I’ve been a little surprised to see that the writing-tip posts receiving the greatest number of hits here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework are those on punctuation. I suppose I should have expected this from my teaching experience, but it caught me off guard.
As I understand writing—and I’m sure I learned this during my own school days—it consists of two parts: what you say and how you say it.
Some people put all their focus on the first part. Content is king, never mind that no reader can possibly figure out what that content is supposed to be because the “how it’s told” completely muddles all communication.
On the other side are people who pay meticulous attention to every comma, every verb tense, every subjunctive, every non-split infinitive. The problem is, their “what I’m saying” is stilted and sleep-inducing. Good grammar is no guarantee of good writing.
Perhaps a better way of stating this point would be, Correct grammar is no guarantee of good writing.
Good grammar, as I see it, serves the content—the “how you say it” ought to facilitate the “what you say.”
Consequently, a formal term paper for school or a business proposal ought to be starched with all the correct grammar the writer can pour into the mix. However, a short story with lots of dialogue would be ruined if the same set of grammar rules were applied.
Too often beginning novelists don’t discern the difference and can’t adapt their grammar to the less formal requirements of fiction. Too many still believe their acceptance for publication hangs on the placement of every comma, not on how likable their protagonist is or how much tension is on every page.
Does good grammar matter? It absolutely does. Few writers know what grammar rules to dispense with in fiction if they first don’t know what those grammar rules are. But writers, whether working with fiction or non-fiction, should not neglect storytelling—that is, their content delivery.
Above all else, the content delivery should be interesting. A writer can be humorous, personal, relevant, anecdotal, logical, introspective, analytical, whatever—as long as the content is not boring.
“Boring” results from redundancy and repetition, from stating the obvious, from too many illustrations when a point is already clear. “Boring” results from stereotypical characters, predictable plot points, unimaginative settings.
Good grammar gives a writer a good start, but good writing depends on good content. We writers need to give sizable amount of attention to the “what we have to say” side of our work without neglecting the “how we say it” side.