The importance of knowing the basics
Grammar is absolutely my least favorite thing about being a writer… and yet, I’m also an editor. Go figure that one out! Actually, if you were to ask a bunch of editors whether they enjoyed grammar I’d guess that at least half would say no. Grammar just isn’t something that anyone but a select few enjoy.
On the other hand, it’s exceedingly useful—essential even. It makes it so our words form sentences which actually convey the meaning the author intends. An incorrectly placed or missing comma can change the entire meaning of a sentence (Don’t shoot Dad until I say so.). A misplaced modifier can make a sentence into silly nonsense (Topped with roses, Sara admired cake for her sister’s birthday. – I think the author means that the cake was topped with roses, not Sara). Punctuation done wrong can make any author look unprofessional (“I love books but hate grammar:” Sara said). The same goes with incorrect capitalization (My Mother said we should wait for her.).
So what’s an author to do?
Well, I buy grammar books and actually read them. (Yeah, it’s that last part that’s more difficult than the first.) I recently bought one that I’m not going to recommend because I didn’t find it particularly helpful, but there are many that are. (Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris and Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Conner are my most recent favorites.)
The wonderful thing is that there are books out there for people who don’t like grammar, don’t want to spend a great deal of time and energy learning it, but know that they really need to have a basic grasp of the fundamentals – both of those books I mentioned in the previous paragraph are like that. I strongly urge you to spend a little time reading them and learning what you need to know.
Likewise, as you all know, one of the main goals of this blog is to teach writers the particulars of writing craft. And once again, I’ve got a shelf full of craft books that I’ve read at least once, quite a few more than once. I’m not going to list them all here because when I say a shelf, I actually mean the equivalent of a bookcase (a lot are ebooks).
The funny thing with writing craft books, that’s not true of grammar unfortunately, is that once you know the rules of craft, you can go ahead and break those rules. But, I repeat, you need to be able to understand and use the rules correctly before you break them. Grammar, no matter how well you understand it, must always be followed (not down to every single comma because sometimes even grammar rules can be bent or broken a bit).
So, I urge you, go out and buy some craft books. Go out and buy a grammar book or two. And, yes, actually read the books you buy (sleeping with them under your pillow doesn’t work, I’ve tried!). Learn how to use commas, semicolons, and capitalization correctly. Read someone’s treatise on the sagging middle, POV, or story structure. Learn all these nitty-gritty details because that’s what will bring you from being a hobbyist to a professional author. That’s what will make your writing stand out. It will be worth it, I promise!