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.’
Do you let your first draft rip never looking back, or do you rewrite as you go meaning your first draft is a partial rewrite? Maybe you find it impossible not to constantly go back to earlier writing, interrupting your progress and flow?
Do you wonder how bad your first draft can be? Is it OK if it’s cringeworthy rubbish, or does that mean you’re a talentless writer?
- How bad can your first draft be?
First drafts are often really, really bad. As Ernest Hemingway said, ‘All first drafts of anything are shit‘. I find great comfort and relief in this. When I reread my first draft, it’s little more than a basic plot outline using simple words. I just need to get something down, a structure of events, that I can build on. Often there’s no flourish, sumptuous description, depth or complexity and there’s plenty of cliché, redundancy and repetition etc.. If you’re like me, you’ll be relieved to know this is perfectly normal.
- How first draft is a first draft?
Depending on my writing flow, I sometimes finish a section or chapter, then go back and improve the words before writing the next part of my story. This draft is by no means final. That comes much later after a lot more work when I also look at structural and other matters. But I want my work to have some substance before I move on. Here’s why…
- Fixing the words – what am I really trying to say?
Fixing the words it the best part of writing for me. It’s what makes me want to write, and brings excitement and joy to a challenging process. I also find it — as often happens to be the case in life — the most difficult part of writing. You know, yin and yang, growth comes from challenge etc..
I’ve long thought that when rewriting or editing the key question to ask yourself is, What am I really trying to say? I watched an interview with author Sophie McManus in which she confirmed this. She went on to say that when a writer redrafts, they’re responding to technical questions about how to improve a sentence. It’s only then that the writer discovers the real meaning of what they’re writing because this is when they’re forced to ask what they really mean to say. In particular, this requires a focus on nouns and verbs, which I’ve posted about before.
- Creating versus rewriting and editing
In this post here I talked about how you can’t create in editor mode because these processes use different parts of the brain that are not connected. But this doesn’t mean you can’t switch from one to the other, if it works for you. Perhaps you’re able to create in the morning or create on one day and rewrite in the afternoon or the next day. It’s OK too to get your first draft done in one hit before even rereading what you’ve written. You’ll know what’s best for you.
- Continual redrafting
It’s critical, however, that you don’t get stuck in continual redraft mode, perfecting your words before you even get to the end. This is an endless loop that can delay your project significantly.
Seek perfection later. There’s a reason for this. It’s only when you have a complete plot with an ending that you can fix the sentences so that each one helps build your story in that direction. How will you know what’s missing or redundant, how will you know which words are most apt if you haven’t written the ending yet? Even if you think know your ending, there will be changes along the way that will impact your words. Trust your creative process.
- Just write it, confident or not
You don’t have to feel confident as you write your first draft. Getting something down on the page is a start. Remember, you can’t rewrite or edit a blank page. Don’t let fear of writing poorly or going down a dead-end path hold you back.
When you’re ready to rewrite, keep working on the language until it gets to the point where you’re saying something in a style or voice that knows its purpose, even if you don’t consciously know at first what your story is truly about. Ironically, through technique, writers create meaning, beauty and art.
This writing book aims to help you take your fiction to the next level. If you know the basics of writing, it’s a great guide on how to do this. I found it practical as well as motivating.
Maass talks about the premise, stakes, time and place, character, plotting, POV, endings, and I love that it also discusses theme. In short, it’s pretty thorough.
Key take outs:
- The great novel should sweep you away with unforgettable characters, and dramatic and meaningful events. The essence of a great story is conflict.
- High stakes come from your own stakes in writing your story. An author who is fired up, or rather who fires up their characters as their proxies, stands a much better chance of crafting a spellbinding story.
- Use exposition – interior monologues – in which there is no action to deepen dilemmas and increase tension e.g. irresolution and mixed feelings.
- To set your voice free, set your words, characters and heart free.
- Novels are moral. Say something passionately that must be said.
Score: 9/10 It works
Perhaps you’re disappointed at not being published, or you self-published but the sales weren’t great, or you’ve been plugging away for so long without ‘success’ that you’re having doubts about this writing thing, or the words that come out on the page aren’t the ones you feel inside, or you’ve simply lost sight of why you’re writing.
