Style and Grammar – Rethinking Black and White

Rather than starting this blog post as I always do—with a groveling apology for my long absence (I’m sorry! Really and truly, I’m sorry!)I’m just going to dive right into it.

This blog post is inspired, at least in part, by a friend I’ve been “helping” with editing her manuscript. “Helping” is in quotation marks because frankly, I’m not quite sure how helpful I’ve been.
You see, I’m a grammar Nazi. Everyone tosses that phrase around, and I think it’s lost some of its impact. Let me be clear. I am a grammar fascist.  A grammar dictator. A grammar tyrant!

Taken from the Oatmeal. This comic is genius: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/semicolon
Here’s my necessary disclaimer: my grammar isn’t always perfect. I still am learning new rules by the day. Certainly when I’m typing casually (like in this blog post), I slip up, either because I’m not paying attention or because I don’t care. This is a blog, people. Don’t get your knickers in a twist.
I also have to switch back-and-forth between two schools of grammar. At work, I use AP style, which is the style guidelines used by the newspaper industry here in the U.S. In the book publishing industry, most people use The Chicago Manual of Style. The differences are subtle, but they exist just the same. I know significantly more about the rules of AP style than I do Chicago Manual, and sometimes I screw them up. 
Disclaimer aside, I think my grammar in general is better than your Average Joe’s. I used to tutor kids for the writing portion of the SATs (for my non-American readers, that’s one of the two main standardized tests American kids have to take to get into university), so there was a point in my life when I could give you encyclopedic definitions of dangling modifiers and parallelism issues. Unfortunately, I’ve gotten dumber in my old age.
I like to say that for me, correcting grammar is like a nervous tic. It takes every ounce of my willpower not to say something about a missing hyphen or inconsistent use of the Oxford comma. I’ve been known to rant about the death of the double-spaced sentence. I got in trouble at my last internship for editing a senior-level executive’s email without being asked (what? The grammar was wrong!).
The truth is, incorrect grammar really takes me out of a story. My reader brain shuts down at the first sight of a comma splice, and my snobby writer brain takes over. Do I think everyone reacts the same way? No – just take a look at Motorcycle Man by Kristen Ashley. It has a 4.5 rating and 17,695 votes on Goodreads, and enough run-on sentences to make my eyes bleed.
So I’ve started to wonder … When I rip into someone’s grammar, am I helping them or am I killing their voice? How much leeway should we give writers to break grammar conventions? After all, writing is about creative expression, not what some might consider arbitrary rules. I mean, I know I sometimes purposely break the rules for effect, particularly with sentence fragments. Here’s an example from my rewrite:
The only person she had left was Denya. Denya, who couldn’t be bothered to show up at the funeral of the woman she’d watched over since birth. <–Second sentence is a fragment.
I’m having the same inner debate about style. Writing style obviously has much more flexibility than grammar (with grammar there is clear right and wrong. Not so with style), and is also much more transient. If you compare the style of a book published during the early 20th century to a book published today, they will be vastly different.
I am perhaps shockingly conventional when it comes to writing style. I try to follow modern style, which means I hate on adverbs and adjectives and flowery prose. Use similes and metaphors sparingly, the style gurus of today tell us. Don’t use rarefied words.
My literary agent definitely subscribes to modern style rules. In his latest edits, he told me to kill the word “apoplexy” because it was too unusual and pulled the reader out of the story. Same deal for “maw” (that one made me sad. I love that word). I was also told to avoid using the word like, and to stop using so many damn metaphors (the damn was from me. Harry’s much too polite to curse). For example…
What I originally wrote:
Her face, paleas milk, glistened with tears, still wet. Sam ran her thumb over her mother’s damp cheeks. The skin was cool—too cool, like all the heat had drained out of it. Her fingers ran south to the pulse at her mother’s neck, or where it should be.
Bad Sally, bad. Here’s how I was asked to change it:
Her pale faced glistened with tears. Sam ran her thumb over her mother’s damp cheeks. The skin was cool—all the heat had drained out of it. Her fingers ran south to the pulse at her mother’s neck, or where it should be.
You tell me which one is better. Personally, I think Harry’s right. He usually is.
When I review other writers’ work, I critique with the same lens that my literary agent uses on mine. I’d like to think I can still appreciate that every (good) writer has his or her own voice, and that naturally results in differences of style. But I think that writers can go too far in terms of bucking convention. I’m all for experimentation, and when it works, it works. When it doesn’t, it really doesn’t.
I also don’t think today’s style rules are totally arbitrary – it’s not like fashion where pink is in on Tuesday, and Wednesday it’s all about plaid. Adverbs are lazy. I’m not an adverb fascist – I still think they have a place in writing, and I probably use too many of them – but I do think that excessive use can distract from the story, or come across as more telling than showing. I feel the same way about similes (though I am also guilty of simile abuse). I think everyone’s writing can be made better by simplifying.
But…maybe I’m narrow-minded. Maybe by trying to enforce the style rules I’ve been taught I’m suppressing expression and creativity. I have never been a fan of flowery prose (although I think mine is somewhat flowery? Am I crazy?), and maybe I’m incapable of objectively editing a style or genre that’s so drastically different from my own.
Long story short, I’ve started to second-guess my objectivity. I think I might be a writing bully.

