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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » The need to know Grammar (Page 1)

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Author Topic: The need to know Grammar
Lord Darkstorm
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Since this keeps comming up, I decided to start a thread on the value of learning grammar.

I know that for some people their writing flows naturally. For others, myself included, that doesn't happen. Style is (using a simplistic definition) word choices made by the author. Style varies widely, and what someone likes depends on the person. Can you study style? Yes, I'm sure anyone can. The problem is will it make sense.

If I know how grammar is used to put sentances together, then studing style shouldn't be a problem. But what if I don't? How do I understand why certain phrases work better than other? Or why some choices are better than others? Honestly...I don't know. So how do I study style, without understanding the tools behind style?

Each writer has their own way of approaching writing, and depending on the individual, some things come naturally.

If I were to go buy some tools to build a bookshelf...could I build one? Maybe. Will it be as good as someone who has been using those tools for years? No. If I wish to reach a level of quality others have, I must first learn to use the tools appropriately. Before I will be able to achieve a level of proficiency, I will have to figure out which tools are used for the different parts.

Same thing goes for painting. Without knowing which tools (brushes) are needed to get specific effects, how do you create what you want?

Not everyone needs, or wants, to know grammar past the basics. Honestly, if someone can write well without knowing...I'm happy for them. I wish I was one of those people, but I'm not. A year ago, I would have probably agreed that grammar isn't that important since the basics are all you need. I don't think that way now.


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djvdakota
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LDS, I think you can study grammar until you're blue in the face, but it won't teach you a thing about building a well-written sentence.

It'll teach you to write a grammatically correct sentence, a structurally sound sentence; but not a golden nugget of prose.

Someone with a bunch of paintbrushes and tubes of paint can study how to use those implements all he/she wants, but creating art out of them comes by studying and understanding and appreciating not the TECHNICAL aspects of the masters who came before him, but by studying the very beauty of the works created by those masters.

If I spend all my effort studying how they applied every brushstroke of paint and why, I run the risk of losing what it is that truly makes their works ART--the heart and the soul and the beauty.


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Lord Darkstorm
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But if you have no clue how to use the brushes...how could you even pretend to imitate anyone? Art has two sides, the creative side, and the skill side. When I was learning to draw, I had to develope the skills necessary to turn what was in my mind, into marks on a piece of paper.

It doesn't matter how much I study someones work, if I don't know why they decided to use a particulare set of words over another, what am I learning? I already know that the author has abilities I don't have yet, and from reading books on writing, I'm convinced that most authors probably know a good bit of grammar.

The clarity of the words we write depends on the way they are written. If they are written badly, they will be confusing. If you know how the structure of a sentance is put together, then the reasons it is unclear is easier to determine. Let me use a bit of another post...

quote:
(And I--Dakota--might add, for the purposes of this discussion, the structure of their sentences.)

Based on this statement, how do you study the structure not knowing the grammar? One reason I asked for help was because I couldn't study the structure without understanding the grammar (the tools).

Once I learn how the structure works, it is up to my creative ability to use them to make something good. Not knowing the tools limits my ability to make things clear, and get across to the reader the meaning I want them to get.

I don't disagree with studying other authors, I just don't see how until I understand what is going on with those words.


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Christine
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quote:
It doesn't matter how much I study someones work, if I don't know why they decided to use a particulare set of words over another, what am I learning?

This sentence jumped out at me from all those in your two posts, LDS. Another thing that jumped out at me was how you say "knowing the grammar." How can I write well if I don't "know the grammar." How can I understand or study someone else's work if I don't "know the grammar?"

What is this "grammar" you keep referring to? I think that's where we're getting confused. Do you want to know what part of speech all the words are? Do you want to make sure they don't violate any of the rules of grammar as set forth by very old eggheads?

You posted a paragraph and I was more than willing to play. I'ms till playingm, albeit slowly. I am curious to figure out all the obscure parts of speech and how they all work together. How a verb can become a gerand or a participle if it is used in a certain way. It's also helpful to be able to put names to these things when I see errors in other people's work and can't quite spit out the problem. I'm curious by nautre, and so I'm quit eok with playing with studying grammar as a team hatrack effort.

