Tip #7 Be sloppy with your grammar (or be sloppy, with you’re grammar)

Menu Grammar Check

Menu Grammar Check (Photo credit: tdstone)

Tip #7 in the 52 Ways Not to Get Published Series

Even the best of prose turns to junk once peppered with grammatical mistakes.

I’m not talking about those controversial grammar rules that are the topics of passionate debate among linguists, like whether it is acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition or the pros and cons of the Oxford comma.  I’m talking about clear blatant mistakes that make any good English teacher want to chew off her left arm.

Truly sloppy grammar takes practice.  The amateur simply uses incorrect subject-verb agreement, comma splicing, incomplete sentences, misused apostrophes, and misspelled words.  With time and intensive study, you may work up to misplaced modifiers, incorrect verb tenses, or interchanged homonyms.

What does grammar matter?  Most of the English-speaking world doesn’t remember the simple rules of grammar anymore.  We slap commas wherever we think we would pause when speaking. (Whoever came up with that malarkey?  Really?)  We write like a text message.   New editions of learn-to-read books have been reworked to reflect this new writing: “C Spot run Dick & Jane BFF LOL.”  Is anyone going to know if you used “which” instead of “that?”

Besides, the art of your craft is more than mere words strung together with punctuation.  A dance is more than a bunch of moves.  Music is more than notes strung together.  Your writing is your expression of something incredible.  The rules of the English language should never get in the way of your creativity.

In truth, I must admit I have a hard time being snarky and sarcastic about misusing language.  We’re writers.  Language is our tool, our instrument.  We should play our instrument, but we also have to take care of it.

A dancer trains her body for years in order to build a full movement vocabulary.  The composer relies on the fundamentals of music theory.  Writers train on the English language (unless they are writing in other languages, in which case they train in Spanish/French/Russian/Mandarin/Swahili/Hindi/Latin etc.  Of course, if you are writing in Latin, you can safely ignore the rest of these tips.  Your chances of getting published are already nil.)  We weave words like musical notes, building chords and phrases that sing to our readers.  Grammatical mistakes are discordant notes.

As the jazz musician knows when to harness discord, good writers know when to bend the rules of grammar.   Just remember, you must know the rules in order to bend them.  If your reader has to wade through confusion of grammatical errors to connect with your amazing characters, you’ve lost a reader.  The question is whether you’ve lost a book contract.

We all know that in the current publishing environment, editors are overpaid and underworked.  We are the artists; we can leave those details of grammar to someone else.  Let the editors earn their outrageous wages by fixing our mistakes.  It gives them something to do.

So, go ahead.  Abuse the English language.  Fail to proofread.  Give that editor an easy excuse to reject you.

If you haven’t read Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynn Truss, I highly recommend it.  I laughed. I cried. I called my 5th grade English teacher.

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Tip #6 Use Clichés (or clichés—the elephant in the room.)


An elephant for your room

Tip #6 in the 52 Ways Not to Get Published series

Using too many (too many being any) clichés in your writing is a foolproof way to end directly in File 13.  The use of a cliché marks you as amateur, uncreative, and unpublishable.

According to Merriam-Webster online, there are three common uses of the word cliché.  First is “a trite phrase or expression,” such as letting the cat out of the bag.  But this usage has a devious corollary: “also the idea expressed by it.”   So, once a concept has been transformed into a catchy phrase, the entire idea that inspired it becomes uninspired.  It’s a tragic phenomenon, but there you have it.

The second definition of cliché is a hackneyed theme, characterization or situation.  The Grimm brothers were infamously guilty of this kind of cliché with their repetitive demonization of stepmothers.  Yet we still love those Grimm fairy tales, as Disney’s successful reinterpretations (or misinterpretations, as some will argue) will confirm.  Then again, perhaps it was the Grimm brothers who started the cliché, which means that it is those of us who follow their lead who are guilty.

Lastly, Merriam-Webster defines cliché as “something… that has become overly familiar or commonplace.”  My past editor at the Durango Herald forbade the use of the word ‘paradigm’ in any article because he was so sick of seeing it.  In a similar vein, I am starting a campaign to deem recorded political phone calls cliché, if anyone would like to join this effort.

Yet there is an irony to clichés.  The first person to use a cliché is a genius.  The 5,032th person to use a cliché is a failed writer.  The 42nd person to use a cliché is a Douglas Adams fan.

The reason clichés are so attractive is the same reason they are so overused—they work!  If the imagery in the cliché weren’t evocative of a shared human experience, they would never be repeated and hence would never become a cliché.

Take the example of the elephant in the room.  Imagine a group of people in a small room filled with, of all things, an elephant.  Then that group of people finds a way to talk about anything but the elephant (elephant=big=difficult not to notice.) Since my imagined room is not in Africa or Asia, it also isn’t something you’d expect to find in the room.  The only reason that image has entered into the English vocabulary is because we can all identify with the experience of having a subject that is overwhelming and obvious, but no one is willing to touch it (with a ten foot pole, of course.)

The truth has to be that the publishing industry is actually invested in creating more clichés.  The only way to ensure more clichés enter our culture is to make sure no one is using the old ones.  No doubt it is a devilish conspiracy between the publishing industry and whoever is making money off of clichés (okay, I don’t know who that would be, but the point of conspiracy theories isn’t to be logical.)  As writers, we should stand against such tyranny and stand up for the maligned cliché.

Are you with me?

A challenge to my readers (all three of you): True confession, what is that one cliché you just can’t resist using, no matter how hard you try?

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