26 June 2007

REPOST 10/21/2006 Grammar and punctuation...

List mail often sparks a writing-based post for me, and I know some people love them, so here I go again.

What are we talking about today? Grammar and punctuation.

I think we can all agree that a poorly-written book does no one a favor, but the big disagreement seems to come in WHAT constitutes a poorly-written book. Even the "resource books" and the professionals in education cannot always agree what is correct and what isn't.

Part of that stems from the fact that English is not a stagnant language. It changes over time, and many of the rules change with it.

At some points in time, people demanded a comma at the last join in a list (before the and); at others, they demanded you NOT use that final comma. These days, most publishers don't care which you do, as long as it won't confuse the reader and you do the same thing all the way through a book. Personally, I don't use the final comma.

I learned very common sense uses for semicolons. Recently, an educator postulated that semicolons were dead and only those of us trained to use them decades ago were going to continue. That's sad, since they do serve uses that other punctuation doesn't fill as well.

In addition, each publisher does have a chosen style, and no matter what you usually do, you should conform...at least somewhat to the style of the publisher you are submitting to. I once had an agent suggest I head off to Chicago Book of Style and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers to clean a manuscript. I did so, and was anal (as I usually am) about conforming to what they said to do. That was all well and good...IF the publisher I'd been submitting to used them as well. They didn't. So, I had to go back and make a bunch MORE changes that were in direct violation of CBS and SEFW. I haven't touched either one since that day.

Every author has his/her own favorite resources. I like sending people to Daily Grammar's archive of lessons, since they are no-nonsense and easy to follow. Others pull out CBS or Eats, Shoots and Leaves. There are a hundred books or sites you COULD recommend, resources that authors swear by, resources that do not agree.

Whatever you choose to use, I still maintain that you should always refer to a publisher's guidelines and/or style sheet. IF it disagrees with your usual source, you might want to consider changing some things.

Now, I fully admit that we walk a fine line. As authors, we want to have a "voice," which is sometimes (especially in first person narrative and in dialog) the voice of the character. That means sprinkling in a little bad grammar along the way to flavor the book.

FLAVOR! I cannot stress this enough. You don't want to drown the reader in the voice; if you do, you're risking jarring them or losing them. Neither is something you want to do, ideally.

There is a difference between "voice" and poor writing/editing. You aren't winning brownie points by insisting that poor grammar and punctuation is your voice.

This is a career, and like any career, you are expected to invest time in honing your craft, in learning correct form. You have to learn to write professional correspondence. You have to know the difference between a cover letter and a query letter, a synopsis and an outline. And, you HAVE to learn proper grammar and punctuation along the way.

Trust me, a good story will NOT be lost for the correction of grammar and punctuation. OTOH, you will certainly be saving yourself a world of anguish with readers who complain about your usage or stop reading you because of it.

I will state right now that not EVERY reader notices grammar and punctuation. Those that do get jarred out of the story by it. It is NEVER good to jar the reader out of the story. So, choose what deviations you make carefully.

And, don't make so many of them that you lose the reader in the process. For instance, if you are writing a first person...or a heavy brogue, you may want to choose a few words to place in voice all the way through instead of the whole langauge. Only one reader in ten is going to be able to understand "I kanna ken whot..." (without stopping to think about it...and that is bad news) whereas most will be able to read "I cannot ken what..." You're only giving them one odd spelling/usage to tackle in the latter.

An editor once told me that I get to break some rules, because I am an expert at the basics. If you haven't mastered the basics, my personal opinion is not to try to stretch to something further. If you are expert at putting it together in the first place, the story may survive a little individualism in the mix.

Then again, I may just run up against an editor like my first. I had picked up a certain style, based on who I was reading at the time. Now, just because something makes it into print does NOT mean the book establishes proper/acceptable grammar and punctuation. Suzanne's comment to me was, "Do you want to write a good book or a great book?" Great...of course.

What an established name gets to slip into a book bears little resemblance to what a first-time author can. That is an important lesson to remember.

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