But if you notice, apart from going through and attempting (and often failing) to label all the parts of the sentences, I am also showing you what meaning I gleam from the sentence and why. That has little or nothing to do with grammar. Aside from the subject ot the sentence being the focus of the sentence, it just doesn't. I feel the sounds in my head. I listen for the rythm. I check what knowledge is conveyed and wonder if it could be conveyed better or more concisely.

And none of that has a single thing to do with grammar. It just doesn't. You're not asking about grammar. You odn't need to know what an adjective is. You need to know that this sentence makes me stutter when I read it and so maybe you should rephrase that sentence. I didn't stutter because of its grammatical incorectness.

Now, let me grant you something. A VERY dready and in-depth study might show us that certain sentence structures are tedious and should be avoided. It might. There are people who study linguistics who can probably tell you these things. They get PhD's in the subject.

Now, back to the sentence I quotes. You want to know why writers choose particular sets of words? I'm sorry to say that they just do. You'll be hard pressed to find a writer who has a deep meaning for every sentence or who even thinks about it very hard, at least in the way that you're insinuating. When I write a sentence it just pours from my brain to my fingertips and gets typed madly into the computer. It's in my soul. I don't make consciouss choices. I don't believe anyone does.

And herein lies a truth that may hurt: Not everyone can be a writer. I'm not naming any names. As a matter of fact, LDS, I don't think you're giving youself nearly enough credit. But most people just aren't cut out for writing. It's amazing how many people think they are. A certain amount of writing can be learned, but there are things that can't be taught. This is why I have become pickier about stories I am willing to critique. If you don't have a basic command of the language I can't teach it to you.

There's nothing wrong with being an expert on grammar, LDS. In fact, I'd say writers should at least be on an intermediate level with respect to grammar. But mostly what writers do, have done since they were children, is read, imitate, and practice constantly.

I wrote my first short story in third or fourth grade on my parents old manual typewriter that I dug out of storage. I wish I still had it, but I remember that it was about Cabbage Patch Dolla going to Mars. I never stopped writing for any significant length of time after that. I learned every year. I found useful techniques in my studies and applied them to writing. I never stopped reading more and more advanced literature.

Writing is in my soul. You want me to try to interpret that into logical, communicable thoughts but it just isn't possible.

BTW, I've been considering putting together an exercise that might be useful, something like the helpful exercises I used to do in eighth grade to make many bad sentences into one strong sentence. I think exercises like those may help more than an in-depth study of sentence structure.


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Robyn_Hood
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I don't think you need to be able to pick out the subjunctive clause, or even know what that is, in order to rearrange a sentence or even compare it with a simillarly worded, but differently structured, sentence.

As long as you have a rudamentary understanding of how things should sound, I think you can begin to explore style choices.

As you explore style, you will run into grammar points that you may want to explore also. For example, passive versus active sentences. It is difficult to study the style the choice between the two if you don't at least understand what they are. Do you need to understand all the finer points of what makes a sentence passive or active? No. knowing that basically one is more direct than the other is probably enough.

Simply looking at the way you put your words together in your posts, shows that you have a pretty good grasp of grammar. There is a flow to your sentences and you appear to have a decent vocabulary (which always helps with writing ). Perhaps what would be more helpful than simply learning the details of grammar, is learning how to study style.

Style is how you put words together within the perameters of set out by grammar. You can learn style, assume a style, study style...

If you study literature, at all, the biggest thing you are studying is style,imho.


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Lord Darkstorm
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I won't dissagree with the value of style. I used an example of my guitar, and lack of music theory. Different forms of art require learning some of the concepts behind it. There are more people right now selling cd's that lack any form of music theory, than ones that do. It doesn't make the more learned musicians better at creating something sellable, but without those people behind the scenes as producers...most music would suck.

Grammar, to me, is the tools behind the writing. Since I have been writing words since I was little, I have some natural understanding of sound that is re-enforced by my years of reading. I doubt I will ever reach the level of understanding of Kolona, but that is ok. I don't have to know every detail. I do want to understand how sentances relate. Clarity is in how a sentace is worded, and if anyone reads my paragraph they can see mistakes. Places where the sentances can be interpreted in ways I did not intend. Is it the reader's fault my sentance isn't clear? No, it's mine.

