Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Writing Wisdom Wednesday: Mechanics Matter

As writers, we have a lot to think about.

Crafting beautiful imagery.

Creating believable characters.

Spinning dramatic storylines.

Maintaining an authentic voice.

And the list goes on.

One of the most important elements of creating notable fiction (and nonfiction) is utilizing proper mechanics.

Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most frequently overlooked pieces of the writing puzzle.

Now, someone out there is laughing at me. (Probably my sister…stop it Meg!) And that’s because my turbulent relationship with the comma is fairly well documented. Pull any essay from my Freshman year of college and you’ll wonder why I didn’t drop out of the English program and become an accounting major instead (I’m even worse at Math, unfortunately).

The day I got back the first essay of my college career, I was confused by the big letter at the top of the page.


Contrary to my first thought, it didn’t stand for Delightful.

Then, as though I wasn’t devastated enough, my professor informed me that the paper “should have been an A. But your mechanics were awful.” I’ll admit it…they were atrocious. However, it does take a special kind of skill to make 28 mechanical errors in about 3 pages.

I’d like to say that I learned from my (grammatical) mistakes immediately, but that would be a lie.

I went from acing high-school papers to being thisclose to failing. And I had as many excuses as I had misplaced commas.

I was taught to put a comma wherever you would take a breath if you said the sentence aloud. And I’m an asthmatic. So I take breaths A LOT.

Okay, maybe I can’t punctuate to save my life. But the content is sound. And that makes it okay. Content’s the point, right?

It’s a stylistic decision. “Once you know the rules you can break them.” Isn’t that what they say? Well, that’s just how I roll.

But that was the problem. I didn’t know the rules at all. And all the superb content in the world wasn’t going to get me an A on a paper as long as I was incapable of mastering the fundamentals of the craft.

The same applies to writing fiction. So, since I love lists almost as much as I love comma splices, I’ve compiled a couple of grammatical DON’TS.

1) Don’t underestimate the value of proper grammar. I’ve often heard about managers who will discard the application of a highly qualified candidate based on errors in the cover letter. I’m assuming for some, at least, the publishing industry has similar standards. The competition for aspiring writers is stiff. Don’t let something as fixable as bad mechanics kill your chances.

2) Don’t assume that whatever you have to say is so brilliant that your creativity and artistry will outshine your lack of technical precision. Improper punctuation can render the most powerful and moving prose confusing and nonsensical.

3) Don’t trust that Word’s Spelling/Grammar check can do the do the job for you. While I’d probably get sued if I said that the Grammar check is designed to exponentially increase the number of errors in your document, I will—from personal experience—suggest that you not hinge your story’s grammatical success or failure on the recommendations of a computer.

4) Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you don’t have to employ proper mechanics because “that’s an editor’s job.” If I hadn’t learned how to properly insert a comma, it’s unlikely my manuscript would have even been considered for publication. While I’ve never been an editor, so I can’t speak with certainty, but I would imagine that lack of attention to the technical business of writing comes off as laziness or ignorance. Besides, editors are extremely busy people (something I didn’t fully appreciate until I saw the publishing process from start to finish). Editors probably don’t mind clearing out the occasional slip up or typo, but their time is too limited to worry about teaching writers how to write.

I’m sure there are more points to make about the importance of grammar. But frankly, I’ve rambled on longer than I intended. In closing, however, I will assure you that it’s not impossible to become a Grammar Superstar. Is learning about it fun? No, not really. Can employing it be a pain? Absolutely. Will you find grammatical errors in this post? Perhaps if you look closely.

But if you do, remember, the mistakes are intentional. Again, that’s just how I roll.

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