Monday, 18 February 2013

Is Grammar a Building Block or a Stumbling Block for Writers?


When I was in my second year at grammar school, aged twelve, I handed in a composition (called now a piece of creative writing…)  called  The Fox. My English teacher - a magisterial, handsome figure of a man -  returned it to me with a high mark. I treasured this, having learned very quickly the high gold-standard currency of marks.

But much more important, in the margin he’d written in his flowing hand ‘Good Syntax!’

So, what was this thing I was  good at? I had to go to the big dictionary – one of the two big books in my little house. There I read:
syn·tax 
  • The study of the rules whereby words or other elements of sentence structure are combined to form grammatical sentences
  • The pattern of formation of sentences or phrases in a language
  •  A systematic, orderly arrangement of words

I was very pleased by this revelation. I reckon that was the point where I actually decided to be a writer, even though I’d never met a writer and had actually never met anyone (except my teachers) who wore a white - not a blue - collar to work.

The rules of good syntax were only peripherally taught at that school; I really learned the nature of  syntax and grammar when I started learning French and German  I had to do this in order to get to grips with languages whose grammatical structures were different from (different to?) my own. I still remember the exotic feeling of getting to grips with the subjunctive form in French and realising that form exists in English..

So how did this little girl who lived in a small crowded house that had only two big books get be the mistress of very good syntax at twelve? 


Books on my shelves now
The way we all do. I’d been speaking this language since I was eleven months old  -  talking,  listening and arguing in a verbally oriented  family for twelve years.  Very importantly though, thanks to the library, I had also been reading it for eleven years and was now up to five books a week.  Reading voraciously when young  is the key to high literacy necessary in a writer.

Proper language is already there. I well remember a child in my class saying to me ‘You mean I already talk in grammar, miss?’

Early in my teaching career I remember reading that by the age of five a normal child will have incorporated all the rules of grammar of his own language into his brain structure They don’t have to learn it, they speak it. It may be useful for them to learn  the rules they already operate at some point  - for example when you learn a foreign language.

Or perhaps it is useful when you become a writer and have to edit your own work…


I know from my workshops that some writers get jumpy and defensive about grammar and syntax.. Either they’re hidebound by the memory of bad teaching or a clumsy editor. Or terrified of looking stupid. Or -  however good a storyteller they are -  they are innocent of grammatical conventions in written language and that very innocence could send their work flying onto some editor’s floor.

This is a pity -these natural storytellers can make very good fiction writers. They have the most important qualities  a feeling for the trajectory of a story, an ear for dialogue and a fresh world view.

Good, self-developing writers reach out for help where they can. A 2009  page on my blog , which has Semi-Colon in the title is still very much visited although it is also about my collection Knives and the writer RC HUtchinson

Syntax as a Valuable Building Block

The first crucial building block for a writer is the ability to create a world, to build a narrative, to have an extensive vocabulary (all that reading!) and a mind that sees the world afresh –dreaming dreams and having visions.

The second building block is to build on their innate comfort with the magic of  their own language and become comfortable with the value in knowing syntax and grammar when they starte editing their own work.

When my students begin to trust that I won’t laugh at their innocence they will ask crucial questions and these questions are the key to their further writing development,.
Just what is a sentence?
What is a paragraph?
What is the difference between dialogue told and dialogue said.

My very best advice is to read more, to look at how sentences, paragraphs and dialogue presents itself on the pages of modern novels and short stories.
These works must be modern because grammar is a dynamic force in prose; it changes through time.  It evolves.

For example page-long paragraphs – acceptable in nineteenth century and early twentieth century novels  - will give a modern novel a dated feel,  

One evolution is the way some writers (look at Roddy Doyle) have a very clean way to present dialogue which made the purists tut-tut when they came out. But modern writers can make a choice.

The rules on paragraphs can be ambiguous. I suggest that a paragraph is a whole idea, a piece of speech or an aspect of the whole setting, building up the  climax of the narrative within the chapter or the short story. It promotes the transparency of the narrative. It does not get between the reader and the narrative.

Top tip. When the idea, the speaker, the setting changes changes, try a new paragraph.

Look at the paragraphs  on the page. White space promotes clarity; it allows the reader to breathe his own way into your narrative.

When students are in doubt about technicalities, I recomment the plain, easy and accessible Elements of Style by Strunk and White.- a volume written (I heard) for American students coming to study at universities in England. There you will learn what since childhood you have known instinctively.

Once you end up knowing how the rules of syntax work then you can choose, if you want, to break them. But that will then be a knowing process. And you can comfort yourself in knowing that there are some individuals who know syntax up to their eyeballs but could never pen a good story in a hundred years.

Syntax as a Stumbling Block

This happens when you – perhaps from school or a clumsy and thoughtless editor – become frozen like a rabbit in headlights at the embarrassment of being seen as stupid when you don’t quite get the difference between verbal story telling and story telling on the page.

At one time editors would work with very promising writers who were not quite there. But nowadays they are very busy, exhausted with their corporate strategies and business models, so you have to do it yourself,

So don’t let it be a stumbling block. If you edit yourself with a clear knowledge of syntax the manuscript you present will not have laughable flaws that could blind the readers to a wonderful story.

This process of ultimate self editing is even more crucial in these days of indie publishing and eBooking. One of the biggest criticism of the flood of self published eBooks is the variable standard of editing without the filter of a publisher’s editor to catch the flaws.


In any case, syntax is intricate, it is relatively easy and - dare I say it? -  it is fun. Every writer should be the master of his or her own language. Grammar stands there alongside originality, vision, vocabulary, narrative skill as a crucial tool for the successful writer, whatever their approach to publishing.


And more books....


Happy writing. W


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