there are, the only thing that would always matter at the end is the relationship between your writing and your audience.
- Consult with editors. Do you know why you didn’t become a neurologist, a painter, or a web developer? It’s because we have different roles, skills, and interests. Sometimes, you have to let experts like editors do their work and help you give readers a more pleasurable reading experience.
When you’re an author, having a wild imagination is not the job. Communicating it to your readers is your job. If grammar is bothering you, and the fear of committing a mistake is the only thing that separates you from your dream of getting your book published, then take action, anything: learn one difficult rule a day, ask for the help of an expert, or attend writing seminars.
It may not happen overnight but at least you can sleep in your bed tonight knowing that you’ve done your best for your craft all day.
Grammarist Jennifer Frost
Jennifer Frost is a blogger, writer, mother, wife, and English teacher located in Chiang Mai, Thailand. She’s an open-minded person who loves to travel, explore new places and foreign cultures, and learn new languages. You can read more of her work at englishgrammar.org.