Every writer I know has a different perspective on just how good grammar needs to be.

Some are sticklers who insist on adhering to the highest standards of the literary order. Others are comfortable taking creative liberties and believe that breaking the rules is an art unto itself and a practice that should be embraced.

Me? I’m somewhere in the middle. I believe that a writer who is dedicated to the craft will take the time and invest the energy required to master the most basic tools, grammar being foremost among them. But I also believe there are situations in which it’s best to break the rules — as long as you know which rules you’re breaking and why.

Too many times I’ve heard aspiring writers shrug off good grammar, saying they’d rather focus on plot or character, they’d prefer to use a natural, unlearned approach to keep the writing raw, or they will simply hire an editor to do the dirty work.

I have a hard time buying into those lines of reasoning. Refusing to bother with grammar is just plain lazy, especially for writers who yearn to be more than hobbyists.

10 Good Reasons to Pursue Good Grammar

Why should writers should embrace grammar rather than make excuses for ignoring it? Here are ten reasons why good grammar should be a central pursuit in your writing efforts:

1. Readability

If your work is peppered with grammatical mistakes and typos, your readers are going to have a hard time trudging through it. Nothing is more distracting than being yanked out of a good story because a word is misspelled or a punctuation mark is misplaced. You should always respect your readers enough to deliver a product that is enjoyable and easy to use.

2. Communication

Some musicians learn to play by ear and never bother to learn how to read music. Many of them don’t even know which notes and chords they’re playing, even though they can play a full repertoire of recognizable songs and probably a few of their own. But get them in a room with other musicians and they’ll quickly become isolated. You can’t engage with others in your profession if you don’t speak the language of your industry. Good luck talking shop with writers and editors if you don’t know the parts of speech, the names of punctuation marks, and all the other components of language and writing that are related to good grammar.

3. Getting Published

How will you get that short story, essay, or blog post published if you don’t know the basics of grammar, spelling, and punctuation? Sure, some managing editors will go over your work and clean it up for you, but most reputable publishers have enough submissions that they can toss grammatically weak work into the trash without thinking twice.

4. Working with an Editor

I love it when writers say they can just hire an editor. This goes back to communication. If you can’t talk shop with other writers, you certainly won’t be able to converse intelligently about your work and its flaws with a professional editor. How will you respond to feedback and revision suggestions or requests when you don’t know what the heck the editor is talking about? Remember, it’s your work. Ultimately, the final version is your call and you won’t be able to approve it if you’re clueless about what’s wrong with it.

5. Saving Money

Speaking of hiring an editor, you should know that editors will only go so far when correcting a manuscript. It’s unseemly to return work to a writer that is solid red with markups. Most freelance editors and proofreaders have a limit to how much they will mark up any given text, so the more grammar mistakes there are, the more surface work the editor will have to do. That means she won’t be able to get into the nitty gritty and make significant changes that take your work from average to superior because she’s breaking a sweat just trying to make it readable.

6. Invest in Yourself

Learning grammar is a way to invest in yourself. You don’t need anything more than a couple of good writing resources and a willingness to take the time necessary to hone your skills. In the beginning, it might be a drag, but eventually, all those grammar rules will become second nature and you will have become a first-rate writer.

7. Respectability, Credibility, and Authority

As a first-rate writer who has mastered good grammar, you will gain respect, credibility, and authority among your peers. People will take you seriously and regard you as a person who is committed to the craft of writing, not just some hack trying to string words together in a haphazard manner.

8. Better Writing All Around

When you’ve taken the time to learn grammar, it becomes second nature. As you write, the words and punctuation marks come naturally because you know what you’re doing; you’ve studied the rules and put in plenty of practice. That means you can focus more of your attention on other aspects of your work, like structure, context, and imagery (to name a few). This leads to better writing all around.

9. Self-Awareness

Some people don’t have it. They charge through life completely unaware of themselves or the people around them. But most of us possess some sense of self. What sense of self can you have as a writer who doesn’t know proper grammar? That’s like being a carpenter who doesn’t know what a hammer and nails are. It’s almost indecent.

