Is Your Obsession With Grammar Hurting Your Writing?

Sometimes, proper grammar makes writing worse. Find out how, and how to avoid it, on bettysbattleground.com

As many of you are already aware, writing is a very important part of my life. If you check out the tagline, this blog isn’t just about PTSD and mental illness, it’s about living and parenting with PTSD. Living and parenting with PTSD means self-care, at least it should. And for me, self-care means devoting time each day to writing.

I’m saying all this, essentially, to justify what may seem like an off-topic post. It might be totally off-topic for you, but for me, and for recent guest writer Brandi Kennedy, writing is very much intertwined with life with PTSD. Today, the aspect of writing I’m going to discuss is grammar, and whether proper grammar equals good writing. If you think the answer is obvious, I urge you to continue reading. You may learn that the issue is not as black and white as we were taught in grade school…

Is Your Obsession With Grammar Hurting Your Writing?

A rigid obsession with writing can sometimes make writing worse. Learn more on bettysbattleground.com

First, a disclaimer. It is absolutely necessary to understand the basic tenets of grammar for the language in which you plan to write. I’m not saying you need to be able to teach it to other people…Hell, I’m not even sure that I could walk into a class right this second and competently teach grammar to other people. You do, however, need to know what you’re doing. Basic mistakes, like the infamous your/you’re or their/there/they’re errors, can really screw up what may otherwise be a decent piece of writing. If I read an improper “there,” I mentally file that story as “not very good.” After that, you pretty much need to be writing on the level of Ken Kesey in order to redeem yourself. On the other hand, if you’d done some basic proofreading, I probably would have been less judgmental.

So I am not arguing a case for ignorance. Know your stuff. Know it well enough to do it, if not to teach it to others. But don’t make the mistake of getting so caught up in the rules of grammar that you ruin your writing just for the sake of being correct.

When Good Grammar Indicates Lack Of Confidence

The truth is, a rigid obsession with proper grammar often indicates the opposite of what the person wants you to believe: she’s not, in fact, as certain as she seems. If a writer– or worse, an editor–is nitpicking over the smallest grammatical infractions, it may indicate that she is not confident in her ability to write well.

Good writing is not just about knowing where to place your semi-colons; it’s also about creativity. The ability to be flexible is a strength when it comes to creative writing. By the way, I consider “creative writing” ┬áto be almost any form of writing, not just fiction, poetry, and playwriting. Any writing that is meant to engage an audience should employ creativity, storytelling, and a touch of ingenuity–whether it’s a novel, or a piece of investigative journalism.

Creativity isn’t only about shaping an engaging story. It’s also about writing in a way that pleases the reader lyrically. People often conflate the word “lyrical” with music or poetry, and sometimes even with terrible writing. Actually, all writing should be lyrical. Humans are rhythmic creatures. Why do you think we love music and dancing so much? But we also like writing that employs good rhythm. This is often described as “flow.” That can be created through sentence variation, but it also sometimes requires a writer to bend the rules of grammar just a little bit.

You Must Know Grammar To Bend Grammar

I touched on this a little bit above, but I can’t emphasize it enough: you must understand the rules of grammar if you’re going to bend them. Writing in colloquialisms can be a great way to add flavor to a work of fiction, but if you just flat-out write the way you talk, there’s a good chance the story will come out sounding unprofessional.

I’m not going to get into Ebonics and other cultural slangs, because that’s enough for a whole post on its own, but there’s a really interesting history behind those styles of speech. Ebonics in particular, which today is associated with Black American street culture, has its roots in social rebellion. Black slaves had their own ways of speaking, which often incorporated their native languages with English. Eventually, this developed into the dialect–or distinct language (the jury’s out on this one)–that we now know as Ebonics. A Black professor coined the term in the hopes of helping people understand all of these kids were not ignorant, but choosing a linguistic style different from that of the oppressor.

So I’m not going to say that Ebonics, for example, is “wrong,” but I will say that if you want to write in modern standard English, you need to know the rules of modern standard English before you can break ’em. Once you’re comfortable with the rules, feel free to shake them up for the sake of sound and storytelling. Just make sure you’re doing it intentionally, and with a knowledge of the rule you’re breaking. Otherwise, it will show, even if you don’t think it does.

What To Do If You Encounter A Grammatically Rigid Editor

It’s bad enough to read writing that is so chock full of “with whoms,” and “for examples” that you want to tear out your eyes half-way through, but what about if you find yourself working with an editor who is placing her rigid obsession with grammar into your writing?

Hopefully, if someone gets to the point of being an editor, she will have enough grammatical competency to avoid being so overly rigid, but every once in a while this kind of person slips through the cracks. If you’re very unlucky, you might be stuck working with one. That’s not going to be easy. For people who truly love writing, our stories are precious. It can be hard to watch even the best editors take apart our work. Imagine going through a similar process, but with an editor whose obsession with grammar causes her to butcher the flow of your writing.

