by Jim Harrington 

I am, but I’m getting better. First, I have a confession. It’s not my fault!!

In seventh grade, the school placed me in a remedial English class due to a scheduling conflict. Because I did so well, I was assigned to the advanced class in eighth grade. I reveled in that accomplishment for about three days. That’s how long it took me to realize I was way behind everyone else in the class. Too embarrassed to admit I didn’t know what the teacher was talking about, I slogged through as best I could.

I still struggle with certain aspects of grammar. Here are some steps I took that might help readers who, like me, hold up a wooden cross whenever the word grammar appears.

Buy a style book*

It doesn’t matter which one, and you’re not going to read it cover to cover. I use it as a reference. For a while, I questioned every aspect of grammar from where that comma should go to am I supposed to capitalize the names of the seasons. I still use it from time to time. However, I find the more I write, the better I get at spotting errors. 

Read for grammar, not for content

Pull a few novels off the shelf and read them for grammar and word usage, especially when looking at dialog. From a grammar standpoint, ask such questions as: Where is the punctuation placed prior to he said? If the dialog ends with a question mark, is the he capitalized? Does the question mark go inside or outside the quotation marks? Where do the quotation marks go when the dialog runs across two or more paragraphs? Why is there a comma in one sentence but not another? When looking at usage, ask why that word? To answer this, replace the word with something else to see how the flow and context change.

I need to add a caveat here. When choosing books for these exercises, select ones that were published a few years ago. Too many recent books suffer from a lack of editing. This is especially true of self-published books. Unfortunately, these authors fail to realize they are branding themselves as amateurs when they put a mistake-laden work on the market. Readers notice!

Follow online sites

There are sites online like Grammar Girl that provide insight into grammar issues. On this site, you can ask questions and sign up for a free newsletter.

Write shorter sentences

This may seem like silly advice, but I’ve read many submissions with grammar issues that could have been solved by, as John Gardner suggests, getting to the period sooner. There are times when using longer sentences helps set the tone, but incorrectly punctuated ones can create an unintended response in the reader.

Grammar counts! Many editors say they will forgive a few mistakes, but don’t usually say how many that is. Other editors simply pass on a work that doesn’t show a certain level of professionalism (i.e., poor grammar). Getting it right is important, whether it’s grammar, or plot, or overall storytelling ability. How the manuscript looks is just as important as what it has to say. Grammar errors and misspellings stick out. Don’t let your manuscript be the one the editor sets aside because of poor craftsmanship. Make it one of your writing goals for 2013 to improve your grammar skills, even if you think you know it all. How about a goal to learn one new grammar “rule” a month? Even the busiest writer should be able to accomplish that.

 

*Online style book links:  The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and  GrammarBook.Com by Jane Strauss.

______________________

Jim Harrington began writing fiction in 2007 and has agonized over the form ever since. He serves as the Flash Markets Editor for Flash Fiction Chronicles. Jim’s Six Questions For . . . blog provides editors and publishers a place to “tell it like it is.” You can read his stories at http://jpharrington.blogspot.com.