10. There’s Only One Reason to Abstain from Good Grammar

There is really only one reason to avoid learning grammar: you’re just plain lazy. Anything else is a silly excuse. Like I said, I’m all for breaking the rules when doing so makes the work better, but how can you break rules effectively if you don’t know what the rules are?

No matter what trade, craft, or career you’re pursuing, it all starts with learning the basics. Actors learn how to read scripts. Scientists learn how to apply the scientific method. Politicians learn how to… well, never mind what politicians do. We are writers. We must learn how to write well, and writing well definitely requires using good grammar.

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I came across a column written by Jon Gingerich.  It echoes the process I follow on rewriting my first draft novels.  He sums it up perfectly and wanted to share.

So you’ve written your story, mulled over its potential problems, and even had it critiqued by friends or colleagues who’ve given you their praise, suggestions and ultimate diagnoses. You know your work has major issues that need addressed. Now what?

 

The first draft is going to be bad. That’s okay. The inexperienced writer works on an idea, discovers it’s not working and gives up. The experienced writer works on an idea, discovers it’s not working but has the faith in the story and him/herself to keep going, because he/she knows it will get better with time. Contrary to many beginners’ opinions, stories aren’t truly born in the first draft, but through numerous, significant rewrites. While revision may lack the immediate romanticism of an initial draft, rewriting is a vital part of the creative process. Rewriting is an art form unto itself; just as much discovery is involved in the process, and it can be just as inspiring and inventive as the first draft. Any time you alter your story’s vital elements it teases your creative side to come up with new ideas. Rewriting can help your story become aware of itself; it can elevate an idea to its own reality. In order for the process to work however, a true rewrite cannot simply be editing, copy-editing or proofing. I know you’ve worked hard on it, but your first draft should be viewed as nothing more than a framework. A true rewrite is surrender; it is a complete re-imagining of the work, usually more difficult and always more time consuming than the initial draft.

 

In order to produce a compelling, well-written work of fiction, the writer must wear the hats of writer, editor and audience simultaneously. This is more than a difficult task — it’s a practically impossible undertaking. The writer is expected juggle the work, how she/he plans to change it and — most importantly — theories of how your imagined readership will interpret what’s been written. It’s like putting on a pair of glasses with three lenses and being asked to navigate a dark highway. The only way to rewrite successfully is to look through each lens separately and attack all elements of the story comprehensively. There are many ways to view a story, but when it comes to the task of rewriting I’ll suggest we divide stories into two distinct views — a Macro and Micro view — and adopt an approach that addresses each. The Macro view is your work’s overarching intent. It’s where you establish a story’s theme, shape, scenes and structure. It’s where you discover what your story is “about,” and who your characters are. Micro is the details: it’s language, length, style, and grammar, it’s the sum “feeling” your Macro qualities exemplify over the body of the work. In some ways, both offer different views of the same components: Structure is Macro, prose is Micro. Character is Macro, dialogue is Micro. Theme is Macro, imagery is Micro. Macro is a discovery process, Micro is a polishing process. Macro is where you lay the foundation for your story, Micro is where you make the house presentable.

 

Too many writers confuse these distinct disciplines and tackle one before the other is addressed. They tweak and retweak sentences while ignoring structural problems, and the result is a bad story that’s well-written, a piece of work that’s grammatically correct yet uninspired. It’s the equivalent of shopping for decorative window shutters when the foundation of your house sits on a fault line. The below four steps will hopefully help divide the tasks of rewriting into an undertaking that’s both reasonable and comprehensive. The idea is to move your rewriting focus gradually from a Macro process to a Micro one, ensuring each area of your story is given due attention — from the foundation up.

 

Restructuring

One of the best tools a writer has is time. After you’ve finished writing your first draft and had it workshopped or critiqued, step away from it. Give yourself distance, work on something else. When you return to your draft with a “fresh” eye you’ll be about as objective as any creator can hope for. Then look at it — a printed copy, not a computer screen — and ask what structural problems need to be addressed. What’s your story’s theme — what are you trying to say, and are you saying anything at all? What’s the story about (the litmus test is you should be able to tell someone in a single sentence, with a verb) and does it echo throughout the piece? How vivid is the world you’ve created? Remove scenes and characters that don’t adequately resonate this theme; add subplots, foreshadowing and new characters that strengthen it. For the characters that remain, who are they and what do they want? Do they speak and behave with authority? Can any of them be criticized as clichés, or do they avoid easy characterization? You’ll need to walk in their shoes, discover their histories, their upbringings. Is the point-of-view a correct one, does the voice reflect the internal structure of the story? Does the plot make sense? It should reveal itself not in a heavy-handed manner but through a slow unfolding of character, structure and theme.

