A Storytelling Serial
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The past few months, I spent a lot of time with a multitude of writers as they learned the kinds of details copyeditors care about.
These writers had varying skill and experience levels, and they reacted to editing suggestions in different ways.
What surprised me most were those who felt grammar and punctuation are insignificant pieces of the big-picture message.
Many expressed the belief that if readers can understand the main point, then commas and syntax and parts of speech aren’t all that important. Vague pronouns, misplaced modifiers, run-on sentences, lack of parallel construction, inconsistent verb tense and punctuation, distracting repetition: why bother with that kind of pickiness when the overall concepts are what matter?
This wasn’t necessarily a newbie attitude.
Some new writers wanted to understand the reasoning behind every correction suggested, so they could learn and not repeat the same mistakes. And they welcomed detailed explanations.
Meanwhile, several somewhat-experienced writers thought they had a perfect grasp on the grammar and punctuation lessons of years ago and were offended to discover either things had changed or they had never learned all there is to know.
Their defensiveness demanded careful justifications for suggested changes.
And a few skilled writers had, over the years, unconsciously absorbed good grammar and punctuation habits. They’d reached a pinnacle where they might have forgotten a distant starting point for their knowledge and how they had learned along the way. Yet even some of those pros casually dismissed good grammar and punctuation as nonpriorities. Apparently, they write well so naturally and consistently, they don’t realize how gracefully they bend the rules; so they unconsciously assume others can do it just as effectively.
These offhand experts remind me of great cooks, architects, and artists who are able to innovate only from a truly solid foundation. I deeply wish all advanced writers would remember how necessary it is to have a thorough, longtime grasp of grammar and punctuation principles before making an intentional choice—not an error born of ignorance or carelessness—to play with the basics.
Writing can be self-centered. Writers practice their craft to have a voice, express an opinion, demonstrate a skill, win recognition, influence others, discover themselves, fill an internal drive, or engage in an activity they enjoy. They do it for money and for no payment at all.
Regardless, writing is also an act of communication and connection. Even if you write for your eyes only, you must still be able to understand yourself—both in the moment of writing and later, when you look back at your words as a record from an earlier time.
In your private writing, then, grammar and punctuation standards can help you make sense of it all when you return to reread your pages in the future, even if the future is only three days later. Memory isn’t always reliable.
And when you write to communicate and connect, good grammar and proper punctuation are a gift to any reader, whether that’s you or an audience of thousands.
A misplaced comma, a missing hyphen, the wrong verb tense, an error in pronoun agreement: these are the types of issues that not only confuse a reader but also signal you don’t care enough to do the work of making your words easy to follow.
Part of the self-centeredness of writing is that we get deep into our own heads and see our words from a myopic point of view. So we easily believe that because the sense is perfectly obvious to us as we give it form, subsequent readers will also seize the main point, get the essential idea, appreciate our brilliant prose or copy.
Too often, they won’t.
And even if readers pause, back up, and figure it out, you’re demanding their additional time and effort (a point David Foster Wallace emphasized in his April 2001 Harper’s Magazine article on language-usage disagreements).
That’s why grammar and punctuation are important. Don’t make anyone feel they must guess or work hard to decipher what you’re trying to say. As a writer, you need to put yourself in the place of the individual reader and get your words on the page in a way that immediately and unambiguously speaks to that person.
Consistent grammar and punctuation standards take you outside your narrow perspective long enough to make sure you express yourself so that all readers will grasp your intent quickly and clearly, without pause, stumble, distraction, or question.
The argument for grand concept as a priority that trumps grammar and punctuation simply doesn’t work. To believe someone outside your writing mind will automatically interpret your meaning, regardless of sloppy grammar and punctuation, is egocentric—even solipsistic—and resembles the world-revolves-around-me conviction of a young child.
Of course, every writer has a unique writing personality, that quality known as voice. And each type of writing requires a specific tone to convey attitude, along with a particular register to fit context—from the humorous tone of a marketing piece to the formal register of an official report.
But accepted, consistent, clearly understood grammar and punctuation conventions aren’t rigid. They’re flexible enough to support the voice, tone, and register of any writer and any piece—and to ensure the message doesn’t get muddled.
Bad writers and good writers
Actually, there are no bad writers or good writers. There are learning writers, a category that includes all of us. And writing—like everything—is a learned skill.
But the delightful fun of English language, grammar, and punctuation is that they are ever changing, which makes the learning limitless and eternal.
No matter how advanced we become, we can always grow and develop. And for everyone, mistakes will be made. Writing and editing perfection are impossible, unattainable goals.
But every writer can and should care about the reader—even if that’s just a future self—and about what’s needed to illuminate our words. We can and should pay attention. And take time to question, think, review. We can and should forgive ourselves when we miss something. And then try again.
We also must keep learning. There are countless ways to do that, from books, blogs, and podcasts to courses and invaluable feedback.
If you’re interested, here’s a starter list for just a few of the numerous helpful grammar, punctuation, and usage resources available.
Below, please share your favorite resources for mastering the basics of written communication and connection.