Don’t fret! Write! When to Ignore Grammar Rules
by Trista Cornelius
It’s the start of a new year. You have stacks of ambitious writing projects underway, and the last thing you need to think about right now is grammar. Right? Right!
There’s a time and place for “correctness,” for fretting about predicates and participles, comma splices and semicolons. However, now is not the time, not while you’re composing your first draft, getting to know your characters, exploring plot twists or discovering new rhythms and rhymes.
Anne Lamott writes in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life about “shitty first drafts.” William Stafford recommends lowering your standards. Peter Elbow separates the creative mind from the critical mind. Some friends of mine call the writer of the first draft “the mad man.” However you choose to describe it, self-consciousness about grammar rules hinders the initial drafting process.
However, I once heard a highly-regarded and accomplished writer describe his writing process as composing one perfect sentence, and then following that with one more perfect sentence, until the whole book is complete: no revising, no fumbling for insight, no sweating over comma rules.
I vacillate between feeling very envious of him and not believing him. Most writers don’t work this way. Most writers practice their craft just like musicians or athletes: regular effort with the intention of growing and improving. During that practice, writers take risks and experiment. They fumble, type bad prose or stiff meter; maybe they even suffer a few weeks of drab, pedestrian plodding along. However, that effort primes the mind and finger tips so when a great idea strikes, they’re nimble enough to hit the ground running.
Raymond Carver shared this story about grammar: “Evan Connell said once that he knew he was finished with a short story when he found himself going through it and taking out commas and then going through the story again and putting commas back in the same places.” This tells us that commas, semicolons, simple sentences or compound were the final concerns of this writer, the very last steps. Not the first concerns. Not even secondary or tertiary concerns.
The thing is, if you think about the construction of your sentence as you start to write it, you may forever be deleting and never get past the first two or three words. Trying to make that first sentence perfect may stifle the potential of what comes next. Besides, without knowing the meaning and sound of the second sentence, how do you know the first is perfect? And, ultimately, what is perfect anyway?
It’s the start of the New Year and renewed dedication to your craft; don’t let grammar concerns hold you back. Write on past them. Discover lively descriptions, unique plays on words, or Nascar-fast plot twists first. Come back to the grammar later, much later, when your conscientiousness serves to polish solid prose and engaging plot lines rather than inhibits your creative freedom.
This is the seventh in a series of practical grammar tips every writer needs to know by Trista Cornelius, English Instructor, Clackamas Community College. She’s both the best and worst person to share these tips with you. Best because she’s made all the mistakes herself and learned the hard way. Worst? Same reason!