 

The restructuring process should be concerned entirely with Macro qualities. This means it concerns itself less with actual writing and more with building. Leave grammar and sentences alone for the time being; right now you’re molding your story for meaning. Physically take a red pen to the scenes and characters that aren’t working. Cross things out, write in the margins. Then write your new scenes and characters in a new document. When you’re finished, paste the new scenes into the old document, and delete the old ones. You’ll notice the shape of the story and the behavior of characters will change as they begin to move around and interact with new elements.

 

Revision

The operative word here is “vision.” After more time has passed, print out your second draft and look at it again. Here you’ll hopefully see the literary forest for the trees, how your ideas are linking together. Make sure the story’s proportions and rhythms are even. Is the story revealing itself through action and dialogue instead of summary or a laundry list of descriptive details? Is your central theme resonating throughout but subtle enough to avoid being overbearing? The reader’s participation makes the story. Is the beginning of the story inviting? Is the ending profound? How can you maximize emotional intensity in the plot? Add complexity to your characters. Add details that flesh out who a character is; add “quirks” that redefine them as authentic individuals instead of types. In what ways do they contract themselves? Pepper characters with subtle details that resonate on a subconscious level. Do they have distinct ways of speaking, do they repeat specific phrases or words that are specific to them? Is the overall dialogue informative but genuine?

 

Notice with this step we’re moving from a view that began as Macro and is growing increasingly Micro. We’re mowing down, whittling from an abstract lump into a specific shape. The revision process is concerned with building the relationships of form, style and meaning. Here your story is gradually accruing metaphorical weight. What impact does your writing style have on the story? Language should absorb the theme of the work so you’ll want to manipulate language to match the material, but not in an overbearing way. Again, print out your work for this process, and do your edits in longhand.

 

Copy editing

We’re now fully at the Micro end of the process. Print out your second draft and set it on your desk (ideally, in an upright copy holder). Looking at your document, and with your second draft now closed — and, ideally, deleted — open a new document and retype the whole thing over again. The idea is to push the document through a filtration process that focuses on language. When you’re forced to confront every sentence, you’ll be amazed at all the stuff that can go. This is where you’ll see if your words are linking together. First, make sure the words inform, if the theme takes residence in the syntax. Look at how your paragraphs transition; transitions should be subtle evolutions of an idea. How does one paragraph relate to the next? Look at how your sentences grow and branch within the paragraphs. Does every sentence sound like an organic component of the voice, almost like its writer invented it?

 

In the copy editing process, we’re looking for the two “e’s”: what’s exceptional and what’s essential. Get rid of anything that’s not the latter. Delete incidental details. Cut redundancies. Listen to the acoustic properties your sentences have. Have you varied your sentence lengths, or are you delivering the same rhythms over and over again? Make sure your sentences are active. Look out for figurative cliché, unnecessary modifiers and anything that unnecessarily “pads” the sentence. Cut until it hurts; challenge yourself to omit as many words as you can while retaining the sentence’s intended meaning. Ask yourself: how would a first-time reader approach this sentence, this word? The editing process should not water down, the editing process should refine. If you’re still confused as to what your story is “about” you’ll need to stop and return to the first step before proceeding.

 

Proofreading and line editing

You should do this only after the first three steps have been accomplished, before you’re sending the story out for possible publication. Read your story for grammar, double-check your sentences. Watch for punctuation, which gives your readers space to “breathe” between ideas. Then, paginate your work into columns, using a program like InDesign or QuarkXPress. Change the font from the one in which you usually write. Sometimes the strange look of a different typeface and layout can reveal new problems to eyes already tired from the work. Finally, read your work aloud. Speaking puts your work in audible spaces; it objectifies the language and places it outside the writer’s head. Both of these methods are intended to temporarily “trick” the brain into seeing your work in a new light, to imagine your story from the perspective of a stranger.

