I’ve mentioned before that my schooling was…let’s say, lacking in the grammar department. So when I started down the writing path, I played catch up by checking out every grammar book I could from the library.
However, soon after my new infusion of knowledge, a published author beta read my (now stored under a metaphorical bed) work in progress. She pointed out that my strict adherence to the grammar rules was strangling my voice.
What? I didn’t want to believe her. How would people know how
brilliant, er, talented, er, not-an-idiot I was if I…well, sounded like an idiot?
But a strong voice fills the reader with confidence. As readers, we trust that everything this author writes has a purpose.
We trust that this story and these characters and these sentences and words are all working together to create something bigger. With strong, confident writing, we’ll be swept along, not wondering if that sentence fragment was intentional or not.
It’s hard to reach that level of confidence with our writing and voice, however. Luckily, while I’m recovering from another surgery, we have editor-author Julie Glover with us to help.
Julie’s copyedited all of my novels, so she definitely knows her stuff. Today, she’s here to share her tips for how we can break grammar rules in a good way. *smile* Please welcome Julie Glover!
Making Grammar No-nos Work for You
Last time I got to hang out on Jami’s fabulous blog, I talked about using grammar to strengthen our voice. And now you’re probably wondering why I’m advocating no-nos.
As an avid fan of good grammar, I should be shouting to everyone who’ll listen to get their punctuation and word usage in perfect form and abide by the rules. Right?
But sometimes—sometimes—breaking the rules works on the page. Making grammar choices that would have your high school English teacher tearing out her hair and exclaiming you learned nothing in her class might add to your pacing, voice, and impact.
How do you make grammar no-nos work for you in your novel?
Step 1: Learn Good Grammar
There’s a popular meme stating that grammar is the difference between knowing you’re sh*t and knowing your sh*t. You definitely want to do the latter. Making egregious errors is not the same as thoughtfully choosing to break a grammar rule for effect.
We want surgeons to be able to use all their tools properly, and—to reach excellence—we writers should do the same. Grammar is one important tool, so do your best to master proper punctuation and word usage.
And if you struggle with grammar, get yourself a copy of Strunk & White, an online subscription to The Chicago Manual of Style (which I highly recommend), and bookmark sites like Oxford Dictionaries and Grammar Girl. You can also rely on the savvy of friends who treat grammar like their favorite furry pet and are always willing to talk about it. Put those people on speed dial for questions about proper grammar.
Step 2: Identify What Effect You Want to Create
Do you want to increase pacing? Emphasize a phrase? Give your character a quirk? Those effects are achieved in different ways.
Faster pacing might be achieved by a series of fragment sentences:
He raised the gun. Aimed at me. Clicked the safety. Hand trembling, anger brewing, life balancing. One twitch of his finger…
Emphasis might involve capitalizing words that wouldn’t normally be capitalized.
Mom expected me to wear my sister’s puke pink dress. As if wearing a hand-me-down to prom wouldn’t Ruin My Life.
A character quirk could include malapropisms, which are well-known phrases with incorrect words:
Bindy flicked seeds off her muffin with a sharp, manicured nail. “She has this totally self-defecating humor.”
I winced. “You mean self-deprecating humor?”
She waved off the mistake. “Whatever.”
I shook my head. Bindy couldn’t get a phrase right if her life depended on it.
Figuring out why you want to break a grammar rule helps determine which rule to break. Once you’ve consciously worked this out, it becomes easier to use these techniques as you write. You have a sense of what works on the page and what doesn’t, and you can adapt your grammar choices accordingly.
Step 3: Limit These Instances
Overusing any device in a novel becomes tedious. With constant rule-breaking, you lose the effect, tire the reader, and make it appear that you don’t know better.
Who wants to read an entire book of fragment sentences? That’s not a brilliant novel; it’s your teenager’s text conversations.
Think strategically about where to break the rules and where to refrain. Keep most of your grammar on the up-and-up, so the rules you break create the impact you desire. Think of those moments like targeted spotlights. Then the focus will remain on what you want the reader to understand.
Step 4: Get Feedback from Beta Readers or Critique Partners
Just because you think it works doesn’t mean that it really works. A broken grammar sentence might have seemed brilliant when you wrote it, but it’s actually confusing to a reader. You might create more speedbumps, rather than helping your novel flow.
More than once, I’ve had my critique partner write in my margin something like, “I’m lost.” And the last thing I want is to require my readers to consult a GPS to navigate their way through my novel. All of our grammar choices—proper and rule-breaking—should communicate the content and assist the flow.
Your best way to judge how you’re doing is to ask people you trust. If more than one person says they tripped up on something, you know you’ve got a problem.
Even as a grammar nut, I give you full-throttle permission to break the rules! But be careful when and how you do it. Make sure you’re creating the impact you desire. And use grammar to communicate the right information and tone to your reader.
Julie Glover writes young adult fiction, collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for the interrobang. Her YA contemporary novel, SHARING HUNTER, finaled in the 2015 RWA® Golden Heart®.
She teaches a YA character course for the online Lawson Academy and is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency.
Thank you, Julie! I love this post! Your tips are spot-on for what we need to break the rules with style. *smile*
At Step #2, we could come up with many reasons for why we might want to break the rules. Another one I thought of is point of view.
In deep POV, we should be writing the thoughts of our POV character. If our POV character is freaked out or trying to work through a problem, they might be more likely to think in sentence fragments or near stream-of-consciousness.
What did he mean by…? No. He wouldn’t. Would he?
I don’t know about anyone else, but I often don’t talk to myself with perfect grammar. *grin* So a too-formal approach can hold readers at a distance and prevent a deep POV.
With Julie’s guidelines, we’ll hopefully be able to find a comfortable balance between being a sloppy rule-breaker and an voiceless rule-follower. Once we’re comfortable with our writing and voice, confidence will shine through our story and engage our readers. *smile*
Have you come across stories that feel too stiff or voiceless? Do you think a too-strict adherence to the rules contributed to the problem? Do you agree that strong writing feels purposeful, rule-breaking and all? Which end of the grammar-rule scale do you tend to lean with your writing: too loose or too strict? Do you have any questions for Julie?Pin It