This blog post is inspired, at least in part, by a friend I’ve been “helping” with editing her manuscript. “Helping” is in quotation marks because frankly, I’m not quite sure how helpful I’ve been.
You see, I’m a grammar Nazi. Everyone tosses that phrase around, and I think it’s lost some of its impact. Let me be clear. I am a grammar fascist. A grammar dictator. A grammar tyrant!
|Taken from the Oatmeal. This comic is genius: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/semicolon|
Here’s my necessary disclaimer: my grammar isn’t always perfect. I still am learning new rules by the day. Certainly when I’m typing casually (like in this blog post), I slip up, either because I’m not paying attention or because I don’t care. This is a blog, people. Don’t get your knickers in a twist.
I also have to switch back-and-forth between two schools of grammar. At work, I use AP style, which is the style guidelines used by the newspaper industry here in the U.S. In the book publishing industry, most people use The Chicago Manual of Style. The differences are subtle, but they exist just the same. I know significantly more about the rules of AP style than I do Chicago Manual, and sometimes I screw them up.
Disclaimer aside, I think my grammar in general is better than your Average Joe’s. I used to tutor kids for the writing portion of the SATs (for my non-American readers, that’s one of the two main standardized tests American kids have to take to get into university), so there was a point in my life when I could give you encyclopedic definitions of dangling modifiers and parallelism issues. Unfortunately, I’ve gotten dumber in my old age.
I like to say that for me, correcting grammar is like a nervous tic. It takes every ounce of my willpower not to say something about a missing hyphen or inconsistent use of the Oxford comma. I’ve been known to rant about the death of the double-spaced sentence. I got in trouble at my last internship for editing a senior-level executive’s email without being asked (what? The grammar was wrong!).
The truth is, incorrect grammar really takes me out of a story. My reader brain shuts down at the first sight of a comma splice, and my snobby writer brain takes over. Do I think everyone reacts the same way? No – just take a look at Motorcycle Man by Kristen Ashley. It has a 4.5 rating and 17,695 votes on Goodreads, and enough run-on sentences to make my eyes bleed.
So I’ve started to wonder … When I rip into someone’s grammar, am I helping them or am I killing their voice? How much leeway should we give writers to break grammar conventions? After all, writing is about creative expression, not what some might consider arbitrary rules. I mean, I know I sometimes purposely break the rules for effect, particularly with sentence fragments. Here’s an example from my rewrite:
The only person she had left was Denya. Denya, who couldn’t be bothered to show up at the funeral of the woman she’d watched over since birth. <--Second sentence is a fragment.
I’m having the same inner debate about style. Writing style obviously has much more flexibility than grammar (with grammar there is clear right and wrong. Not so with style), and is also much more transient. If you compare the style of a book published during the early 20th century to a book published today, they will be vastly different.
I am perhaps shockingly conventional when it comes to writing style. I try to follow modern style, which means I hate on adverbs and adjectives and flowery prose. Use similes and metaphors sparingly, the style gurus of today tell us. Don’t use rarefied words.
My literary agent definitely subscribes to modern style rules. In his latest edits, he told me to kill the word “apoplexy” because it was too unusual and pulled the reader out of the story. Same deal for “maw” (that one made me sad. I love that word). I was also told to avoid using the word like, and to stop using so many damn metaphors (the damn was from me. Harry’s much too polite to curse). For example…
What I originally wrote:
Her face, pale as milk, glistened with tears, still wet. Sam ran her thumb over her mother’s damp cheeks. The skin was cool—too cool, like all the heat had drained out of it. Her fingers ran south to the pulse at her mother’s neck, or where it should be.
Bad Sally, bad. Here’s how I was asked to change it:
Her pale faced glistened with tears. Sam ran her thumb over her mother’s damp cheeks. The skin was cool—all the heat had drained out of it. Her fingers ran south to the pulse at her mother’s neck, or where it should be.
You tell me which one is better. Personally, I think Harry’s right. He usually is.
When I review other writers’ work, I critique with the same lens that my literary agent uses on mine. I’d like to think I can still appreciate that every (good) writer has his or her own voice, and that naturally results in differences of style. But I think that writers can go too far in terms of bucking convention. I’m all for experimentation, and when it works, it works. When it doesn’t, it really doesn’t.
I also don’t think today’s style rules are totally arbitrary – it’s not like fashion where pink is in on Tuesday, and Wednesday it’s all about plaid. Adverbs are lazy. I’m not an adverb fascist – I still think they have a place in writing, and I probably use too many of them – but I do think that excessive use can distract from the story, or come across as more telling than showing. I feel the same way about similes (though I am also guilty of simile abuse). I think everyone’s writing can be made better by simplifying.
But…maybe I’m narrow-minded. Maybe by trying to enforce the style rules I’ve been taught I’m suppressing expression and creativity. I have never been a fan of flowery prose (although I think mine is somewhat flowery? Am I crazy?), and maybe I’m incapable of objectively editing a style or genre that’s so drastically different from my own.
Long story short, I’ve started to second-guess my objectivity. I think I might be a writing bully.