The result is that you can’t seem to find your enthusiasm for writing anymore. It used to excite you to sit down at a blank page, it was fun. But now all you feel is dread. You start avoiding it or you procrastinate or you talk yourself out of it. Maybe you’ve given up entirely, or if you do manage to force yourself to write it feels like a chore, another obligation in your long list for the day.
What’s happened to make you feel this way?
Writing has become a negative experience
Whatever the reason, the end result is that writing makes you feel bad. Most likely, you’ve also lost confidence in yourself and your writing along the way. So why would you write if that’s how it makes you feel?
You need to get back to what you enjoy about writing to shift it back into a positive experience. Here are some ideas on how to do this.
- Let go of your expectations
Did you set some goals, perhaps secretly, such as a deadline for when you’d finish your book, or when you’d have an agent or get published, or when you’d win your first writing prize, or when you’d be able to write like James Joyce?
If you did and you haven’t met your goal, then no wonder you feel like a failure. You’ve set yourself up with unrealistic expectations. Need I remind you that writing is hard, really hard.
Let go or detach from your goals and become zen about your writing. Enjoy the moment, enjoy the writing or the process rather than focusing on the outcome. The result is a side benefit, not the primary aim of writing. Loving doing your best writing is the only true goal. See what happens.
- Revisit the reasons why you write
There were reasons why you first stepped onto the unpredictable path of being a writer. What were they? Write them down. Do they still apply? If not, are there new reasons? Write them down on the other side of the page. Be honest with yourself, but be careful push aside those doubting voices that counteract everything positive you come up with.
On the other hand, if you’ve dug deep and can’t find any reasons why you should continue to write, perhaps it is time to give it up. But if that thought fills you with horror and a list of ‘buts I can’t because…’, then you have your answer. Read your list of why you want to write every time you meet the blank page, and watch your self-belief slowly return.
- Stop the negative self talk
We all do it. It’s a fact that around eighty per cent of our thoughts are negative for reasons of survival. But how can we expect to create when we’re in a negative, fearful state of mind? Putting it simply, we can’t. The brain doesn’t work that way.
When we write, we’re not in a life or death situation. So next time that doubting, fearful, critical voice tells you something bad about you and your writing, try acknowledging what it has to say, thanking it for its concern and then telling it you’re not going to follow its advice today as there really isn’t any need. Then get on with your work. Remember, you control your thoughts. Don’t let them take control of you.
- Get help
Join a writing group (one that’s supportive and is going to give you positive, constructive feedback), hire an editor, read a writing book, work with a trusted fellow writer or beta reader, or do a course to help you get some perspective about what’s working and what could be improved in your work. There’s a lot of free and paid advice out there. Use it to keep moving forward. We all like to be challenged. We all need to grow. And believe it or not, we all like the rewards of hard work. Create a growth mindset, not a reward mindset.
- Create a positive writing environment
I’ve talked about how to create a writing routine here. Schedule quality time, meditate or walk beforehand, go to your favourite writing place (physically and/or mentally) etc. so that you feel optimistic and excited about writing. In other words, make your writing experience as enjoyable as possible by setting yourself up for success. By doing that you’re showing yourself some respect and taking yourself seriously.
This seems like a lot of hard work for something you once believed would flow easily from you via some muse. For most of us such a muse is a myth. The muse is really you delving deep into yourself without fear of consequence or expectation of reward and creating (more on how to do that here). Set up the best writing environment possible and you might be surprised at what turns up on your page.
- Perseverance – breakdown, breakthrough, breakout
I heard Beatte Chelette talk recently about the challenges she faced before succeeding in business. (I do that a lot, listen to inspiring people to keep my enthusiasm fire stoked and remind me how much hard work is involved.) This involved a lot of failing. She said ‘success’ has a pattern: Breakdown, breakthrough, breakout.
Perhaps you’re at breakdown, at crisis point? Perhaps a breakthrough is just around the corner. Success (meaning growth) depends on perseverance, which is resilience in the face of failure and adversity. If you give up now, you may never know. You have a choice. Over to you and the best of luck.
