Grammar Is Not the Woman Who Gave Birth to Your Mother

By Associate Professor Jen

I finally identified the worst thing about being a writer.

No, it's not the horrendous wait times for every major magazine and publishing house (wait times that are inevitably followed by the photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of a form rejection letter). It's not even the editors that accept a story or poem, then disappear from the face of the earth without sending a check.

It's not the character that fails to tell me his or her true gender and/or heart's desire until two thirds of the book is written, or the plot that self-destructs, or the hours of work that disappear in five minutes of editing.

No, what I really hate is the fact that everyone thinks they can write. If someone at a party announces she's a ballet dancer, she doesn't find herself surrounded by people who want her to ghost-dance for them (since they have the ideas for dancing, but they're just too busy to do the menial moving-around-the-stage-on-tiptoes part). A neurosurgeon won't find herself standing next to a semi-drunk individual who's sure that he'll be able to remove brain tumors if he can just get a year off work to practice (well, okay, maybe that does happen occasionally. But no one would take the drunk seriously).

Everyone's a writer, though. Just look on the web.

I assume if you're here, reading this, you want to be a better writer. You love the words, especially when they spill out almost faster than you can type. You can hear the characters talking. You've felt their hearts break at the lowest moments and seen wonders through their eyes that you couldn't have found on your own. Sometimes, it's just so easy.

And yet...

And yet you have a nagging feeling, a crawling sensation at the back of your mind.

Something isn't right. But what?

Given the amount of bad fic I've read, fic that ranges from the coulda-shoulda-woulda-been-good to stuff so bad that it made my eyeballs bleed, I can say that a major portion of the wrongness comes from basic problems--spelling errors, punctuation errors, grammar errors. Really elementary stuff, stuff that should be in the toolbox of any aspiring writer.

But wait! I hear some of you squealing. "I just write for fun," you say. "It's not like an editor is going to see it. Who cares about spelling and that stuff?"

Well, I do, for one.

Words are powerful, when used well. You can bring a reader to the heights of joy (or bliss...or something else altogether, if you're reading Celli's UC Mary Sue fanfic *g*). You can make people weep for folks they'll never meet. Better yet, you can give people new ways to look at the world and the people around them. You can help them to be more compassionate, more wise, more intense about their experiences. At the very least, you can take their troubles away for a little while. Yes, even fanfic can do that--if it's done well.

Plot and characterization are important. Dialogue is key, description can make or break you. But putting each sentence together in a way that makes sense and hits the inner ear just right--that's essential.

Now, I can't go over every single rule for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. If you're feeling desperate, I'd recommend Strunk and White's Elements of Style, or even a refresher course at the local community college if it's been a while since you've been graded on your handiwork. What I will do is make some suggestions that can make your writing better.

1. Spellcheck ~ We live in an era of amazing conveniences--and yet so many people fail to use them. Spellcheck isn't foolproof, but it can save you a good deal of embarrassment. Use a word-processing program to write your stories--that way you can spellcheck, then transfer the story to an e-mail format to send it out. Keeping the story in word-processing rather than your outbox will also help you to...

2. Resist the Urge to Send Out Immediately ~ I know you love your story. It's the bestest ever. It will change the world of fic.

It will look a heck of a lot different when you give it a day or two to cool off. Trust me. Those snappy lines of dialogue will sound stilted. It will suddenly occur to you that maybe, just maybe, the hilarious scene that had all that great UST was really not a good idea. (So far, Celli's been kind enough not to mention the strip poker scene in my first fic. So I'll bring it up now and get it over with. Attention readers! Do not try this at home! I am a highly trained...idiot.) Or maybe the plot's fine, but there are a couple tweaks you can do to tighten things up.

If you give it a couple of days, read through it, and still don't see anything wrong...you weren't looking hard enough. Really. So here's a trick you can try:

3. Read It Out Loud ~ You'll be surprised. Things that look great on paper (or on screen) can sound terrible. And if you have trouble with punctuation, look at the places where you naturally pause while reading. That can give you a hint of spots where commas and periods are lacking (or overused). Reading out loud meshes well with the next step:

4. Proofreading ~ Check every word. Don't skim. Be sure you've fixed all the little details--all those combos like their and there and they're, which trip up every writer sooner or later (yes, even me). Make sure subjects and verbs agree, keep an eye on the point of view, and make sure you haven't written anything that's inadvertantly silly. For example, I was reading a nationally-known pro magazine a while back, and came upon a sentence that described a character as 'slipping back into a comma.' Seriously. (If you don't get why that's funny...have you considered a career as a neurosurgeon? Just kidding). And that leads into the last step of the process...

5. Beta Readers ~ We all mess up. Problems, big or small, slip past us, and that's where a few extra pairs of eyes come in handy. Beta readers come in a number of flavors, but the best ones kindly, yet firmly, let us know when we've missed the mark. They tell us when a beloved heroine is acting out of character, or when the plot seems contrived, or when a sentence makes no sense, or...well, you get the picture.

An ideal beta reader should be at least as good a writer as you are, if not better. Don't be afraid to seek out someone whose work you admire and ask for help. More importantly, don't be afraid to listen to good advice, even when it hurts--make that, especially when it hurts.

Beta readers are our last line of defense. Maybe it feels good to send out a story to your beta reader and get an e-mail back that says, "WOW!!!! thats a grate story! dont change a thing!" It's not doing you much good, though. A friend of mine calls those TND critiques--for 'That's nice, dear.' It's an ego-boost, but think of the enthusiastic raves you might get if you put in a little more work up front.

Maybe you're not writing for profit. Maybe it's just fun to spend a little more time with characters you love, get them into trouble, get them back out of trouble...

But if those characters are worth your time and energy, don't they deserve the best possible work you can give? You're sharing something that's special to you--a story that's unique to you. So for heaven's sake, don't send your baby out in the snow with a bathing suit and an army helmet. Or worse. Dress her up right.

Okay, lesson's over. Get back to work, kids.

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