It’s something concrete, controllable. All those squiggles of commas and subject-verb agreement choices. There is a right answer when it comes to grammar and mechanics, and that is comforting in the wild, never-perfect, no-right-way world of writing.
It’s so comforting in fact that many a writer has been seduced into thinking that if they can just get the spelling, the grammar, the punctuation right, then their piece is good, perfect even. Thankfully, correctness says very little about the value of a piece of writing. After all, you can have a grammatically-perfect text that says absolutely nothing of value.
I cannot tell you how many books I read for clients who say, “I’ve worked really hard to make this book as good as it can be,” and when probed say, “I’ve gotten out all the grammatical and spelling mistakes” by way of explanation for “as good as it can be.” More often than note, these books are seriously flawed in terms of plot or structure or something else far more fundamental, even if they are grammatically clean. These authors have made the mistake of focusing on the minor details before they worked out their larger ideas more fully. Sadly, after all that detail work, many writers are not willing to do the hard, large-scale revisions that are actually required to make their book the strong piece of writing that they want it to be. As Dean Wesley Smith says in his wise book, Stages of a Fiction Writer, the writer who focuses here is probably in the beginning states of his writing career.*
Here’s the challenge then, friends. We have to let the grammar concerns go until the very, very last stage of the writing process. We have to just ignore the underlines in MS Word. We have to put up with the beta readers who want to point out all the typos (even though we’ve told them proofreading will come later). We have to tolerate a bit of imperfection at the word level so that we can strive for stronger, clearer, more powerful writing overall.
So here’s my recommendation to you – don’t even think about grammar, punctuation, or mechanics until at least the second draft, and even then, don’t think about it much. Instead, working on telling an amazing story, conveying deep truth, catching the reader deep in the web of your words – you can get all the words correct later. That part of the writing process – necessary though it is – can wait.
Instead, put your hot, wild energy of your first draft into going deep into yourself and finding the ranging, beautiful, rich images, ideas, and feelings you have on the page. You can contain them with grammar later, but for now, they need to roam free. Think of them as the powerful bison that used to cover the American plains – let them wander and thunder with their might.
My new book, Love Letters to Writers: Encouragement, Accountability, and Truth-Telling is now available as an ebook for pre-order on Amazon and will be released in print and ebook form wherever books are sold on Nov. 14th.
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