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: