Some time ago, I received an e-mail from a purported high school student who asserted that what was said was more important than the way it was expressed, thus learning the rules of good writing would be an impediment to creativity.
On behalf of teachers, editors, and readers everywhere, I’d like to say, “Nice try!”
Let’s talk shop.
If good writing – the art of clearly written communication – is something of a religion to its practitioners, its Holy Trinity is spelling, punctuation and grammar. They’re so important that writers and editors have turned them into the acronym SPAG. To be told your writing is full of SPAG is not a good thing.
Spelling encompasses everything to do with vocabulary—using exactly the right word in the right way, spelled correctly. “Easy,” you say? One writer recently confided to me that he checks as many as five thesaurus entries for each descriptive word he uses. The prose that results from this attention to detail is rich, lively and remarkably original. He communicates his vision exactly as he envisions it, often using double meanings, metaphor, and even nonsequiturs to facilitate the reader’s understanding or to inject humor. But he couldn’t attain this remarkable achievement if he didn’t begin with a strong vocabulary and the ability to spell at least well enough to look those words up.
In my opinion, grammar is our second most effective writing tool (vocabulary is the first). The style of grammar we use defines our characters. It brings our settings into focus. It gives us our Voice. As such, I don’t believe there is any such thing as “good” or “bad” grammar. Grammar should be appropriate to the character, time, place and effect we’re trying to create. Getting it right requires knowledge, research, and a well-tuned ear.
What about punctuation? Do we really have to memorize all those rules? Well, we’ve all read jokes in which statements mean outrageously different things depending upon how they’re punctuated. Writers love to make readers laugh. But it’s better when they laugh with us, not at us, right? Those dots and dashes and squiggles we call punctuation are the traffic cops of language. What you use, and where, really does matter if you want to make your meaning clear.
So there it is. Yes, creative writers really do have to learn the rules. They’re our tools. With practice, we learn how to use them effectively and don’t have to think about them so quite so much. At that point, we can let our creativity flow, reasonably confident that we won't have to spend quite so much time editing later.
N.K. Wagner is Executive Editor and Publisher of Page & Spine.