15 Comments

  1. Well. I’m no grammar expert. And most of my knowledge about grammar comes from others–not from teachers. With that said, though. I try to use it in everyday writing: when I blog, answer emails, chat, or when I simply play a videogame. Text talk has always confused me. It do help that I have Grammarly’s add-on for chrome, and of course have a paid subscription to it. However, I found out pretty quickly that I couldn’t count on Word or Grammarly to catch everything. So I had to get some additional information from what they provided.

    Every writer is their own, and I guess your friend have some faith in you since they’ve asked you. Every reader is their own, as well. And I know that I can easily overlook some mistakes (mostly because I’m not aware it’s a mistake, but shhh. Don’t tell anyone)

    I don’t think you’re a bully. As long as you keep differences somewhere in the back of your mind, but still present when you critique, then you can be helpful either way. Like you said, work grammar vs publishing grammar is different, and you’re aware that you do it. I bet you do it deliberately sometimes. And with most things writing: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

    Plus, if your friend disagrees, they can always refuse to change it. I’m sure you’ll find a moment with your agent where he wants you to change something, but you feel it’s vital and then proceed to prove it’s vital. It might not happen often, but it probably will happen. It’s the same way with your friend. If he/she don’t want to change it, then they can refuse. Most times, we want what’s best for our stories, though. And it will take some time to make the big changes. I once decided to write a beautiful prologue. However, many friends/readers/people that know stuff, told me that it only dragged down my story. It took me over a year to realize they were right, and that’s just the start. I have a long way to go still.

    Long story short. I think it’s important to stick to grammar rules even at the risk of killing some stylistic flair, because if it doesn’t work–then it doesn’t work. Grammar Nazi’s are good at spotting that.

    1. I have never heard of Grammerly before! I will have to check it out.

      I don’t think people say this enough to you…it’s really amazing how good your English is. You legitimately write better (and have better grammar!) than most native speakers. Even things you don’t know, or get wrong, as soon as the concept is explained to you, you get it. That’s pretty incredible.

      ANYWAY, thanks for the valuable input. I do think I need to do a better job appreciating other writing styles, but I think I’m with you that grammar shouldn’t be sacrificed in the process.

      RE: your prologue – good on you for being willing to make the change, even if it took a year. Often the best writing advice is the stuff that’s hardest to hear. Lord knows I’ve been there (see rewrite for reference).

    2. Well. Grammarly is good for some things. Like, I’ve learned split infinitives and I have some concept of dangling modifiers. Plus it fixes most tenses, which is–according to Kevin–where I have most problems. However, it doesn’t do exactly what the site advertises it as. It’s good for me and a “quick edit”, but it’s far from perfect. I like it though. Especially the free add-on. :)

      I still have a long way to go, but hearing this from you means a lot. And I agree, it hurts to edit, cut and re-write sometimes. But you gotta kill your darlings, as Stephen King said. :)

  2. I doubt you’re a bully. I personally feel like I suck at grammar yet you never pounced on me for my mistakes. That has to say something, right? Okay… maybe not haha. It’s good to be a grammar nazi in a sense because it WILL help others improve. I wish to God I had a Harry on Freelander right now LOL

    Even though AP and Chicago Style are different, you still have a lot more experience than average joe as you said. As long as you’re not all “Rawr, you stupid idiot it’s YOU’RE not YOUR! Oh my freaking christ on a stick, you’re an idiot!” then how can you be a bully? And your friend is asking for help so he/she should expect you to be honest. You wouldn’t be doing them any favors if you said it was great when it really wasn’t.

    Just my useless two cents :-p

    1. Haha, but if you ever WANT me to rip into your grammar, I’m game! I get sick pleasure out of it. But I will say I think that kind of editing (proofreading really) is only valuable when you (you being a general you) have a near final draft. Otherwise, I’m just being annoying, not helpful.

