New Feature for Self-Publishers—Lesson 1: Callie On Grammar
This is the start of a new blog category and series I’ll be writing in 2017 called Self-Publishing Lessons. The concept of this column is to do something constructive for the self-publishing community. Self-publishers need to appropriate traditional publishing’s few redeeming qualities, and that’s what everything here will be about. That’s what I know, so that’s all I can give. But it’s useful! We’re going to start by having a talk about grammar.
Who Gives Two Shits About Grammar, Really?
Too often we get distracted with futile debates over irrelevant subjects. An important thing to keep in mind for the self-publishing community as a whole—and any up-and-coming smutpunk writers in particular, don’t go making my genre look bad—is that we have to be able to compete with everything that is published anywhere.
As writers, words and syntax are our building blocks. Grammar has an essential duty and a sole purpose: to clarify. Traditional publishing has understood this, if not explicitly then innately, since the beginning.
Grammar is the element of language that turns those building blocks into ideas, thoughts, imagery—something comprehensible. Grammar is a tool for writers to ensure that the reader understands what the writer is trying to say.
If you’re not communicating ideas, you’re just making noise. If you are communicating ideas, you’re performing an act of telepathy by taking something that exists only in your mind and placing it into the reader’s mind. (Stephen King wrote about this far better than I could in his amazing little book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. If you’re a writer, read it.)
You don’t need to be a grammar Nazi (or grammar alt-write, as the vogue joke du jour goes). But you do need to understand when it’s most important to have your shit together grammatically, and in one way or another, that’s always. Rules don’t matter, but results do, and the rules ideally come from consistent results.
Grammar is essential to understand, but it need not be just rigorous rote learning. You use it in syntax every time you open your mouth, so most people have a better handle on it than many want you to believe.
Be a smutpunk. Trust yourself. You can grok grammar just fine, because you already do.
I know that a whole lot of people will have a whole lot of issues with that statement, and they will have a valid point. A lot of people are completely ignorant of the grammar that matters, and if you’re sitting there fuming at me because of it, just wait. I’ll be walking those people through as much essential grammar as I can to remedy their situation. Eventually, not today—for now, hear me out, and have confidence that any grammatical issues they or you may face, those issues are fixable.
I know grammar already? Whatchoo talkin bout Calliepress?
The so-called rules of grammar exist only to ensure that our language is effective. Language changes, and so does grammar, albeit more slowly. Technology is changing everything, and grammar is going to need to keep up.
What are the rules for using 🙂 in a sentence? Can you tell me?
Can you tell me how that has anything to do with grammar?
Don’t worry, that question was just a cheap segue. Emoticons really don’t have so much to do with grammar, yet. Those rules are slowly being written because 🙂 isn’t quite taken seriously as language yet, except by linguists and other experts in related fields.
I’m convinced that in a hundred years, if not ten (or three), emoticons, or whatever the equivalent pictographs are by then, will have rigid rules of grammar. And they will be rules that uptight establishment people will write angry blogs over. Some grammar Nazis will be “emoticon Nazis.” Blogs may be written by their minds alone on intangible internet paper that you can opt to have blasted instantly into your prefrontal cortex so it appears in your brain’s primary HUD, but that’s beside the point.
I might have to write that grammar myself, to be honest. Speed this evolution shit along, you know? It’s not as if pictographs can’t have rules, we just have a more abstract alphabet. Pictures are where written Chinese came from, and Hebrew, and hieroglyphics. They all have a grammar. If I didn’t hate emoticons, and myself for abusing them, due to my old grammatical prejudices, I already would have done. But I am ornery enough to take a stab at it.
We use emoticons and smileys and stickers to communicate, some of us, so there is already a grammar. Nothing formalized or rigid yet, but a real, inherent syntax, which is the important grammar. The kind of grammar that, when applied, theoretically ensures understanding in the reader or listener or viewer. A grammar that makes you realize when 🙁 it’s done 🙁 wrongly, just like in this sentence.
Grammar Lesson in that 🙁 Frownie Sentence
You know that you didn’t know why I put those frownie-faces there when you were scanning the sentence in context—not until you realized I did it just to demonstrate how things can feel wrong without rules. You got it, because you’re not stupid like traditional publishers and the worst of the grammar Nazis assume.
Initially, that’s why rules for writing came to be. If only they had stayed that way. Well…maybe that’s not such a great wish, after all.
And it’s better than just that: I broke a non-written grammar rule to demonstrate why the non-written grammar rule already exists. I used ‘bad’ unwritten ‘grammar’ effectively—if you understood me. Which you did. And in the same way, most people use ‘bad’ grammar effectively, and communicate well regardless.
In fact, some may argue that personal style depends on how, when, and why one breaks the rules. I will, and I do. Another subject for another column. That’s not baby food, so just keep it in mind for later.
That frownie sentence did commit another sin though, and that sin is another reason grammar’s actual “rules” are worth familiarity. It slowed you down in reading, it broke immersion, it interrupted the reader.
That is a cardinal sin that good editors are constantly on the lookout for, and even the greatest writers can only play with very, very, very carefully. Do not remind the reader that the reader is reading. In sinful terms, that’s not coveting your neighbor’s ass, that’s genocide.
[Note: I try to break this rule often and effectively in my more experimental smutpunk. I know I break it often. I think, at times, I break it effectively. At least sometimes. I hope.]
Reader immersion is the purpose of many of the rules of grammar, but it’s also a sin that writers can commit when they unthinkingly obey grammatical rules. How dare anyone end a sentence with a preposition! Well, it worked for my man Bartleby, who would prefer not to. Take the grammar dildo out yer ass and use yer noodle, why dont’cha.