So you’ve completed your manuscript. Before you send it off to publishers, make sure it’s the best it can be. Not just the best it can be right now, but best FULL STOP. Often we get impatient and send our manuscripts out into the world too early when we should put them away for a couple of months before reviewing them again, send them off to a professional for an assessment or do yet another draft. But let’s say you’ve done all that and your book is the best it can be. You truly believe in it.
You compile a list of publishers and you send it to them. You’ve spent the time you need to write each personalised letter, hone your pitch, nail your marketing strategy, write gripping synopses of varying lengths and a fascinating author bio. Off your MS goes into the wilderness (with a touch of that true belief).
Now you wait. Perhaps you get bites for more of your MS. Perhaps you succeed quickly – someone wants to publish your book. Yay you. Congratulations! But if you’re one of the majority who either hear nothing back (“assume if you haven’t heard from us within three months that we’re not interested”) or get outright rejections, then what?
This is a normal human reaction. Allow yourself a set time, say one day, to sulk during which time you’re allowed to indulge in all your self-doubting thoughts such as what a crap writer you are, you’re never going to get published, you’ve wasted your time and you’re definitely going to give up.But once your twenty-four hours are up, it’s time to stop the tantrums and get on with it. You have a choice to make. Do you want to write or not? Ask yourself why you’re writing and who you’re writing for? If the answer is anything other than you’re writing because you need to and that you’re doing it for yourself, then you might need to have a good hard think about your motives. Good writing comes from truth and honesty, from baring your soul, not from dreams of fame and certainty. This is not that kind of career. Writing demands vulnerability because that’s the creative process.
- Get detailed feedback
If you don’t want to give up on your story yet, you could take on board the feedback you’ve received from editors and begin a re-draft. For deeper feedback before you begin re-drafting, get a manuscript assessment done. You should end up with a thorough twelve-page report that assesses everything about your novel from structural issues, voice, character, style and so on. These can be very helpful. This is a lot cheaper than hiring an editor, which is another option. If you can afford an editor, they will take you through your MS line by line as well as giving you a detailed report. Just make sure they believe sufficiently in your writing and your story before, and that your MS is ready. Going down the editor path costs thousands of dollars so getting the right person at the right time is critical.
- Retire your story
No one else can tell you if your story is worth persisting with or not. But perhaps, after much thought, you’ve realised this was your learner book and that you don’t want to salvage it. Perhaps you know in your gut it’s time to let it go. For many published authors their third book is the one that gets published. Say thank you to your story before putting it away for good. Also, pat yourself on the back for having finished a novel. That’s not something that a lot of people do, even though many try. Now you’re free to start the next story bringing along everything you learnt from your first. This might be a good time to do a course or read a new book on writing, something that inspires and strengthens you.
- Self publish
If you’re satisfied your story is the best it can be and really do believe in it, perhaps self-publishing is the right option for you. It’s a bit of a learning curve, but there are many free and paid websites, eBooks and courses full of step-by-step how-to advice, including on how to market your book. Marketing is a skill you’ll need no matter which way you publish as most publishers don’t have large marketing budgets these days. You can publish an eBook only or give people the option of buying a print-to-order hard copy. If you decide to hire someone to do the work for you, be very cautious. Most such companies, including some owned by the big publishing companies, do very little for thousands of dollars. They’re in that side of the business to make money, and by all reports they’re raking it in. Do your research first.
The important thing is not to be beaten in the process of getting published. You may view not finding a traditional publisher as failure, but failure is simply another form of feedback. Use it wisely and keep moving ahead.
As you can see by the well-worn cover, I love this beautifully written 1978 biography of the editor, Max Perkins. It’s not so much a how-to book on writing but a story of how a humble though intellectual man discovered, fought for and supported his list of writers, many of whom became famous.
It’s an inspirational book about the process of writing and how it renders even well-established authors terminally insecure. I also loved the deep discourse between his stable of writers on writing. If you’re looking for inside stories about authors such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe, Rawlings etc. (not many women, sigh) then this is a good book to dip into when you’re in the mood.
Key take outs:
- It gives inspiration and comfort about how fickle the writing process can be
- Cut out every word that is not essential to the meaning of the writing
- Great writers take great risks e.g. Tom Wolfe saying he’s “going into the woods for two or three years” to “try to do the best, the most important piece of work I have ever done.”