We have a gorgeous, hand-embroidered linen tablecloth from my mother-in-law that was made over fifty years ago in the country now called Senegal. The back is so perfect you could almost cover the table wrong side up. There is not one thread out of place.
It is the excellence of the underside that makes the front so magnificent.
Like the embroidery of our heirloom tablecloth, well-written prose stands out and can’t unravel. It begins with clear, concise, and grammatically correct phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. Although the underside of your writing tapestry remains unseen, it is essential to a good, tight piece of art on the side your readers do see.
The dirt on writing
I’ll let you in on a little secret: We all know how to write a decent sentence. After all, what do you need? A subject, a predicate, a noun, a verb. Can it get any easier than that?
Well, no. But it can’t get any less interesting either.
You’re probably about to tell me that you do write complex sentences and I should bug off. However, there are many grammar pitfalls when it comes to more nuanced writing, and they aren’t pretty.
Making grammar faux pas reduces your readers’ confidence in both you and your ability to deliver what you have to offer.
To be perfectly honest, most online writing is pretty mediocre, and you can probably get away with good-enough writing. But do you really want to be mediocre? Wouldn’t you rather be ambrosia with crème Chantilly instead of potato salad with mayonnaise?
Furthermore, if you want to break into the world of books (especially non-digital ones), you need an extra edge that will get you to the publishing summit.
Grammar is that extra edge.
Ask not what you can do for grammar, but what grammar can do for you
Now before you faint or hit Delete, listen up and stay with me. Grammar is the invisible ingredient that makes your writing more sophisticated. You will be taken more seriously by your readers, your subscribers, your prospective buyers, and, if you’re thinking of publishing with the Trades, those all-important agents and in-house editors.
People reading your books might not even be able to put their finger on why your writing stands head and shoulders above everyone else’s, but they’ll know you’re special. That’s the magic of grammar.
Although by now you’ve probably figured out that I’m a huge proponent of proper grammar, I don’t believe in making people memorize big words such as pluperfect and past participle. Much of my own blog is dedicated to delivering grammar rules and tools painlessly, using hacks and easy-to-remember principles.
Why it’s important to write well
Poor writing is a nuisance. For your readers, that is. If you bog them down with distractions such as typos, improper usage of words, ambiguous meaning, and a dangling anything, they won’t bother trying to understand the point of your book.
Poor writing makes it difficult to say what you mean. If you don’t have a healthy grasp of grammar your writing might end up ambiguous. For instance, “My father, Achilles, is a real heel” means that I have one father, and his name is Achilles, while “My father Achilles is a real heel” means that I have more than one father, and the one named Achilles is a jerk.
Your writing will convince, inspire, sparkle, entertain, and deliver value. Seamless writing – where there are no unsightly grammar threads hanging out – will allow your prose to shine through. Writing with proper grammar enables you to get out of your own way so you can get your point across.
People will eagerly read your work. Who doesn’t appreciate good, strong sentences that make sense and don’t require extra time to decipher what the heck you’re trying to say? What a pleasure for readers! They’ll be knocking down your door for more.
Your own, unique voice will be pitch perfect. No one can hear your voice if it’s muffled by ungrammatical static.
What’s your grammar IQ?
Here are three problematic sentences. Read them and see if you can answer the questions. (When I say “grammar,” by the way, I’m including the whole nine yards: spelling, punctuation, diction [word choice], syntax [word placement], etc.)
- The mad scientist will eat poison and die. Is the mad scientist both homicidal and terminally ill, or suicidal?
- After pooping on the street, I cleaned everything up and put my dog back on his leash. What is wrong with this sentence? (Hint: read this.)
- I am now going to lay on the floor. Who is speaking, a tired human or an uncomfortable hen?
And the answers are…
In sentence 1, correct placement of a comma or commas can change the mad scientist from a murderer who has a meal, kills someone, and then expires (eat, poison, and die) to an unfortunate man who has just had his last meal (eat poison, and die).
Sentence number 2 says that I have no idea how to behave in public – which is putting it charitably. Assuming I was trying to say that my dog was acting like a normal dog, however, I would need to change this sentence to: “After my dog pooped on the street, I cleaned up the mess and put him back on his leash.”
In sentence 3, the answer is the hen. For a human, the present tense would be “lie,” the past tense would be “lay,” and the future tense would be “will lie.”
Other, more subtle ways to look unprofessional
There are many other grammar violations that scream, “I don’t know what I’m doing!” Do not be one of these people. Instead, read the following:
- Who vs. whom. Use this cute hack: Substitute “he” and “him” for “who” or “whom.” If it’s “he” it’s who; if it’s “him” it’s “whom.”
- Principle vs. principal. This is actually one instance in which your sixth grade teacher’s advice was well placed. Remember “Your principal is your pal”? So is every other head of an institution, most important place, central idea, and original sum of money.
- Immigrate vs. emigrate. You immigrate to a country but emigrate from a country.
- Its vs. it’s. The first, counterintuitively, is possessive; the second means “it is.”
- Phenomenon vs. phenomena. The first is singular; the second is plural.
All of us have writing goals, and most of us want to be published. Having that extra bit of grammar knowledge can help you with both. Being able to handle complex diction and sentence structure will alert readers, book reviewers, editors, agents, and other gatekeepers that you stand out from the crowd of average writers they hear from every day.
Learning a few quick and simple grammar hacks will give you the sophistication you need to refine your writing. By nailing the grammar (non-)mystique you will be well on your way toward writing success.
Deena Nataf, a magazine and book editor with thirty years of experience, runs Bulletproof Writing, a website and blog dedicated to helping writers make their mark on the world through actionable posts on writing techniques, “comedy grammar,” and tips for the writing life. Click here for her free email mini-course, “5 Days to Better Writing.”