I have spent years guessing at music, and made a choice not to invest the time and effort into learning the theory. So I may never be a musician...I can live with that. Writing is something I do want to invest my time in. I want my words to be clear, and have less gaping holes in the clarity. I doubt any writer writes thinking in terms of subject/verb/direct object. I would think most authors know it subconsiously. If a writer doesn't know the rules, or much about grammar, how do they know where rules can be broken? If you are going to break a rule, it should be done for a reason. I have seen people use that as an excuse for not knowing the rules.

Also, if I am writing a proposal, a resume, or any other form of business document...knowing the grammar will help there. So learning more about grammar has benifites other than just writing stories. Ok, I am more interested in writing stories than business documents, but I have yet to find a true negative to learning more about grammmar (except for its complexity).

Is there something I'm missing here? I understand there are many other factors that go into good writing, but isn't grammar one of them?


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Minister
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The purpose of language is communication. For communication to take place efficiently, both the sender and the recipient of the communication must be working under the same rules of language. This is the reason for the "rules" of grammar. They are not merely conventions of old fuddy-duddies invented to create complexity in something simple. They are an attempt at established an agreed upon system of communication. The writer must be at least familiar with the way this system works.

There is some margin for error, however. Humans are generally pretty smart decoders, so writers can get away with "breaking the rules" to a limited degree, and to obtain certain effects. However, to know when this is appropriate (and even to know when one is breaking the rules), one must be conversant with the rules and their purposes.

Does a writer need to be an expert on grammar? Not necessarily, but he should certainly be competent; and expertise can never hurt.

[edited for spelling]

[This message has been edited by Minister (edited December 09, 2004).]


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Robyn_Hood
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By all means, grammar is important to writing, but it is not all important.

There are people out there who know everything there is to know about grammar, but that doesn't mean that they are great writers. People who know everything about grammar and the rules of writing make great copy editors, but there are things about writing and style that can't be taught.

Style is intuitive. Aside from technical writing, I seldom evaluate the weight of each sentence or worry over the way I've constructed it.

As for your dilemma over properly communicating your meaning while writing, perhaps you would be interested in reading what Socrates had to say on the subject. The thing is, you'll have to read it in Plato's words. The very issue with writing that you mention, is the very reason Socrates refused to become literate.


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rjzeller
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AH! The vaunted task of finding your 'voice'. Isn't that what we're really after here? How can we put words together in a manner which sounds both professional and personal.

We don't want a tech manual. We don't want to sound both professional and cold. We don't want to sound unprofessional but warm. We don't want to sound curt and choppy.

Or do we?

Sometimes we might want to sound like a country bumpkin, or a snobby elitist, depending on the story, narrative, and setting.

I think it boils down to this: We need a good fundamental understanding of grammar to be able to properly apply the language, but we do not need to be masters. Grammar is not what tell the story, we are.

A chef almost never follows a fixed recipe, they do everything according to their own personal tastes. However, while one may prefer things more spicey than the next, they all have a core understanding of how different ingredients will affect the final dish.

A musicial knows what notes and chords and scales and key signatures are. They require these to generate acceptable music. But many performers know only limited theorey, and many great composers are limited performers. They both have to know a little of the other's tasks to do their jobs well, but they do not have to master both.

The artist knows what colors to place on the canvas first, and which mixes generate the desired results. But in the end, the painting he creates is uniquely his own.

I don't think style is learnable, but I do think it's acquireable. (Is that a word). In other words, the more you practice writing, the more you study grammar, the more you read and critique, the more you'll start to develop your own style.

Simply put, if you're truly a writer, this style will come naturally. But it will take time to develop. I'm not sure how you know when you're at that point, other than to mention the following:

I can tell almost instantly when I'm reading something by OSC, King, or Koontz. Their writing is very familiar to me and they each have a unique 'voice'. Sure, they can change the style of the narrative at times, from serious to cynical, but it is still, nevertheless, uniquely theirs.

I don't know why this is, but it is. So I guess my point is, are you concerned with mimicking someone else, or are you concerned with trying to find YOUR voice and develop it further?

(That was a bit of rambling...maybe I'll have clearer thoughts later).

Z

[This message has been edited by rjzeller (edited December 09, 2004).]


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franc li
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You mentioned in the other thread, and I assume you created this thread to discuss it, that I seem to know grammar very well and yet began my comments by reccomending you forget it. I have a degree in Linguistics. However, I know of no published novelists who are Linguists.

