Friday, April 11, 2014

The importance of good grammar

The other day on Facebook, I came across a very well-done infographic about 10 common writing mistakes that bloggers make.

(Disclaimer: Like many things you find on Facebook, this infographic is an advertising gimmick, so be warned that you'll end up on a grammar checking software website.  I have nothing to do with the company, other than liking the infographic that they put together for Facebook.)

Anyway, when I forwarded the infographic on Facebook, one of my NaNoWriMo friends commented that it was good for writing essays and that was about it.  I've had a couple debates with him about the importance of grammar, and he still maintains that you can bend the rules of grammar when you write fiction -- or, as he says, anything other than essays.

So let's think about this for a moment.  The infographic, for starters, is aimed at bloggers, presumably company bloggers (based on the stats at the bottom on how blogging benefits companies).  Think about every time you saw a company sign, or website, or anything written really, that had a spelling or grammatical error.  Did you make fun of it?  Of course you did.

Correct grammar can mean the difference between looking polished and professional, a trustworthy company to do business with, and looking like a scam or a half-assed startup.

But what about fiction?  Is bending (or outright breaking) the rules of grammar a good way to express your creativity, as my wrimo friend claims?

I don't think so.  First of all, appearances mean nearly as much in your fiction as they do to a company's blog, at least if you ever want to become a professional or published writer.  (If you're writing in your journal or penning stories that you never intend for anyone's eyes other than your family and friends, by all means, bend -- and break -- away.  I'll still think less of you, but it won't actually matter.)  If your spelling and grammar aren't very good, no agent -- let alone an editor -- is going to get beyond the first few pages to find out if your story is actually any good.

And even if you self-publish, there are still your readers to contend with -- and actually, I think they can actually be the toughest critics of the bunch.  Readers love making a big deal of errors they find in books, especially in self-published books, which most people assume are crap anyway.  The best case scenario that you can hope for there is that enough reviewers complain on Amazon.com and BN.com that others start buying your book out of sheer curiosity -- but it's more likely, especially if you have enough errors in your book's description, that it just won't sell.

I do think that if you are a very good writer, and most likely already very successful as well, you can bend some grammar rules -- if you are doing so to make a specific point with your writing.  For instance, in dialogue you can do this, as long as you don't overdo it -- just a few instances to imply something about your character.  (If you don't know why I'm cautioning against overdoing it, try skimming Jim's dialogue Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.)  But you'd better damn well be sure the reader can figure out what point you were trying to make, or they are going to assume you don't know how to write.

There are a few exceptions to this, I think.  For instance, I've heard copywriters and other professionals say that ending a sentence with a preposition is fine -- trying to rephrase your sentence often results in it sounding too formal or stilted, when for many styles of writing a more casual, conversational tone is actually desirable.

But for the most part, and especially if you aren't sure, I think it's always better to err on the side of correct grammar.  Chances are, whatever you want to say can be said just as well (if not better) correctly as it can be incorrectly!

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