 

You’ll notice I prefer an editing environment that’s as “analogue” as possible. There’s no doubt the medium you choose to transcribe ideas (computer, typewriter, shorthand) irrevocably affects the written product. Computers are great, but they’re machines of convenience; we live in an age where technologies allow us to circumvent essential parts of the editing process. You can be assured that when someone wrote a 500-page novel with a quill pen only the essentials remained. Computers, while enabling us to churn out rough drafts at incredibly short intervals, have given writers diarrhea of the mind. They’ve allowed a lot of unneeded superlatives and afterthoughts to pass through the filtration process. Moreover, by virtue of their design they’re constantly tempting us to scroll up and change what we’ve written before moving on, so the finished product is often a messy hodgepodge of polished crap aside half-baked brilliance. I’m not suggesting writers change the transcribing medium they’re accustomed to. Instead, my advice is to use the best of both worlds to your advantage: use a computer to write your first drafts quickly, so you can trowel the compost of your creative mind with abandon. Let it be sloppy, let it be messy. The rewrite however, should ideally take ten times the effort to complete. When switching cerebral lobes to your analytical side, switch mediums — a red pen, paper — to accommodate the new mental task at hand. Always type a new draft; do your work in a new document, not an existing one; and don’t keep multiple drafts. When you force yourself into a position where every word matters, you’ll be amazed at the effect it will have on your final product. Ideally, the rewriting process should be like wringing out a towel, where we void the bad elements and add new ones that contribute to its ideal shape.  Have one draft, and work it to death.

People are pretty familiar with what first person and third person types of writing are.  However, second person is a mysterious unused writing style.  So what is it?

You use the second-person point of view to address the reader, as I just did. The second person uses the pronouns “you,” “your,” and “yours.” We use these three pronouns when addressing one, or more than one, person. Second person is often appropriate for e-mail messages, presentations, and business and technical writing.

Here are two examples with the second-person point of view.

 

This is a singular second-person sentence:

Grandma,

Before you go to London, remember to leave your keys under the doormat. I’ll miss you. Sincerely yours, Anna

This is a plural second-person sentence:

Class, you need to be in your seats when the principal arrives. Tom and Jerry, I’m speaking to you as well. By the way, are these comic books yours? (Regionally speaking, in the American South you might hear a teacher say, “Class, y’all need to be in your seats….” “Y’all” is a contraction of “you all.”)

 

As you can imagine, it is probably good for letters, but may not be so successful with writing a book.  Very few authors have successfully used it.

Here is another example: You’re late. Heart pounding, you race up the stairs as the train enters the station. You weave around the slow-moving people milling on the platform and dash towards the train, throwing your body through the doorway with only a moment to spare.

One way to experiment with second person is to write as if the story is a letter from the narrator to “you,” reflecting on past events and current feelings, asking questions. (It doesn’t have to be in an actual letterform; the idea of a letter is simply a way to describe the intimate tone.) This technique isn’t necessarily “pure” second person, as it pairs “you” with the narrator’s first-person point of view, but it allows you to dip a toe in the second-person perspective. At the same time, it gives readers a peek into a relationship, a memory, and a character’s emotions.

Here is an example: You told me to meet you at the bar. Things hadn’t been going well, but I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly was wrong. Did you plan to break my heart that night? We locked eyes as I walked through the entrance, and I knew things were coming to an end.

Second person stretches your skills and surprises readers.  Because it’s not often used, the second person point of view feels fresh to readers. And for writers, it means a new way of telling a story, a different way of revealing character. In this way, it offers a new perspective for writers and readers alike.

If you want to be different, you may want to try it some time.  Like I mentioned at the beginning of the post, it is rarely used.  If you want to see it successfully used, try these books:  Bright Lights, Big City.  Ten. The Leftovers. Aura.

I have always been confused by writing prompts.  I understand the purpose; just not sure of how helpful they are. Someone recently asked me what writing prompts I use and I thought and thought, and thought some more.  I don’t really use them and I finally figured out why.  I looked at them as something to distract me from my book or my direction.  I wanted to stay focused on the story.  However, I am here to tell you I was wrong.  I actually can use writing prompts and continue the story forward.

