Ann Patchett’s quote is only too true. That said, it’s during my many (and I mean many) edits that I attempt to unearth the words I hope will go some way towards evoking the feeling I want to convey. Sometimes I can spend two hours on a key paragraph. I personally love writing where my emotion and understanding are greater than the sum of the words. This is true art.
Rules are meant to be broken. Buck the trend of character and plot dominance. Bend language, challenge structure, change points of view, turn narrative on its head: create and be original.
Grammar is the rules or conventions that make the meaning of language and sentences clear.
Many people don’t care about grammar these days. But writing in a clear way by observing these conventions will help you to convey your message most effectively and optimally. The correct use of grammar will also that can help lift your writing into the professional realm, letting people know you’re a serious writer who works at their craft.
There will be times when you want to break the rules of grammar in the name of creativity. Go for it! But it helps to know them first before working out how best to manipulate them.
The five books I find most useful for grammar questions are as follows:
- A thesaurus – I use the online Dictionary.com almost every time I write to find synonyms for words I need to repeat. I like how you can click on a synonym in a list to find synonyms for that word until you’ve found the right one. I couldn’t write without a thesaurus.
- Fowler’s Modern English Usage – For me this is the bible on all sorts of questions you might have about specific words in both British and American, Australian, South African etc. English. For example, should I write roofs or rooves, is it ok to use ‘didn’t ought to’, what does ‘sic’ mean, what is the English versus American spelling of ‘program/me’, is the correct word ‘strategic’ or ‘strategical’? Make sure you get the latest edition.
- The Elements of Style – This book is great for writing rules such as when to place a comma before ‘and’ and ‘but’, slang, redundancy, using the active and not passive voice, verb tenses and mood, and is it which or that? The misused words and expressions section is fun reading, if you like that sort of thing. This book is priceless.
- A dictionary – I’m Australian and we generally speak British and to American English—although that’s eroding—so I use the Macquarie dictionary. It includes Australianisms that other dictionaries don’t. Find the best dictionary for you in the version of language you want to write in—either online or physically. This is particularly important during the rewriting/editing/proofreading stages.
- Style Manual – This is an Australian Government book that I use for writing and editing advice. When I’m unsure about punctuation such as when do or don’t I include a comma in a string of adjectives, should I use a colon or a semi-colon, where do I place quotation marks, when do I use an en, em or 2-em dash, or hyphenation, then this is my go-to reference book. Very handy and easy to use with its detailed index.
To quote Winston S Churchill again, ‘This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.’