Grammar in Creative Writing08 Mar 2019
Inevitably, whenever my workload increases, I end up blogging about craft. Then again, that’s the primary focus of this blog, so I guess that’s a good thing?
You can think of this post as a precursor to my “How Do I” series. Those posts are all about grammar and structure. Not as in-depth as someplace like Grammarly’s blog, but they’re still among my longest posts. So I’d like to take a step back and talk about the role of grammar in creative writing. I fear that, if you’ve been reading all of my posts, you might have gotten a mixed message. Allow me to set the record straight.
Broadly speaking, all forms of writing are meant to communicate something. Whether you’re writing a short story, a school research paper, a letter outlining a business proposal, or a text message to a friend, your aim is to plant an idea into another person’s brain. Of course, in order to successfully do this, your reader, teacher, client, or friend needs to understand what you’ve written. Abiding by grammar standards – the rules that define how a language is used – is a core piece of accomplishing this. Thus, every writer should learn the basics to give their work the best chance of being understood by others.
All that said, there’s no need to stress over technicalities when writing creatively. Unless they’re an English teacher or a stickler for grammar, readers can be very forgiving. Comma rules are a pain for anybody writing in English. There’s too many of them! So if you get it wrong, it’s no big deal. Likewise, nobody will come after you if you split the infinitive. Star Trek does it in every iteration of its iconic opening: “To boldy go where no one has gone before.”
People are reading for the story, not for perfectly executed grammar. Unless you’ve written something avant-garde or the next great literary novel, I can assure you that this is the case. Hell, if you’ve writing something experimental, you may want to deviate wildly from normal grammar and spelling rules to reinforce your artistic vision.
A vivid example of this is Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker.
On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen. He dint make the groun shake nor nothing like that when he come on to my spear he wernt all that big plus he lookit poorly. He done the reqwyrt he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and made his rush and there we wer then.
Personally, I couldn’t get beyond the first chapter because of this dialect. But from what classmates told me, there’s a part much later in the book where the main characters come across a plaque written in standard English, a plaque that Hoban quotes in full. The characters had no idea what the plaque said. My classmates said that they were initially confused by it as well, since they had adapted so thoroughly to the dialect Hoban uses for the majority of the book. It’s a cool effect, and you have to admire the work Hoban put in to create his future dialect.
In conclusion, I think writers should have a firm grasp on the basics of grammar. If you don’t have this yet, a tool like Grammarly is great to have and learn from. I use it all the time for my professional work. But I don’t believe grammar is something that creative writers need to stress about. So long as you can convey the story you want to tell well enough that readers can understand what you’re saying, you’re fine.
What do you think? Do you struggle with grammar? How grammatically correct do you think writers should be in their work? Let me know down in the comments.