“Learn the rules, so you can break them.” It’s an adage that’s so well-worn in the creative writing community that it is a cliché. But being comfortable with the minutia of your writing will make you a stronger writer.
I’ve been teaching First-Year Composition for nearly a decade and it has dramatically changed my relationship with writing, grammar, punctuation and usage in my own creative writing. Contrary to popular belief, most writers don’t have instant recall about gerund participles and sentence diagramming. I find myself researching grammatical concepts on a nearly weekly basis, only to be drawn into online arguments about the Oxford comma and ending a sentence with a preposition (spoiler alert: it’s fine). When I can check in with other professors and adjuncts, I find the same thing, no matter which graduate workshop they came from. “What the hell is a gerund participle and why would someone need to know that in order to write?” an exhausted adjunct once asked me.
“I dunno,” I replied. “I just review it because it’s in the book.”
But grammar, punctuation, and mechanics are not dominant elements of study in an MFA studio degree. The assumption that every creative writer knows the ground rules of English grammar is a foolhardy one to make, as many editors and proofreaders can attest. Creative writers often use technically incorrect prose to set pace, mood, and characterization, but I have found that many of these “mistakes” are not intentional nor wanted.
To my delight, re-learning so many basic lessons about English made me a better writer. I was no grammar slouch to begin with; my cultural icons growing up were Steve Urkel and Lisa Simpson, and I would never dream of handing in a story without proofreading my prose. But now I often see patterns and errors in my writing that I just didn’t see before.
Here are four intensely hard-won lessons I’ve re-learned in teaching grammar.
Abandon your commas splices, they’re all wrong.
My first week in graduate school, my professor handed back my draft littered with red circles. “Why all the comma splices?” he’d written. What the hell is a comma splice, I thought, as my face went pink. A comma splice is an error that happens when a writer uses a comma instead of a period or semi-colon. “I ran, I walked!” is a comma splice. I see them everywhere in creative work when writers use them to set a quick pace. I see them so often that it’s hard to believe it’s an error. I related this to one of my close friends who has been a magazine editor for years. “What the hell is a comma splice,” he texted me before exclaiming with wonder that he’d never known it was an error.
Breathless. Writing. Stop it!
Fragments are the bane of the college student. Fragments do not need to be short, just as run-ons need not be long. A fragment is an incomplete sentence – it’s missing a subject, a verb – perhaps both? Or it could lack a helping verb. Or it could just meander without ever completing a thought. Again, I see fragments in creative work all the time when writers are trying to convey a breathlessness or disorientation. Using a device like this can read as a cliched shortcut to building voice, or it can be just plain confusing. If you’re torn on what to do, try writing it out in complete sentences, and whittling from there. See what information is really moving your prose forward.
Deal with your separation anxiety.
Some of the Joycean writers among us will want to run together paragraphs and sentences in order to overwhelm the reader with blocks of text, information, or impressionistic consciousness. Some of these strategies are grammatically correct, like the salvo. But others, like run-on or fused sentences, just read as another common mistake. The unbroken block of text might be the stylistic answer to the overused page-break and white space in lyrical work. I would recommend experimenting with a list, illustrations, footnotes, marginal notes, or other devices. Even if you don’t keep that work in your final draft, it’s a great way to think about other ways to structure overwhelming information.
Be flexible – language is a tool of domination.
There are several style guides if you’d like to explore grammar and usage more in depth, even if it’s not your thing right now. In fact, if you’re sitting there boiling in anger, thinking that I’ll pry your comma splice from your cold dead hands, I would recommend looking into this even more! Personally, I find it downright ironic that I am writing about this topic. A few years ago, I took an advanced grammar class that used one of Bill Walsh’s style guides as a textbook. In it, he implores writers to capitalize bell hooks’ name, as if he cannot be implicated in her grave “error.” I almost fell out of my chair. My voice unintentionally rising, I practically screamed at the teacher that I found that guidance to be profoundly disrespectful. “Well,” she said unkindly, “I guess you know who she is, but most other people don’t. So her name gets capitalized like everyone else’s.” After many similar incidents, I ended up dropping that class and demanding a refund because it was so racist and harmful. Likewise, Americans find ourselves well past the crossroads of gender neutral pronouns, and I will never teach the false error of his/her/their to my college students outside of preparing them for a regressive standardized test.
The overarching lesson to the old adage “Learn the rules, so you can break them,” is that it’s rarely worth breaking them in prose. Why? Because errors are distracting, mostly, and because they are avoidable. In some cases, errors made for stylistic reasons unintentionally change the meaning for the reader. There will always be exceptions to the rule – of course there will be! – but unless you’re writing a poetic novella homage to Alice Notley, I recommend using standard grammar and punctuation. Personally, I find breaks in structure and form much more interesting: essays without an ending, novels with no resolution, nonfiction without reflection, prose without articles or pronouns.
But please take these guidelines with a grain of salt. Simmer down about using rules about language in order to exclude someone from participating in a discussion. As a teacher, I’ve seen too often people using the accusation of “you’re dumb” or “you’re rachet” or “you can’t speak correct English” as a way to silence writers that are just starting to tell their stories. The insistence on perfect grammar and punctuation – over the emphasis on story and momentum – is just a way to reinforce colonial standards. I spend my days teaching young writers to correct their grammatical mistakes, but I always need to circle back and let them know that their voices, perfect or imperfect, are what matter.