So what is a writing prompt?  A writing prompt is simply a topic around which you start jotting down ideas. The prompt could be a single word, a short phrase, a complete paragraph or even a picture, with the idea being to give you something to focus upon as you write. You may stick very closely to the original prompt or you may wander off at a tangent.

You may just come up with rough, disjointed notes or you may end up with something more polished and complete a scene or even a complete story. The point is to simply start writing without being held back by any inhibitions or doubts.

Here are four good reasons for writing to prompts:

  • Sometimes it’s hard to start writing when faced with a blank page. Focusing on an unrelated prompt for a while helps get the creative juices flowing. If you write for just ten minutes on a prompt, you should then find it easier to return to the piece you intended to write. You may also find that if you stop trying to think so hard about what you wanted to write and switch you attention to the prompt instead, the words and ideas for your original piece start to come to you after all.
  • The things you write in response to a prompt may also end up as worthwhile material in their own right. The prompt may give you ideas from which a complete story grows or you may get fresh ideas for another piece you are already working on. It’s often surprising how much material you come up with once you start.
  • Writing to a prompt regularly helps to get you into the habit of writing. This can act as a sort of exercise regime, helping to build up your “muscles” so that you start to find it easier and easier to write for longer and longer.
  • Prompts can be a great way to get involved in a writing community. Sometimes writing groups offer a prompt for everyone to write about, with the intention being for everyone to come up with something they can then share. This can be a source of great encouragement, although knowing that others will read what you have written can also inhibit your creativity.

 

Examples of Writing Prompts

The following are twenty writing prompts that you could use to spark your imagination. If you want to use one, don’t worry about where the ideas take you or whether what you’ve written is “good”. The point is just to get into the flow of writing. You can come back later and polish if you wish to.

 

It was the first snowfall of the year.

He hadn’t seen her since the day they left High School.

The city burned, fire lighting up the night sky.

Silk.

She studied her face in the mirror.

The smell of freshly cut grass.

They came back every year to lay flowers at the spot.

The streets were deserted. Where was everyone? Where had they all gone?

This time her boss had gone too far.

Red eyes.

Stars blazed in the night sky.

He woke to birdsong.

‘Shh! Hear that?’ ‘I didn’t hear anything.’

He’d always hated speaking in public.

She woke, shivering, in the dark of the night.

The garden was overgrown now.

He’d never noticed a door there before.

She’d have to hitch a ride home.

‘I told him not to come back too!’

His feet were already numb. He should have listened.

We’ve all been there. You start to write, but your mind has long since wandered off, churning out lists of all the things you need to do—or that you could be doing if only you weren’t stuck here…

Suddenly you realize an hour has passed.  But don’t worry—you’re not alone. In fact, a recent study by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert sampled over 2,000 adults during their day-to-day activities and found that 47 percent of the time, their minds was not focused on what they were currently doing. Even more striking, when people’s minds were wandering, they reported being less happy.

This suggests it might be good to find ways to reduce these mental distractions and improve our ability to focus. Ironically, mind wandering itself can help strengthen our ability to focus, if leveraged properly. This can be achieved using an age-old skill: meditation. Indeed, a new wave of research reveals what happens in our brains when our minds wander—and sheds light on the host of cognitive and emotional benefits that come with increased focus.

For thousands of years, contemplative practices such as meditation have provided a means to look inward and investigate our mental processes. It may seem surprising, but mind wandering is actually a central element of focused attention (FA) meditation. In this foundational style of meditation, the practitioner is instructed to keep her attention on a single object, often the physical sensations of breathing. Sounds simple enough, but it’s much easier said than done. Try it for a few minutes and see what happens.

If you’re like most people, before long your attention will wander away into rumination, fantasy, analyzing, planning. At some point, you might realize that your mind is no longer focused on the breath. With this awareness, you proceed to disengage from the thought that had drawn your mind away, and steer your attention back to your breath. A few moments later, the cycle will likely repeat.