Grammar is not a tool necessary to write. Generative grammar, what actually is going on in your head that we are attempting to describe- that may be a tool. You already have this working or we couldn't be having this conversation. But "English grammar" with the diagramming is really nothing more than a catalogue describing the tools. That was why I said it probably isn't that helpful to focus on learning grammar.

I didn't learn any grammar in grade school either. I learned in by taking Latin in high school and from Linguistics courses in college. And I learned most about English grammar from the Latin classes.

But I think even a simple Foreign Language like Spanish or German is invaluable to understanding Grammar. (I say simple because while every language is equally rich, closely related languages are going to be easier to study. I got nothing from Chinese).

[This message has been edited by franc li (edited December 09, 2004).]


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Survivor
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I submit that it is enough to say what you want without making any obvious mistakes.

And for that, all you need to do is write your sentences, vet it for clarity, then look up any words you might have used incorrectly.


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Robyn_Hood
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Franc li has a good point. While I did learn English grammar and studied all sorts of literature in elementary, secondary, and post-secondary school, I have a richer understanding of grammar because I also took French as a second language.

I am fully literate in English (some may question this at times ), but only functionally literate in French. Yet I know more about conjugating verbs, sentence structure and tense usage, because of the French I have taken. I am not fluent in French, but I can carry on a conversation at a certain level; I can read and write french better than I speak it; and that has all contributed to how I speak and write in English.

If you want an intense crash course on grammar, try a second language.


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Minister
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Other languages will also help with style perhaps, in that they can give you a window into how another person thinks. People tend to think in the language they speak most comfortably. As I studied Spanish, German, American Sign Language, Greek, and Hebrew, I not only learned new grammatical structures (and gained a greater understanding of English), I also learned new patterns of thinking. Languages rarely have a one-to-one correspondence of meaning in vocabulary, grammar, or syntax. That difference in meaning can clue you in to differences in thinking. A superb example of showing different approaches to thinking about the same situation is OSC's later books in the Ender series. His Asian characters don't just speak with a dialect -- they think and reason in a way that is consistent with their language and culture (and the two are closely related).
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Lord Darkstorm
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I have had a minor interest in spanish, but that is the problem...the interest is minor. Since we all are different, and learn in different ways. I have to have a strong interest to learn anything well. My wife is an accountant, and I hear about her job and her work on a regular basis. Beyond the major terms, and a few specifics I know absolutely nothing about accounting. My brain rejects it on a regular basis. It does not mean I can't learn about accounting, I just lack any form of true interest.

With writing, grammer is not high on my list of things I really want to learn, but writing is. I have no desire to become an expert grammarian. However, I do know that without an understanding of how grammar works my writing will suffer. Why will it suffer? Because my word choice is common and often times repetative. I'm not looking for style, as much as I'm looking for clarity. Style is something I think will happen all by itself. That is what I've read in several places, and I'm willing to believe it. Understanding sentance structure doesn't happen on it's own, that requires effort. Ok, I'll put in the effort to help my writing, since I believe grammar is a tool of writing. Even if it isn't the only one.

I have discovered that since the disscussion was started about grammar, and some nice people have explained a few things that made sense...my interest in grammar has increased. Amazing how a bit of breakthrough can make it more enjoyable. With any luck by the time that one paragraph is broken down I'll have enough to continue without needing much help. One way or another, I will keep at it till I know enough grammar to be confident in my choices while writing. It will still take practice, and I'll still make mistakes. I do believe that in the end it will be worth it. The true test will be in the stories I write.

Grammar is just another piece of the learning process I feel is necessary in becomming a better writer. Do I plan to diagram every story I write...not likely. Will I take a short story and go line by line diagramming just to see what I am doing? Probably. Will it help? I think it will.

I can't help but wonder at the resistance to learning grammar. Even if it is not the primary key to good writing, it does play a role. As someone pointed out, you can't break a rule unless you understand the rule. I want to learn the rules.


