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Grammar—The Root Canal of Writing?


Today we’re taking a trip to the dentist, going to extract a few teeth, no more than four, won’t hurt a bit...well, maybe a bit...We’re going to talk about grammar!

That’s pretty much how I used to think about grammar, like a trip to the dentist. It wasn’t until I started seriously writing that I realized I didn’t really know what I was doing. I wanted to be a novelist, but I didn’t know the basics of sentence structure! Trust me when I say that ‘Grammar Check’ is not an effective replacement. But don’t let me give you the impression that learning grammar really is painful—it’s not. And it’s SO worth it.

With understanding comes great power. You want to be a writing wizard! For starters, it allows you to write with clarity. And, above all, clarity is king. ‘Confuse the reader, lose the reader.’

To me, this is your first mission. Can you write so that readers understand? Sounds silly, I know, but many people starting out think that writing should be flowery and full of adjectives and adverbs. That’s not true at all! One mentor I had said ‘adverbs add nothing’—cut them. (Caveat: In most cases he’s right, but I have seen some writers use them to great impact, which brings me to my next point.)

Knowing the rules of grammar allows you to selectively manipulate and break the rules in order to create an effect. You need to be aware of not just what you are writing, but how you are writing it. Grammar is the precedent to style.

Take an action scene. Using short paragraphs and sentences you can increase pacing and tension.

Jack spun on his toe. His Glock chugged. Bullets punched through the windshield. Still the Porsche accelerated toward him. 

That same sentence could be written as: ‘Jack spun on his toe, his Glock chugging, bullets punching through the windshield of the Porsche that accelerated toward him.’ They both work, but they are different. In the first version, actions happen one after the other, while in the second, it seems to happen all at once. Same words, different grammatical structure for two different effects. Take a look at one of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. He makes an art of short, simple sentences.

Similarly, a long, convoluted sentence can slow the pacing down; it can be thoughtful or introspective, or perhaps create a sort of melody that rises to a climax, but you had better know where to put your commas and semicolons.

Another example of breaking rules for effect is using lists. The usual way of creating a list would be to say, I’m going to buy: games, cards, and marbles. If you want to give the reader the sense that you’re buying even more, you could say, I’m going to buy: cards, games, marbles. I removed the ‘and’; without it , there is the sense that the list continues. If you want to do the opposite and give the sense that you are very specifically ONLY going to buy a few items, you could say, I am going to buy: games and cards and marbles. No commas and more ‘ands.’

These are a couple of examples. They are small choices but that’s the business of writing. Small choices write your book.

There, now that wasn’t too painful, was it?

If you want to learn more about grammar, borrow a copy of ELEMENTS OF STYLE by White and Strunk from your local library branch!

Michael Stewart is OPL’s  first official writer in residence for teens and tweens. Michael likes to experiment by combining social media with storytelling. He's both traditionally published and indie published. He writes middle grade through to adult novels, graphic novels and new media projects across many genres.