At first, it might seem like the tendency toward mind wandering would be a problem for the practice of FA meditation, continually derailing your attention from the “goal” of keeping your mind on the breath. However, the practice is really meant to highlight this natural trajectory of the mind, and in doing so, it trains your attention systems to become more aware of the mental landscape at any given moment, and more adept at navigating it. With repeated practice, it doesn’t take so long to notice that you’ve slipped into some kind of rumination or daydream. It also becomes easier to drop your current train of thought and return your focus to the breath. Those who practice say that thoughts start to seem less “sticky”—they don’t have such a hold on you.

Reading all this might make you think that we’d be better off if we could live our lives in a constant state of laser-like, present moment focus. But a wandering mind isn’t all-bad. Not only can we leverage it to build focus using FA meditation, but the capacity to project our mental stream out of the present and imagine scenarios that aren’t actually happening is hugely evolutionarily valuable, which may explain why it’s so prominent in our mental lives. These processes allow for creativity, planning, imagination, and enhance your ability to write a rich story.

The key, I believe, is learning to become aware of these mental tendencies and to use them purposefully, rather than letting them take over. Meditation can help with that. So don’t beat yourself up the next time you find yourself far away, from where your mind was supposed to be. It’s the nature of the mind to wander. Use it as an opportunity to become more aware of your own mental experience. But you may still want to return to the present moment—so you can come up with the novel everyone is waiting for.

Over the course of my career, I have had a few near misses at huge success.  Sure, I have several books published, but I am talking about name being well known in the industry. I wrote an episode for Star Trek the Next Generation when I was younger, but the show was shut down during our talks.  I wrote a movie script that I was working with USA Television and those bombed out.  My point is that someone could look at those and say, screw it, I am out.  I probably would have if I were seeking fame. However, I write because I enjoy it.

There are several reasons why people enjoy writing.  Some write because they love the manipulation of the words, others because they feel they have something important to say, and still others, like me, write to tell a story that I would love to see or read.  I write for pure enjoyment of where the story goes and then if I get to share it with others that is a bonus.  I may not have deep characters or the next quotable Dickens character, bah humbug.  However, I have a story I dig, and frankly, that is enough for me.

If you are not enjoying your writing, please just stop.  You can save yourself years or at the very least months, of frustration.  The publishing industry today is not structured for the quick win and jump to stardom.  There is a chance, but last stat I read says you have a better chance of winning the lottery.  Jumping to stardom from writing a movie script even less odds in your favor.

I don’t say all of this to discourage you, far from it.  Rise to stardom from writing is a long haul and you may never reach it.  Don’t focus on the destination, focus on the journey.  Write because you enjoy the journey, not because you think there is a pot of gold in your future.  There may be.  However, make that a pleasant surprise, not the driving force for the journey.

Here is a link to an interview a few years back of several authors who write for a living.  An interesting perspective.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/mar/03/authors-on-writing

 

 

You may or may not be a “perform to a schedule” type of writer. Largely, this will depend on who you are, how you write, and what you’re writing. For example, if you are writing poetry, there’s a good chance that you’re scratching your head about this suggestion – unless, of course you owe manuscript revisions by a certain date. But if you’ve promised a business that they’ll have an entire website worth of content in three weeks, you (and the client) will be well served knowing exactly how you’re going to get there.

No matter what type of writing you’re doing, whether there is an external deadline or not, a schedule can help. I have come to appreciate schedules as little maps of the possible to guide us in the deep and sometimes overwhelming waters of time. I make a treasure map for arriving at the doorstep of this finished book on the date I promised myself. When taken out of its romantic mood lighting, this map is simply a schedule.

What I mean by a schedule, for something like a book, is that I set both targets and timing. Let’s say the book has twenty chapters, and I plan to write one chapter per week over the course of twenty weeks, then spend the last four weeks revising. I’d block off in my computer calendar the hours I expect to spend writing that chapter each week.  For me, the greatest value of this process is having hard proof that there are actually enough hours in my life to accomplish what I have set out to do.

When I see those orange blocks of “write book” time floating through the days and nights of my computer calendar, a sense of calm comes over me. I can see my path of progress; I can trust it will get done. And even if I don’t choose to stick to the schedule in a given week, or ever, I still have that visual map of how my current life could shift to accommodate something new – and a general sense of what will be required of me to make that happen. And that lends confidence and comfort as I enter the unknown.