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Don’t Forget To Splice Your Commas

A while back I tried hanging around on some of the Internet’s writing forums. Not because I really expected to learn anything myself, though you never know–as I talked about earlier I’ve been at this for a while. Rather, I wanted to see if talking about writing more regularly would help keep me focused, and maybe I could help out some young writers in the process.

I was, I think, able to help a few people, and it was instructive to see how some young writers approach the craft, but overall the experiment did not go well.

A young man (still in high school as it turned out, though that wasn’t immediately apparent) asked for information on getting published. Not how to write, but specifically publication. There was a problem with his post, though; it was semi-literate, with as many or more misspelled words than correct ones, and the idea of punctuation and capitalization seemed quite foreign to him. I, and several other people, suggested that he practice the craft some more before worrying about getting published.

This lad, unfortunately, did not like that advice. He insisted, with rising heat, that he knew how to write very well; he got A’s in English and was always correcting his family’s grammar. He simply couldn’t be bothered to take the time to write properly in a web forum post. (I don’t think he ever did manage even one grammatically correct sentence in any of his posts.) Worse, several other forum denizens jumped in to defend him, calling us all a bunch of big meanies for telling this lad that he should learn how to write before worrying about getting published. His enthusiasm was obviously much more important than any mere skill or craft.

That was when I decided that perhaps my time was best spent elsewhere, and I signed off.

Craft matters, you see. No one cares how excited the writer was when writing a story. An editor is going to take one look at your sloppy manuscript and think, “This person has no idea what they’re doing. Even if the story is good, it’s going to take a ton of work to hammer the text into shape and I’ve got a thousand other manuscripts here on my desk. I bet I can find something at least as good that’s less work.”

You don’t intend to submit your work to traditional publishers? You think your story is so good, so infused energy and enthusiasm, that readers won’t mind a few grammatical errors? Hah. The reader comes alone to the page, and if it is rife with grammatical and spelling errors then your enthusiasm doesn’t matter. She will more likely than not turn away and read something more welcoming. Not only because the sloppy text is unreadable (though certainly that too), but because it makes you, the writer, look bad. When a reader lets a writer into her head to tell her a story, she has to feel confident that he knows what he is doing. Showing the reader up-front that you cannot handle the basics of the language does not inspire that confidence.

This kid’s delusion about knowing how to write grammatically correct English is a common one. I’ve seen numerous people say that they know how to write properly, but don’t have the time to do it for a simple forum post/Facebook comment/blog comment/etc. That is, to be perfectly blunt, bullshit. Everyone makes a typo now and then, but if you consistently make gross errors in spelling, capitalization, and general composition it is simply because you don’t know how to do it right, and if you have any serious interest in becoming a writer you’d better learn.

Here’s the thing: If you really know what you’re doing, it doesn’t take any more effort to do it right.

Take the time to hone the fundamentals of your craft. When your understanding of grammar is deep enough to be intuitive, when–barring the odd typo–you get it right most of the time without having to think about it (or pull the style guide down off your shelf, though you should certainly have one there just in case), then you have freed yourself to concentrate on storytelling. And that’s what it’s all about.