Proper Punctuation Versus Writing Down the Rabbit Hole
by Trista Cornelius
I once heard a writer say that he begins writing his books with one perfect sentence and lets it lead to the next perfect sentence until his books are finished. As a writing instructor, however, I always urged students to ignore grammar concerns until the end of their first or second draft, after all of their main ideas had been developed and put into place.
When do grammar rules and “correctness” matter in the writing process? Should first drafts be wild and free, or should you craft one sentence at a time letting subject-verb combinations direct your story?
Susan DeFreitas, whose book Pyrophitic will be available at the end of July, observes, “different processes have different effects.”
When Susan has a straightforward plot in mind, she focuses on making interesting sentences “one right after the other.” She says this process takes longer to draft but not as long to revise because it’s less about “following a line of thought down the rabbit hole, over the hill and through the woods” and more about steadily laying bricks that follow her story’s blueprint.
Susan most often writes sloppy first drafts and writes by hand to keep herself from editing. She then types the handwritten draft, assesses what she has written, and “only after the content is squared away” does she allow herself to “monkey with the language.”
Cari Luna, author of The Revolution of Every Day, says that, due to her professional experience as a copy editor, she writes rather clean first drafts by force of habit. She doesn’t worry about grammar until the polishing stage.
In Cari’s opinion, focusing on grammar too early in the drafting process can undermine creativity. “It’s too easy to focus on the nitpicky little details rather than the harder questions that need addressing in an early draft. Fixing grammar becomes a form of procrastination, allowing yourself to feel like you’re actually working on your writing.”
Sometimes it’s easier to look up the exact, right word than it is to figure out what comes next in your story. Then again, sometimes the exact, right word reveals what ought to come next.
Laura Stanfill, founder of Forest Avenue Press, echoes Cari’s point. “I’d definitely encourage new writers to keep with the story they’re telling and to avoid the impulse to check whether they’re doing it right, especially if checking means going online and getting lost in distractions.” However, she also noted there are times when correctness not only doesn’t matter but would not be the best choice.
In A Simplified Map of the Real World, Laura and Stevan Allred argue about whether “a mistake on the part of the character would come across as voice or come across as – gasp – a proofreading mistake.” In this instance, “one misogynistic character thought of all the local homesteads as being owned by the man of the family. So the Hallocks’ farm, in that character’s perspective, was owned only by Mr. Hallock, not Mrs. Hallock, so on the page it was Hallock’s, not Hallocks’. Can you show misogyny by where you place an apostrophe?”
This is an example of what so many English teachers say: “You can break the rules once you know the rules.” Obviously, Laura and Steven know the rules well and they’re using them to reveal the bias of a character.
This perceptive use of the possessive apostrophe is something I’d wait to figure out until my first draft was finished. I’d highlight the text in a different color to mark it for later. Otherwise, I might get stuck in the paragraph where the misogynistic character is first mentioned and stay there for hours or even weeks, pondering punctuation rather than working out the key scenes of my story.
Nicole Rosevear, a short-story writer and teacher, says she fixes little things like misspellings as she drafts because they’re easy for her to manage. The bigger-picture mistakes, however, such as unintentionally shifting point of view mid-draft, do not cause her to pause and start editing. These are “signs that the story and I are still figuring each other out, and since I generally don’t know the bigger-world things about the story in the first draft, I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with letting the big messy bits sit there until I figure out in another draft or two which direction is the right one for that story.”
Monique Babin, an English instructor, makes a fascinating point: Letting your draft be messy might be a sign of confidence. When she first started writing, she did not trust herself to leave something messy that she could fine-tune later. Learning to let the process be messy is something she’s developed with experience, and she believes her writing is much better for it.
I think the best advice is to save editing for a later draft. Get your ideas on the screen or page first, adjust the big things such as structure; then start fine-tuning. If for no other reason, this saves you time. Should you decide to delete a paragraph, a page, or an entire chapter while revising, there’s no point in having spent time correcting spelling, punctuation, verb tense, et cetera.
So, maybe the moral of this story is: Know thyself. If, due to procrastination or insecurity, you find yourself editing as you write, start freewriting sloppy first drafts. Try to write swiftly enough to outrun your internal editor. Be too quick for her to catch up with you and undermine your confidence. Know you can return later to tidy up.
On the other hand, if you’ve daydreamed about your story so thoroughly you know the entire structure, then crafting one perfect sentence at a time and pausing to get the words, tone, and punctuation exactly right will not cause you to forget what point is next.
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Punctuation have you perplexed? Seeking wise counsel on how to be grammatically correct? Send your questions for Trista to the VoiceCatcher website editors. If she selects your question to answer in a future column, you may receive a bonus: a free copy of a VoiceCatcher print anthology!
Trista Cornelius writes VoiceCatcher’s bimonthly column, “Dotting Your Ts and Crossing Your Eyes,” about the writer’s craft. This is the second article in her series about proofreading. Trista is currently on a leave of absence from Clackamas Community College where she has been teaching writing, literature and food studies. Follow her writing, reading and eating adventures here.