It’s hard to say what to do in this situation. Working with an editor is a fine balance. It’s even more difficult if you hope to write for his publication again. I wouldn’t call myself an expert on editor relations. Or any kind of relations. (Here’s where PTSD rears its head) But my inexpert advice is to take a stand, but not too rigid of a stand. If his grammatical obsession ends up changing the meaning of something you’ve written, or changes the flow enough to intrude upon the reading experience, definitely say something, and stand firm. But if it’s something that doesn’t significantly detract from your piece, or could be argued to have bettered it (even if you don’t think so), then let it slide. Other writers may say something different, but that’s my opinion. At least today.

Storytelling Trumps Grammar–Always

Can I just make an aside about how much I hate the fact that the word “trump” has basically been ruined forever?

Anyway, grammar is important. Storytelling is more important. If your obsession with technical accuracy takes the reader out of the story, or makes the piece a chore to read, you’re not using grammar correctly. Grammar is a tool, not a boundary. Don’t just throw the rules out the window–at least not until you have an intimate knowledge of how they work–but don’t let them hinder you to the point that your writing sounds stiff. Even if you think it’s making your work sound professional or disciplined, a stubborn fixation on grammatical rules actually makes you look uncertain and less-than-competent.

What do you think? Should we always follow the rules of grammar, no matter what? Do you agree that creative flexibility is an asset in writing? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

And please don’t forget to share!

Til next time.

5 thoughts on “Is Your Obsession With Grammar Hurting Your Writing?

  1. Sounds like you took some classes. I basically came to the English language through reading. I was a terrible student with an awfully stressful home life that led to a lifelong case of P.T.S.D. strength anxiety. F’s and D’s toward the end. I dropped out because I couldn’t manage sitting in a classroom full of warm human bodies. Oddly enough, a job I could handle was working in abandon cemteries for about six years. There was this one cemetery that was out toward the coast. Next to a long, stretch of silence and pavement. Just shutting off the engine of my truck and feeling this cooling, lonely sea breeze flowing around me made me relax. I never saw or felt any ghosts, though a ground squirrel retrieved an old Civil War coffin handle on a rock in a cemetery I was working in and left it for me next to the gate.
    Anyhow, I became a terrible screen writer. But this terrible screenwriter wrote a screenplay about his addiction to alcohol, and turned it into a horror story which, on my first outing, placed first for best horror short. The next year, it placed in the top five out of three thousand. I went to this dinner in Beverly Hills. I was a nervous wreck.
    My P.T.S.D. kicked in overdrive as I sat amongst all of these clean, well mannered folks. I was shaking in my boots and had to go to the bathroom to inhale my secret stash of valium . My biggest fear was of winning because I would have to stand in front of all these well intentioned people and bathe in my shame from the past abuse of my childhood. I breathed a sigh of relief when I lost.
    What I kick myself for, when I look back on that moment in time, was the dinner’s guest speaker and honoree was none other than Stan Winston. The designer of The Terminator, Preadator and the Jurassic Park Dinosaurs. Even though I lost to a girl who never showed to collect her trophy, I could have just walked over and introdcued myself and most likely I would be a working screenwriter today. I had several stories that had placed in the festival, the year prior. I just couldn’t make eye contact and carry a conversation with this amazing man who sadly died from cancer four years later.
    Damn you, P.T.S.D.

    • Hi Steve, thank you for sharing your experiences with me. I certainly know what its’ like to have regrets related to missed opportunities due to mental health issues or other reasons. I have my own host of them too! But I think what’s important to focus on is what you can do in the future. Who knows what would have happened if you’d talked to him. Maybe you would have gotten a job, but maybe you would have only gotten a handshake, right? What you do know is that you can still try today. I love writing as a career for those of us with PTSD because we don’t have to go out into the world as often. We get to hide away much more than with other careers, haha!

      Also, to address you initial statement: I also learned grammar from reading. I do have an English degree and an MFA in writing, but I was able to bypass the grammar classes by taking a test. And I actually think that, in many ways, learning grammar by reading is far better than learning in a classroom as it affords you the opportunity to see that flexibility I was talking about in action. When you learn the rules in a classroom, often that’s all you get: the rules. When you learn them from reading the greats, you get to learn the rules AND their applications AND the best ways to break them. The one downside is that, at least for me, it means I know the rules but can’t always articulate them or teach them to others. That’s what grammar guides are for, I suppose. Almost anything you can learn in a classroom, you can learn from home. Especially in this age, where we have online classes as well as books!