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QuantumLogic
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quote:
if I don't know why they decided to use a particulare set of words over another, what am I learning?
Just because you don't consciously know why they decided to use that particular set of words doesn't mean that you haven't, at some level, picked up on the reason, and used it to help your writing improve.
quote:
You want to know why writers choose particular sets of words? I'm sorry to say that they just do. You'll be hard pressed to find a writer who has a deep meaning for every sentence or who even thinks about it very hard, at least in the way that you're insinuating. When I write a sentence it just pours from my brain to my fingertips and gets typed madly into the computer. It's in my soul. I don't make consciouss choices. I don't believe anyone does.
I have a language problem. I have to make conscious choices, otherwise nothing will come out. I don't use grammar terms when I'm figuring out how to say things, simply because I don't think in words, but I do (among other things) consciously break down my sentences in terms of the way they grammatically fit together.

What you are asking for in your quote, LDS, has nothing to do with grammar, except at the level where you already clearly know it. However, the reason I choose a particular set of words is to properly convey the emotions and the parts of the concept that are important for my purposes. I assume other people do it for the same reasons, even though they do it subconsciously and I don't. If this doesn't make sense to you, it's because you already accomplish this task subconsciously, and trying to consciously analyze it probably won't help you.


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rickfisher
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quote:
my word choice is common and often times repetative. I'm not looking for style. . .
But that is style. Common, repetitive word choice and common, repetitive sentence structures are both quite grammatical.

Listen, I'm not trying to talk you out of improving your grammar. I'm all for it, and I think lots of other people on Hatrack could benefit from it as well. Heck, I think everyone could benefit, even Kolona, though in her case we're obviously reaching diminishing returns. And if you want to improve, I think that the best ways are 1) as Kolona suggested, sentence diagramming, and 2) as several people have suggested, studying a foreign language.

But I also think, based on almost everything you've said, that grammar isn't really the thing you need. You clearly already know how to hold the brush, to use the previous analogy. By all means, learn more grammar! Improve yourself! But don't let that keep you from learning more rules of style, as well, and studying other writers whose style you find pleasing. Because that's where you'll find the tools to phrase things in a superior way. That's where you'll do the most to improve your own writing.


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Lord Darkstorm
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quote:
But that is style. Common, repetitive word choice and common, repetitive sentence structures are both quite grammatical.

This may be true, but it isn't a style I'm happy with.

Another point I was thinking about last night. If someone learns to write in a certain way, and uses that pattern for many years...is that style? Requirements that have nothing to do with creative writing happen on a regular basis. Now if bad habbits are developed while doing other forms of writing, those bad habbits move in and invade the creative side.

I read books that are so intriguing I can forget I'm reading. Other books, though good, don't always achive that form of absorbtion. I think what I find most interesting is not all books by an author reach that level. Some do, some don't. I doubt style, word choice, or the story by itself has that effect. The combination of well chosen words in an acceptable style combined with a good story is what does it.

My current WIP isn't saying what I want it to say. I can rewrite it, but too often I lack understanding of how to say what my character wants to show.

Now, I could be loosing my mind, but I know there are times my characters aren't happy with my portrail of thier story.


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rjzeller
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In a new story I published on www.keepitcoming.net, a former music student of mine commented that I had too many passive sentences. He had wrongly associated the use of "was" and "were", "Had" and "has" with passive voice.

For the same story, another former student simply loved it.

Same story, two completely different reactions.

It was really a matter of style. I failed to explain to student #1 what passive really is, but decided I'd take a look at the pro's work to see how mine compared.

I opened a Dean Koontz novel and plowed through the first chapter. For several pages it followed every rule to a T, then suddenly, I ran into one long paragraph riddles with "was" and "were" and "had". In that entire paragraph - which took up and entire page - I noticed that there were a few passive sentences, but most were simply "static". He was simply telling me a lot of historical information.

Don't we get poo-poo'd for doing that? Often, yes. But it wasn't necessary at that point in the story to SHOW me everything that paragraph was intended to tell me. He simply needed to make me aware of some key points and then get on with the story.

The important thing was, I didn't notice when I was just 'reading' the story (vs. analyzing it), and everything made perfect sense.

Which goes back to Survivor's assertion -- something I argued for in my original post to the grammar thread -- that what really matters is clarity and word-choice. If I don't have to stop and try to figure out what you meant or what you're trying to say, then you're fine.

Certainly, the following:

"A fly buzzed in Jack's ear. Jack woke up. He wagged his tail side to side below his perch on the window. He lifted his head and looked for the source of the noise. He saw the fly. The fly circled a lamp then landed on it. Jack jumped. He landed on the bed then bounced immediately towards the lamp. The fly flew away. Jack flew into the lamp...."