    2. If I thought you’d have the time I’d add you to the list of people to take one final look after I have all my beta’s go through it. But you already have your hands for LOL I’m hoping by the time I get this to my beta’s I’ll have found most everything and then some of them might be able to find the rest.

  3. Each to their own. On my side, I admire writing which has vocab not commonly used or words which I’d have to dive to the dictionary for. Hence, the word “apoplexy” in there would’ve kept me, rather than repulsed me. Even “The Scarlet Pimpernel”, one of my all time favourite novels, had words which challenged my vocab, yet it was extremely well received, in more ways than one.

    Things which would pull me away from the story would be structural things like if the character is behaving way off for his/her personality constitution. It’s all subjective, I’m beginning to realise. For instance, a story I wrote at the age of 11 was submitted to the state’s Young Writer’s Award and won a merit cert. A year later, I entered the school’s Young Writer’s Award and tied for second place in prose. I look back on the stuff I had written and I can honestly say, if my writing had been based on grammar alone, I wouldn’t have had a whit of a chance in either competition. It was the substance in the story and the vocab that I used, for that age group, which pulled me through. And I know, from submitting my romance stories to my teachers in primary school, both had been the strength highlighted in my writing. Discussions were never about my grammar, though they did show me my mistakes. It was always about their curiosity on the characters’ motivations, how the story will progress and how pleased they were at the level of vocab in the writing. So I’m very surprised to hear of the change in modern publishing’s focus on word usages.

    As for styles, again, I think that’s subjective. Poetry has rules and conventions and yet it’s flouted all the time to give rise to some pearlers. As an aside, I prefer your first variation, but with some changes. I definitely do not gravitate towards the second para. That’s only because I prefer flowery. English, compared to Chinese, is not a pleasant sounding language. Hence the “old ways” of speaking it is beautiful to me, so I usually play around with words for the ‘sound’ and emotional impact rather than keep to conventions. Not that I have any choice, no teacher has really bothered to teach me conventions. Thus, I end up writing the ‘sounds’ I’d like to read and hear for myself. It’s also one of the reasons I can handle legal readings, because it can be flowery. No, you are not flowery LOL Not at all. Not to me, at least. I loved Paladin because of the feminist angle vibes and the purity of the characters but the writing was very succinct. Entirely in line with the Adventure genre market you had pegged it for.

    Law of Attraction: people will choose what speaks to their soul. Stay true to your vibe. I intend to stay true to mine. In a hundred years, none of this will matter. It only mattered that you lived and that the writing, that extension of you, was utilised to allow you to live. Whatever form that may take.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ovi7uQbtKas

    PS Things like sentence fragments, comma placements etc ARE very useful tools to know. :)
    PPS I didn’t see anything wrong with that Denya para. They ‘sounded’ great to me.

    1. I have always viewed words/language as musical, even when they’re in written form, and I think that’s where you and I are alike. But I think we jive to different tunes :) Probably just a preference thing – I tend to like alternating sharp staccatos with lengthier phrases. If that results in me coming across as succinct, fantastic, haha.

      FWIW, I agree that being a good writer is about having a good story, not having good grammar. A good example of that in action are my stories from college. Technically clean, but still horrible because the plot/characters just aren’t there.

      That video is awesome. I’m a bit of a “pedant” for sure, but I also think I have an appreciation for the whole “giddy euphoric bliss” of beautiful language.

      I think the lesson in all this is that there is a middle ground. But I still stick to my Picasso metaphor (*gasp* not a metaphor!) – I think breaking the rules works best when you know what rules you’re breaking.

  4. Btw that vid wasn’t put to say that you’re this ‘vile’ grammar nazi he’s talking about. It was to demo that this “style vs grammar” issue you’ve brought up is a divide that seems to be quite on-going in more circles than our Wattpad one.

  5. I wholeheartedly agree with you about how poor grammar takes away from the story. My rule is if there are more than 10 (obvious) mistakes, I stop reading. I compulsively edit my posts, other peoples posts, and any other articles I come into contact with. And of course, that’s not to say that I am perfect by any means, and I am sure that, even though I have checked this three times, there will still be mistakes. And while it is true that it is “just a story”, the English language was invented for a reason. And personally, I love seeing new words that I haven’t encountered before. I check the dictionary to see the meaning, and that interests me. I love learning new words.

    1. I am TOTALLY guilty of grammar mistakes in my train-of-thought writing (I don’t check these blog posts that carefully, or my replies to comments) but super duper anal in anything I “publish” or do for work. And I love words of the day! Never too late to learn something.

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