Category Archives: grammar

4

Crisp.

Last week I read a great suggestion from the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt: “Be crisp in your delivery.” Keeping this in mind, I’m getting to the point at the beginning of every email and controlling my tendency to over-explain the background.

The whole article, 9 Rules for Emailing from Google Exec Eric Schmidt, is very clear and useful, but Rule No. 2 is the one that’s really stuck with me. (And wouldn’t you know, it’s the one that quotes a writer!)

crisp2. When writing an email, every word matters, and useless prose doesn’t. Be crisp in your delivery. If you are describing a problem, define it clearly. Doing this well requires more time, not less. You have to write a draft then go through it and eliminate any words that aren’t necessary. Think about the late novelist Elmore Leonard’s response to a question about his success as a writer: “I leave out the parts that people skip.” Most emails are full of stuff that people can skip. 

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve consciously thought about frontloading my emails with the important point. Rather than a four-sentence lead-in, I’m being intentional about diving right in to the question I need answered or the solution I’m proposing.

And this tip is not just for emails! Similar to Leonard’s advice, Strunk & White famously suggested, “omit needless words.” Are you cluttering your prose with adverbs instead of strengthening your verbs? Are you bogging down your plot by overdescribing routines such as getting dressed or making dinner?

But the world needs Hemingways and Fitzgeraldsbooks aren’t simply information delivery systems. A memorable story has atmosphere and context, as well as plot; an effective essay illuminates extraordinary dimensions in something ordinary. 

How do you balance brevity and nuance in your own writing?

Have you found writing tips from any unexpected sources? 

 

5

Good bad advice

For something that’s so subjective, fluid, and intuitive, writing sure has a lot of rules.   From the time you pick up your first pencil until they pry the keyboard from your cold, dead hands, you’re exposed to a litany of do’s and don’ts that are sometimes as confusing as they are meaningless.  (I’m sure someone told Faulkner it was a bad idea to include a chapter in his first novel that is one opaque sentence long.  I’m just as sure that he ignored them on his way to creating Nobel Prize winning masterpieces.)

You’ve been told not to end sentences with prepositions, not to split infinitives, not to dangle participles (because they’re scared of heights?), and so on, ad nauseam.  If you’re even the slightest bit OCD (like me) all these rules can paralyze you when you have a thesis to write, an edit memo to compose, or a novel you want to start.

Do all those rules matter?  Well, yes, they do.  A good writer is one who knows the rules and judiciously breaks them for effect.  You can easily tell a great craftsman who uses repetition to make a point from a sloppy hack who can’t be bothered to look up a synonym, for instance.  As someone who spends a lot of time line-editing proposals, I can tell you that in most cases, rule flouting is not intentional or effective. Rules

On the other hand, there’s a lot of bad advice being doled out by “experts” that, if followed, will consign you to the Dantean circle where boring, tepid, uninspired prose blandly tortures the poor souls  whose crimes against literature landed them there in the first place.  Which is why G. Doucette’s piece in the HuffPost cracked me up.

The point?  Rules are good.  Rules should be understood and followed.  Rules must sometimes be broken.

What are your favorite rules to ignore?

1

When it’s okay to use bad grammar

When shuffling through query letters, bad grammar is often a loud warning bell. Literary agents tend to be wary when reading material from the prospective, unpublished author. Nothing will make an agent drop a query into the reject pile faster than poor grammar.

However, incorrect grammar can often be utilized as a literary style. Nearly every accomplished author does so—to one degree or another. Sentence fragments. Abbreviated words. Missing punctuation. Misspelled words and incomplete sentences. Literature is abundant with poor grammar.

So, how then can you determine when to ignore all those rules drilled into you by your elementary school teachers?

What is your writing for? Writing is purposeful. You don’t pick up a pen and commit words to paper accidentally. Is this a blog? An academic piece? A query letter? A creative piece? Resume? Knowing your audience is a time-tested lesson in writing, so for formal prose, always go the safe route and edit your piece to perfection to ensure perfect, “proper” grammar.

On the other hand, for creative pieces, bad grammar can help the author illustrate his or her point. The form your writing takes should match its tone.

Cormac McCarthy is known for his stark, bare prose and his distaste for commas and other forms of punctuation, such as the quotation mark. His writing not only complements the often-bleak tone of his work, but also adheres to a simplistic style for the sake of clarity and rhythm. He believes that punctuation can often disrupt the flow of a sentence and is usually superfluous.

Hope this was enlightening. I encourage those interested to read more on the topic. Here are some semi-related links to check out on the topic of grammar:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/09/a-matter-of-fashion/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

http://grammar.about.com/od/rhetoricstyle/a/effectivefrag.htm

http://andthatswhyyouresingle.com/2013/03/12/does-bad-grammar-punctuation-turn-you-off/

2

Starting 2013 off right with some help from writersdigest.com

I know we are well on our way to forgetting all about our new year’s resolutions, and is it me, or does the holiday break already seem like an eternity ago? So, instead of complaining about all that work that is already piling up, let’s try to focus on good intentions for the new year, and reminders of ways to do better.

This post from my favorite go-to site for writing advice, writersdigest.com, collects in one great piece the most popular 19 writing articles from the site for all of 2012. It’s so nice to have a bunch of cool pieces collected in one place. Many are about grammar. I mean who hasn’t wondered about the usage for who vs. whom, and aren’t you dying to read about the 12 Clichés All Writers Should Avoid (the comments are particularly entertaining – anyone ever attend a cliché party?)?

It also includes some free downloads and motivational tools like the 12-day plan of simple writing exercises which seems just perfect for, well, right now. Enjoy, and hope these pieces give you the inspiration you need to be your best writing self in 2013 and beyond.

15

Which or that and other gripes about grammar

The question of “which” versus “that” came up when I drafted my last blog post and the person editing my post took a stab at which one she thought it should be but then suggested I double check. Here’s the sentence: Aimee Bender, the talented author of most recently The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, has this enlightening piece in the latest O Magazine that talks about her decision to create a writing contract with a friend that would allow for each of them to maintain certain very specific writing rules complete with confirmation e-mails that each had stuck to their previously agreed-to commitments.

What do you think it is? I was happy to come upon this article about the subject in a recent writersdigest.com piece, and I thought it was a useful topic to cover since it’s a common challenge to get right, and like the questioner, I think many people do feel the two words are interchangeable. The explanation given here by Brian Klems is clear and anecdotal, making it easy to digest. Based on his advice, I’d say we got it right in my blog post (thanks, Rachel!).

I started digging around to read more about common grammatical mistakes, and came across this fun and snarky piece from litreactor.com that highlights the 20 most common grammatical errors (or word usage mistakes, as many of them are, and happy to say Which and That is right at the top). And I’d like to add to the list “I” and “me” — how often do you hear someone say “Between you and I” which should be “Between you and me”?

What’s your biggest grammar pet peeve? Is there a grammatical faux pas that drives you crazy? Oh, there are so many. Please share with us some of your favorite grammar gripes.