Most of us would go 'ugh'. But in some circumstances that MIGHT be what you're after. It all depends on point of view, how deeply you are into the mind of the character, how you want to convey the character's thoughts and emotions, who your target audience is, etc.

At this point, grammar does not help. You could rewrite that section about ten different ways, all of them grammatically correct (or not, if that is your intention as well). What matters at this point is style and voice. HOW do you want to convey that message?

In the end, what really matters is does the style fit the needs and expectations of the audience, and is it clear?

"There was a fly buzzing in Jack's ear, and he was irritated." Who was irritated? Jack, or the fly? Many people would read that and assume it was the fly. This is where you simply write the story then edit for clarity, making sure that we know that the buzzing irritated Jack, not the fly. THAT's far more important than being able to diagram that sentence (though if you could, I'm sure you'd see the flaws in it pretty quickly anyway). And that has more to do wtih common sense than mastery of grammar.

I think what you're after is something you already are aware of, and how to fix it. I submit that because you already are aware of the problem, you already know how to fix it. If you feel you resue the same words too often, then when you revise your draft, you go back and change these words. Most of the words like "but", "so", "that", "was" and "and" could be eliminated by recasting sentences or choosing alternate words. Whether or not you actually do is up to you.

But here I go rambling again...

Z

[This message has been edited by rjzeller (edited December 10, 2004).]


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Balthasar
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A couple of points worth considering.

First, the study of grammar must be seen in the larger context of the study of composition in general. Grammar is the foundation of writing a good sentence, and the ability to write good, crisp sentences of varying length and complexity is one of the lungs of good prose. The other lung is vocabulary--but like grammar, vocabulary is subordinated to understanding diction. Thus, what you need to study is English composition: grammar, punctuation, diction, sentence varitey, paragraph structure, and so forth.

Second, if you are unsure about ANY of these you ought to think about taking a sabbatical from writing to brush up on what you don't know. Learning to write fiction is too difficult to be mixed in with learning the fundamentals of composition.

Do you need to study this? Well, it really depends on how important prose and style are to you.


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Lord Darkstorm
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All very good points. I think for me, I have grown tired of guessing. I do write my first drafts with sentance structure in the back of my mind. The sentances don't have to be perfect the first time. I will go back and revise several times. I want the first draft to be bearable to an average reader, even if I have no intention of letting anyone read it before the first revision.

The first revision is where my lack of knowledge tends to annoy me. I see sentances that I don't like, and sometime I still don't like it after the fourth try at making it right. This is the point I feel knowing what is going on in a sentance would be helpfull. I might not even need that sentance, or I might need another. Still comes back to guessing.

The story is derived from character development, plot concept, and picking and choosing which parts of the story need to be written. All of these factors can, and are, changed as needed. This part of my writing development takes time and practice. Grammar doesn't help me choose what parts to tell. Knowing what one of my prepositional phrases is doing to a sentance can mean the difference between a good clear sentance/paragraph and a not so clear one.

If everyone knew enough grammar to improve their choices...wouldn't that make reading a so-so story easier? I know some of the snippets I read in the FF section are not very clear. They might be grammatically correct, but they lack the clarity that makes stories easy to read. Some of them might be incredible stories that have been lost to a lack of clarity.


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djvdakota
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quote:
But if you have no clue how to use the brushes...how could you even pretend to imitate anyone? Art has two sides, the creative side, and the skill side. When I was learning to draw, I had to develope the skills necessary to turn what was in my mind, into marks on a piece of paper.

But you DO know how to use the tools of grammar. Look at every post you've written. There isn't a single unclear sentence therein. Just because you don't know how to diagram complex sentences doesn't mean you don't know how to use the tools! Just because you don't know the terms for the structural intricacies of the language doesn't mean you don't know how to use them correctly!

You're drowning the desire to create art in the study of how EXACTLY to hold the brush and how PRECISELY to touch the brush to the canvas. Good Grief! Relax! Just write! I'm starting to worry about your emotional stability!

The reason writers choose to use a particular set of words over another has much less to do with grammar than it does with art--it's the rhythm and the flow and the sound and the feel of the words. You can't learn any of those things from a grammar book.

