Why Grammar Matters: An Editor’s Perspective

I once heard that grammar is as important to good writing as bread is to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Without the bread—aka the boring, structural piece of your meal—you’re just left holding a mess.

A few weeks ago I attended a conference where there was a discussion about the importance of grammar. An attendee stood up and asked if having technical writing skills and underlying knowledge of grammar was important to being a writer, as she didn’t have an English major background. The panelists almost unanimously said no. One of the panelists went on to say that grammar was what editors were for, and the focus of the writer should be the craft of the book. 

A bit of time has passed since that workshop, and I’ve continued to think about what the panelist said. On the one hand, I don’t disagree with the statement. Understanding the subtleties of plot, character growth, and story arc are essential to being a successful author. Having a compelling narrative voice matters more than always knowing where to use an em dash. A person can have complete mastery over punctuation, parts of speech, and spelling, and yet not be able to create an engaging story. And yes, part of my job is making sure an author’s manuscript is polished and clean.

On the other hand, nothing looks worse to an editor than a manuscript riddled with errors. It not only demonstrates a lack of knowledge, but also a lack of care. If I receive a submission that is full of blatant mistakes, the story will have to be the most incredible thing ever written to avoid a rejection. I will have to be so swept up by the protagonist and the journey and the world that I ignore what is going wrong with the actual text on the page. And let me tell you, so far that has never happened.

Whether you are an editor, a reader, or a writer, you can understand how hard it is to look past typos. They distract you from what really matters: the story. I am perfectly willing to forgive a misused apostrophe or a missing article or a handful of misspellings. We are all human, and we all make mistakes (especially at 90K words and with the questionable technology that is spell check). I know I have made and will continue to make mistakes on this very blog.

But grammar is important. Sentence structure is important. Being a good storyteller and a good writer are two very different things, and what sets them apart is your control over the English language. A brilliant idea can not be captured brilliantly without a strong writing foundation. It may have “promise” or “potential,” but that does not equate into publication. In the writing world, execution is just as important as ideation.

All of that being said, I do want to acknowledge the point about the role of an editor. As I noted, a part of my job is to put semicolons in the right place and make sure a manuscript uses the Oxford comma. Copyeditors and proofreaders in particular are experts in the fields of grammar and structure. We do not expect perfection at the submission stage, but we do expect to see work that is written well. Knowing your clauses from your conjunctions may not be what defines you as an author, but it is what allows you to become one in the first place.

This post is a plea to take grammar seriously. Our language changes and evolves so rapidly, and there’s nothing wrong with finding a unique way in which to chronicle your story. But knowing the fundamentals of grammar is, in my opinion, absolutely essential to your craft.

If you want to brush up on your own technical skills, check out some of the books below:

The Elements of Style

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

The Chicago Manual of Style: 16th Edition

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer

The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation: An Easy-to-Use Guide with Clear Rules, Real-World Examples, and Reproducible Quizzes

3 thoughts on “Why Grammar Matters: An Editor’s Perspective

  1. Mun Haerin says:

    Hello, I’m Haerin. Thank you for the informative post!

    While I’m not trying to become published, I am trying to improve my writing. English isn’t my mother tongue, but I do consider myself to be fluent in it, and like many other fluent speakers of the language I lack a strong grasp of its technicalities. Until very recently, nearly all of my grammar was used subconsciously, and every time a fellow English learner asked me why the words of a sentence had to be chosen and arranged in a certain way my only answer was a shrug and the words ‘because that’s just the way it is’.

    Eventually I became so embarrassed by this that I began reading up on English grammar from reputable sources, such as Oxford Dictionaries. Since then I’ve used my new-found knowledge to correct quite a few errors in spelling and punctuation – but I still don’t know how to properly explain the structure of a sentence. I know only the very basic terms, such as nouns and adjectives, but when it comes to the more complicated concepts (predicates and clauses, for example) I can only guess at what they might be.

    My dilemma is further compounded by the fact that I intend to pursue a degree in English literature. Nearly every literature test I’ve taken has preferred to quiz its test takers on literary devices and elements as opposed to knowledge of grammar, but I can’t shake off the feeling that this is something I’m supposed to know by now. Perhaps my self-doubt is worsened by my Oriental background. Here, poor technique, in any field, is taken as positive proof of incompetence.

    I’ve spent a lot of time feeling torn between gaining a solid grasp of English grammar and reading and analysing a wide variety of literary works (which is what the literature professors would seem to prefer). However, since many professionals who work with English Literature and Language graduates seem to expect a high level of knowledge of grammar from them, it seems prudent for me to hasten my own grammar education before I lose myself in literature again (I’m sure you agree?).

    I apologise for the length of my comment. I’d greatly appreciate a response, but of course you are not obliged to give one.

    Mun Haerin


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