Life Is Not A Paragraph

Rule Breakers and the Grammarians Who Love Them
By Elizabeth Cutright
© 2012 The Daily Creative Writer

That’s why I got a Ph.D. in English, precisely so I could avoid the proper use of a comma.” My old boss.

Oh, the righteous indignation of the grammarian! Whole books have been written about bad grammar, fueled by rage at the misplaced apostrophe and the woefully misapplied comma. God forbid your spellcheck allows a misapplied “theirs” “too” or “it’s” to slip through. And the grammarians are never silent, instead ponderously pontificating on the “worst writing” their eyes have ever had the misfortune to gaze upon.

“That book was simply awful,” they are known to grouse.

“Just what was that writer thinking?” they ask in wide-eyed disbelief.

Of course, they’re right. They’re always right. They have ancient tomes and voluminous style guides to back them up. They are the prim and proper English teacher lurking the corner of your subconscious, waiting to wrap your knuckles for every misspelled word and dangling participle.

I am not trying to pick a fight – the battle over what constitutes “proper” writing is one I’d lose, badly; full of hemorrhaging losses under a battered white flag. Ultimately, they are pursuing God’s work, these amateur copy editors and spelling watchdogs. Without them, we’d be left to wonder if that Panda really is a hungry sharpshooter, and we’d never fully master the “i-before-e-except-after-c” rule of law.

I’m a writer first and a content editor second. Whether I’m crafting a paragraph or going over somebody else’s, I keep my eye on the prize: does this make sense, is the voice consistent, is there a simpler, easier way to convey this idea? Sure, I’m always on the lookout for the unintended error: The random “alot” or the thoroughly miserable possessive apostrophe (I picture him moaning in the corner… “Why can’t they ever get it right?!”).

When I’m editing, I try to play the part of the benevolent sovereign rather than the moralistic dictator. You are not a bad person if you overly rely on dashes and can’t decide when a colon or semi-colon will do. I’m not here to give you a spanking or cajole you into perfection. I’m here to nurture your ideas and strengthen your mode of communication.

All of us, at one time or another, will get bullied by the grammarians. It’s inevitable.  Once you put your writing out there for others to see, those “others” will have some opinions on just how successfully you accomplished your goal. Understand that, most of the time, folks that point out your mistakes are just trying to help. If you take some time to listen to what they have to say and consider their suggestions, you may walk away with a stronger piece.

That being said, endeavor not to be cowed by their declarations and opinions (yes, opinions…many a grammar rule is open to interpretation and malleable depending on the style and subject matter – just look at ee cummings). You are not writing just to hit the required benchmarks and goalposts. Additionally, what works for one writer may not work for you, and vice versa.  Elmore Leonard hates prologues and any substitution for the verb “said.” Robert Heinlen hated rewrites.  Hemmingway and Steinbeck avoided character descriptions like the plague. Dig deep enough, and you’ll find all sorts of possible grammar crimes just waiting to be committed.

Commit them all!

Better yet, ignore them.

Grammar and spelling have their place. Punctuation can make or break a line of dialogue, adverbs and adjectives can muddle the rhythm and flow of your narrative. But instead of staring down at your feet, conscious of every step, set your writerly gaze to the horizon. Let your future copy editor worry about the m-dashes and apostrophes.

In the meantime, here are some writing rules I’ve found to be much more helpful, and humorous.

  • Do back exercises. Pain is distracting. Margaret Atwood
  • Do not place a photograph of your ­favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide. Roddy Doyle
  • Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire. Geoff Dyer
  •  Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you ­finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die. Anne Enright
  • Don’t take any shit if you can ­possibly help it. Richard Ford
  • You see more sitting still than chasing after. Jonathan Frazen
  • Remember: When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. Neil Gaiman
  • Never take advice from anyone with no investment in the outcome. David Hare
  • Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other ­people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted. PD James
  • Remember you love writing. It wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t. If the love fades, do what you need to and get it back. Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on. Al Kennedy

And, of course, my personal favorite:

The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page. Anne Enright

And on a final note, a word from that grammar rebel himself, ee cummings

“since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a far better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
–the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis”
― E.E. Cummings

For more rules, go here

6 thoughts on “Life Is Not A Paragraph

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