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 #2 Refuse to be a grammar bigot. (Or what did that adverb ever do to you anyway?)

Tip #2 in the 52 Ways Not to Get Published Series


Adverb (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am amazed at the number of times I’ve heard that one should never have more than two “ly” words on one page.  Writer’s workshops, books, tutorials and web pages have all expounded this simplistic piece of advice to the novice writer.

Most of my amazement centers on the fact that it’s always worded just like that—‘avoid “ly” words.’  Um, those are adverbs (usually.)  Perhaps if you don’t know the basic parts of speech, you shouldn’t be giving out advice on writing.  Just a thought.

This “rule” is also blatant discrimination against an entire group of perfectly legitimate words.  Adverbs fill an important function in our language, yet they (along with their close cousins, the adjectives) are anathema to writing instructors and editors throughout the English-speaking world.

I get the point—by avoiding the over use of adverbs, writers are forced to choose stronger and more evocative verbs.  But why should verbs have all the fun?  Sometimes, verbs just can’t do the job alone.  “I tip-toed across the ice” evokes images of me subsequently on my backside.  “I stepped gingerly across the ice” may actually get me to safety without major mishap.  Thank Webster for that adverb!

When you read classic literature, you find many of the great authors of history wove their prose like a tapestry with threads of many colors.  They crafted vast sentences that seemed designed to be hung on the wall and admired.  In today’s world of instant gratification and text messages, we are expected to make our point in the most clear, concise method we can manage.  Modifiers must pay the price.

Granted, “Jesus wept” is commonly considered not only the shortest sentence in the Bible, but also the most powerful.  But were it surrounded by sentences of similar construction (Mary birthed, Eve ate, David romped, God scolded…) one of our most widely read texts of the western world would read like a Dick and Jane textbook.  While a host of Sunday school children would delight in their easier scripture lessons, I doubt many others would find religious inspiration.

Those of us who are following the path toward non-publication have the freedom to cast off the restrictions that published authors are bound to follow.  We have the entire playground of written language in which to seek our recreation.

For a writer’s greatest tools are words, and there is often little difference between a tool and a toy.  Words are our toys.  We should be allowed to play with them.  All of them.

(Unless I have miscounted, 7 “ly” words were used in the construction of this blog post.)

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Tip #1 Never submit anything for publication. (or you cannot fail what you do not try.)

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter ...

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the Easter Egg Roll at White House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tip #1 in the 52 Ways Not to Get Published series

When expounding the trials and tribulations of breaking into the publishing industry, people like to use JK Rowling as an example of tenacity.  Apparently, her agent sent Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to 12 publishing houses. It was rejected by each prior to being picked up by Bloomsbury.

I’m sure people like to share this statistic in the hopes that it will be encouraging to the new writer.  But let’s face it, I’m no JK Rowling.  I have no delusions that anything I write will become the cultural icon that Harry Potter became.  If even Ms. Rowling struggled (although I’m betting that most published writers would not see a dozen rejections as much of a struggle,) what hope is there for me?

I think there is this fallacious theory floating around out there that if you have your writing rejected enough times, you eventually become immune to the rejection.  Really?  Rejection hurts.  I don’t care how many times you experience it.  You might learn to take it less personally, but that doesn’t lessen the sting.

The only foolproof way to avoid that sting is to avoid the chance of being rejected.  As long as I have not submitted my work for publication (or to solicit an agent, or for critique, or to writing competitions…) I can be secure in my fantasy that if I were ever to allow the world to see my creation, it would be an overnight hit.  If nothing has shattered my fantasy, I have in my hands a best seller, a story that will be quoted and alluded to for centuries to come.  I can be the unrecognized author of a modern day Beowulf.

Yet as soon as I put myself out there and face the risks of rejection, reality will strike.  I will be just like hundreds of thousands of aspiring writers–slightly better than some, but far worse than many.  The chance that I, amongst all those novelists, will catch the eye of an overwhelmed editor, is somewhere in the vicinity of nil.  Why chance it?

So, dear reader, I implore you, follow this foolproof method.  If you never read another of my postings, you will be safe with this one.  Never will you have to endure the pain of failure if you keep that manuscript tucked away in a dark closet or password protected on your home computer.  In fact, the safest thing would be never to take that brilliant story idea and write it down.  But then, what’s the fun in that?

(For more detail on the story of JK Rowling’s experience in the publishing industry, read The JK Rowling Story from the June 16, 2003 edition of The Scotsman.)

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