It’s pointless rules like ‘never end a sentence with a preposition’ which give grammar a bad rap. I can’t tell you how many sentences I’ve read that were mangled because of that rule, it has to be close to seven digits. That rule is a prime culprit of otherwise nicely flowing, interesting paragraphs suddenly jerking the reader out of the book and screaming at them, “Look how good my grammar is! I am a good writer, of which you have just been given proof!” (See how ugly it gets, and how quickly? It’s comprehensible, but egads.)
[Note: Sometimes, you'll want ugly. Knowing the rules lets you know how to accomplish your desires.]
Judge your work on how well it communicates, not by the squiggly lines in Word’s grammar check or a plugin telling you something. And certainly don’t judge based on a never-valid, never-relevant error of academia whilst compiling “grammar” into a semi-cohesive body of truisms, maxims, axioms, and guidelines that people erroneously take as Gospel Truth.
That preposition rule is irrelevant to clarity in writing. All it does is add words and/or mangle syntax. Consider this paragraph my permission to end any sentence with any preposition which makes sense out of those you have to choose from. Unless that last sentence somehow confused you beyond reason, in which case, do whatever works for you, and bless your challenged little heart (but I recommend you take up knitting instead, and leave writing to the smarter people. You’ll get internet bullied if you publish, and I don’t want that for anyone.)
THE Rule of Grammar
The rule of everything, really: Do whatever works best.
Grammar is a tool in the box for making sure our writing reads well. It’s not the only one. If your work is a building, grammar is like a hammer or a saw. What’s really important: how your house looks and feels to live in, or which brand of framing hammer the builder used? Results matter.
I was extremely overbearing and annoying in that exchange, I know. No need to scold me. I self-scold often, and sometimes it doesn’t even get me off. But my mind had gone to this very topic, and if you read the exchange I had with HL Lola above closely, I’m willing to bet that you understood everything I intended to say with that hideous mangling of syntax.
Which was the whole point. To throw in a little first year philosophy, grammar is a sufficient condition for clear communication, not a necessary condition. What that means is, if one follows all grammar rules, clear communication is essentially guaranteed. It could be aesthetically foul, it may be contrived and byzantine, but the writer’s literal words will convey a literal meaning which can be understood by the hypothetical audience (and yes, we will talk audience someday soon).
But grammar is not a necessary condition of clear communication, as that insane little chunk of farcebook chat demonstrates. Proper grammar isn’t required to effectively communicate ideas. Again, there are no ‘smiley rules of grammar,’ and yet smileys communicate. They communicate, by a single character, in ways that straight text doesn’t easily do. They can convey a sort of timbre, like a voiceless ‘tone of voice.’
I hate you, you fucking son of a bitch.
I hate you, you fucking son of a bitch. 😅
You get? Mmm hmm. Got.
Final Grammar Thoughts for Now
It’s not that I think grammar is unimportant, quite the contrary. It’s hugely important. But it’s the concept of grammar that matters, not the finicky, Grammar Nazi, “Gotcha! You lose! Geek Point to me for catching you in a technicality even though I understood you perfectly!” details.
Fuck those people.
I confess to loving the written word, and I confess that means all the baggage that comes from erudition and education and intimacy. I can be just as big of a snob as any other traditionally published author. I got better, but that’s in me. I love the nerdiness of grammar as well as the benefits of it.
But nerdiness doesn’t turn text into a vicarious experience, and grammar doesn’t either—it can help to do so, but it can also, if misunderstood or misapplied, hurt that process. So in future installments, I’ll dig into greater detail regarding what parts of grammar matter and what parts I have found really don’t. And if I’m not preaching to the choir, you’ll learn something, because that’s the real job of an editor. Not to doctor text, but to fix writers so they can express themselves.
How many times has that been ‘another column entirely’ so far?
I’m a firm believer in exercise of all kinds. No one improves anything in any way without exercise. If you’re a serious writer who never does any exercises or experiments, you’re stagnating, and I don’t care how much you make at it. (That’s the editor in me. No writer can impress me any more, because I’ve seen too many of them drunk or at-least-half naked, and I know they’re just people who have done the work.) I intend to include some kind of homework in this column often.
So here are a few little things I would suggest you try, just to get a bit of personal insight on the significance and manipulation of grammar.
Write a good 400-600 word essay (no more than 600 words, and no less than 400; learn to pace yourself). This essay must have a thesis, an argument, and a conclusion, on any subject of your choice. Use factual information, but don’t worry about sourcing or anything academic like that. Write this to the best of your ability, in your most personal and natural voice.
In other words, just do a good little piece of work. I gave you the above format simply to facilitate the process. Good fences make good neighbors, and good restrictions make good writing. (Yet another subject for yet another day.)
All rewrites in the exercises below will require you to radically alter or abandon your natural voice. These rewrites must be effective communicators of the same information as the original.
- Pick a common small word like “and,” “the,” or “but” (preferably a word that serves as two parts of speech, such as “to”). Rewrite the essay, omitting all instances of that word.
- Pick a part of speech (do not pick nouns or verbs). Rewrite the essay, omitting all instances of that part of speech.
- Rewrite the essay, only instead of your initial narrative voice, use Yoda’s voice and speech patterns.
- Rewrite the essay in a strict 5-7-5 haiku form.
That’s enough for now. Next time I think we’ll talk more about grammar, and maybe about the role of a good editor.
If you found this helpful, you will find a lot of great and different insights into self-publishing at Reed James’ blog, specifically his comprehensive series on self-publishing Erotica.