      • Betty,
        Thanks for the great reply. I’ve been working in therapy with a psychologist who is female and has helped me tremendously. She was a mute as well as a multiple, or as they are called today, D.I.D.’s. She is amazing to me, as you would never guess she was a trauma survivor.
        When I went in , on the scale of1-10 , I was about 14. I’ve never had the trauma nightmares like you’ve had, which sounds terrible. It’s amazing to me what the human body, especially the circulatory system and the poor old heart that runs everything, can tolerate with such high levels of pressure. I took my blood pressure about seven months ago when I got my cuff and nearly passed out when I got a reading of 160 over 127. And that was just sitting.
        I’m surprised you could actually get through college with such extreme anxiety. Or was it that the guy who tortured you gave you the P.T.S.D.? At least you have those esteemed feathers in your cap.
        Couple of things I would recommend to anybody reading this response. I have lowered my blood pressure naturally. Never taken blood pressure medication, though my therapist is on it and trying to get off of them. But of course her blood pressure sky rockets once she stops taking it. I am now down to 123 over 88. I would definitely buy a blood pressure cuff and get it checked at a doctors office and also have them show you how to properly use them.
        I’ve also used belly breathing to relax my lower abdominal muscles. Under recommendation of my therapist, I started with twenty belly breaths, laying on the floor, with both hands on my chest. I would count each breath by raising a finger and when I got to the tenth finger I would start the second cycle. I am now up to fifty and do them every day. In the beginning, my stomach could not relax so it was like breathing into a metal cage. It took a while.
        One of the reasons I discovered why I was having panic attacks is because there is a point where I stop breathing. Which increases anxiety. Which in turn starts shallow breathing, which starts the flight or fight response. So now when I feel anxiety coming on I check to see if I’m breathing deeply and it can stop the panic attack in its tracks. This took a while as I have been doing this for about six months now but is worth the practice if you are willing to give it a try.
        I also had to get down to a four on the scale of 1- 10. I got through the bottle neck of anxiety, which is a five. Took quite some time to achieve this. The problem is that I have tolerated such extreme levels of hypertension, being calm for prolonged periods of time made me extremely anxious. So it was this prolonged game of ping pong with coffee, cutting back, going back to what I had before. It takes time.
        Learning to tolerate calm is difficult for me. Not sure if anyone can relate to this. I think it is called homeostasis, the desire to return to a familiar state of existence. And the reason I would drink another cup of coffee is because having such high levels of anxiety is exhausting. It’s like speed walking with out moving. I used to think anxiety gave me energy when it actually was draining me.
        I refer to the panic mode of thinking as second brain behavior. It overwhelms the first brain behavior, which to me is the brain that we use to go to the bank or walk out to the mailbox, which, believe me, used to be extremely difficult. This hyper-vigilant mode of thinking is no longer necessary, though it saved my life during the first 18 years of living with a sociopath. But the coding is in the cells and tissue and is hard to change because I believed I had to have my filters opened wide to take in as much info. as possible. That’s why it’s hard for me to be social. I’m taking in large amounts of info., consciously and subconsciously and therefore am overwhelmed .
        I take Hawthorne berry, Valerian, Quercetin, and celery seed capsules. This seems to have helped with lowering my blood pressure. Exercise is good but be careful because I found that being a survivor of traumatic abuse for 18 years, led me to self abuse with workout programs and diets. I try to keep it simple and humane.
        I hope this wasn’t too much info. I have been there with the horrible results of P.T.S.D. which led me to live a very reclusive life. I now live in a neighborhood, which I never saw myself doing as I needed extreme amounts of seclusion and isolation to get through life. Thanks. You have lived an amazing life and you have survived. Thanks for the work you’ve done wit the website and I look forward to future blogs.

        • Steve, thanks again for your thorough reply. To answer your question about how I managed all the school, I did have a lot of flip-outs during the first couple years, then I started taking heroin. Not that I recommend heroin, but that’s what got me through school. In some ways, I’m glad I went to school, but in others, I think the United States academic system is a scam. At least for the liberal arts. I don’t know. I’m undecided about many things. But one thing that’s certain is the awesomeness of belly breathing! Deep breathing can certainly help keep you centered and help reduce anxiety or panic attacks, like you mentioned. I never considered the blood pressure aspect. I don’t think I have a blood pressure issue though, mostly because of my vegan diet. Congratulations on your strides forward ­čÖé One step at a time!

          • Elizabeth, you know, you do what you have to do. I was talking to my therapist about addictive substances and she was mentioning that she can diagnose a person’s mental state on what they use. I used alcohol to calm myself at night because I was a massive coffee abuser. I once took my blood pressure after I had a drink and it went down to 117 over 73. Then it would go back up to 145 over 96 or higher. Yeah, unfortunately getting a degree is such a millstone about one’s neck. During the seventies things were much fairer. College loans were not a lifelong cancer of debt that it is today. Unfortunately I came of college age in the middle of the eighties so shit out of luck.The trickle down theory basically should have been an image of the wealthy urinating on the dying middle class. Anyhow, good for you. Keep on keeping on. Check your blood pressure if you get a chance. Saved my life.

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