Monday, September 29, 2008

Grammar: Emerging Authors Want To Know!

Dear Exalted Editors,

Okay, I've got a new question for you. I've always loved to write, and I like to think I have an 'ear' for grammar. However, I zoned out during those grade school lessons where they made you learn all the complex technical terms. Passive past participles? Double split infinitives? I have no idea what I'm talking about, can you tell?

This gets especially tricky when I'm participating in my critique groups. I'll say something like "you're using 'to be' verbs like 'was,' 'is,' and 'are' too much," or "you're using 'had' too much." I feel like I'd get more mileage if I could speak the language correctly. If you give me a basic grammar lesson, I promise I won't make paper airplanes or stare at the clock waiting for recess this time!

Signed, Not Partial to Participles

Lillie: I believe in keeping things simple and talk to clients the same way you talk to your critique group. You're getting the point across without intimidating other writers, who may have zoned out in grammar classes just as you did. The Guide to Grammar and Writing is an excellent grammar resource. One of the reasons it's among my favorites is that it is written in a simple, easy-to-understand style. Most of my editing clients are people who have a story to tell and who aren't necessarily interested in learning to write well. They prefer to get their ideas down and have someone like me correct the grammar. Your critique group may be more interested in improving their writing skills so they may be comfortable with more technical terminology.

Helen: Emma, here's the thing. No one in a critique group really wants to know the dangling past particle split infinitum tech-speak -- just like a client of mine would not want to get back a grammar lesson in the margin of her manuscript. If you have a friend who's using the "to be" verb too much, tell him he needs to use stronger verbs or she needs to use verbs with more action and color or this verb is too passive. Maybe you could even give a couple of examples of stronger verbiage. Don't worry about the correct grammar terminology. It sounds to me like what you want to do is target your comments so the writer knows what you're saying. So, I say, forget the terminology. Most critique group members don't care what to call something. They care about what they can do to improve their writing.

Dani: I'm going to throw my two bucks worth of promotion into the pot for GrammarGirl, who has a way of making it all seem much more understandable. Watch for a book review here sometime very soon. For now, check out her website by clicking here, but only after you leave a comment for Emma. We cannot leave her this distressed.


Emma Larkins has a dream: to make a living as a published author. Her publication credits include a story titled Midsummer Disc Dreams in the outdoor literary magazine, In the Mist, and an article called The Writer's Passion on the Feminine Aspects website. For more information, check out her blog and her website.

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  1. I agree. You don't need to know fancy terminology to get a point across. Doing it by example is best.

    Morgan Mandel

  2. Sure-fire way to turn people off is to get technical when you can put it simply. I teach developmental writing, and I can see the moment my waxing grammatically causes their eyes to gloss over, LOL However, when I get down in the trenches, with their papers and explain in a real, loose way, they GET IT.

  3. But this is an editing blog, so we shouldn't hesitate to use some terminology as long, as our examples our clear. I think a balance between the two is appropriate.

  4. I'm glad to know that the exact terminology isn't too important. I mean, I think I have a pretty good grasp on grammar - I did ok on the SATs, at least ;) I just can't for the life of me get my head around some of the finer technical points.

  5. Emma, I applaud your thirst for knowledge and drive to master your craft. But listen to your editors, they know of what they speak. Focus on creating a good story and telling it well. In fiction, the rules are bendy and the technical terms are not important.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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