I've learned more grammar in the past year+ of homeschooling my children then I ever learned in school. Has it made me a better writer? No! It's really only made me a little more knowledgeable so I can sound smarter than I am when discussions about grammar come up on this forum.

Expertise in grammar is not shown by how well you can spout the vocabulary. It is shown in your mastery of its USE. You demonstrate quite clearly in your posts that you possess a working knowledge of the rules of grammar--just like most of the rest of us. That's all you need. You're there. You DO have a thorough understanding of grammar. And any deeper understanding is NOT going to make you a better writer. It will do NOTHING to increase your confidence in your writing choices. And diagramming a whole short story? Wow! Now I'm REALLY wondering about your mental stability.


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Christine
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Thank you, Dakota. I have to admit, I've been wondering if this discussion shouldn't be combined with "Are Writers Insecure?"

Yes, Balthasar, writers should know grammar, but I think the reason we're all taking the stance we are in *this* case is because LDS' problems have nothing to do with grammar

LDS: Your words are fine. Stop worrying about the words and start thinking about the story. I think, at this point, that it's not that you don't know how to use the brush, it's that you're afraid of it. What if you drop it and leave a smudge?


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Balthasar
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Well, I'm not really sure what the issue is if it isn't grammar.

Let me ask a question of Lord D. Are you worried about writing incorrect sentences, or are you worried about style? Style is a strange thing to talk about because no one really knows what it means. On the objective level, style can refer to the basic prinicples of grammar and punctuation. On a subjective level, it refers to the way a particular writer crafts his sentences.

Subjectively, style isn't something you should develop. Why? Because by doing do so your writing ends up being mannered. Rather, style comes about in the rewriting phase, when you scratch out bad sentences, poor word choices, and so forth, for better ones. I suppose if you want to think about it more than this, you have to ask if you prefer a plain style to an ornate one, an essayist style to a poetic one.

Or, are you concerned about the rhythm of your writing? A great way to correct this is to begin to imitate writers you admire. For starters, you physically type out one of their short stories or a chapter of a novel at a clip of two pages a day. Then, imitate them when you write. If you do this enough, you'll slowly begin to develop your own way.

Another thing you can do is this: Write three pages of short, declarative sentences. Then go back and, writing on the same subject, write three pages of long sentences. It's these kinds of writing exercises that make you a good writer. The boon of an exercise is that it allows you to focus on one aspect of writing without worrying about the story or publication; much the way a guitarist might practice scales using only upstrokes with his pick.

You mentioned something about words. If you're concerned with words, then start imporving your vocabulary. A less serious approach would be to write down all the words you come across in your reading that you don't know, and review the list throughout the week. A more serious way would be to read the dictionary, making lists of the relatively short and relatively common words you know you don't use.

I disagree, in part, with what Dakota said. You can't be a great writer unless you've mastered the rules of grammar and composition. However, just like playing the guitar (I know; I play, too), there comes a point where you'll catch on. Study, reading, writing--these will surely help you. But as the ancient addage goes, art is long, and it takes a long time to become a great writer.

[This message has been edited by Balthasar (edited December 10, 2004).]

[This message has been edited by Balthasar (edited December 10, 2004).]


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SteeleGregory
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quote:
I see sentances that I don't like, and sometime I still don't like it after the fourth try at making it right. This is the point I feel knowing what is going on in a sentance would be helpfull. I might not even need that sentance, or I might need another.

This just sounds like you're obsessing. You're trying so hard to find problems, you're inventing them. Maybe you need to step away from the story a bit longer before you start revising, so you're less attached when you're reading it.

If you still keep having the same problem, just make sure the sentence is clear then move on. Come back to it later and it will probably look fine. You might just be paying it too much attention.

If someone tells you you're breathing too loud, you become aware of your breathing (as you are now, no doubt) and try to be quiet, but you didn't notice before because it didn't deserve your attention. I doubt that most of these sentences deserve your attention either.


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Lord Darkstorm
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quote:
Are you worried about writing incorrect sentences, or are you worried about style?

Sentences, not style. Was it OSC that mentioned style comes by writing...not by choice. Something like that. Might not have been him, but one of the books on writing I've read said that style happens. Of course, I believe style can be improved. The way I write is the way I write. As I write more it gets better.

Revision is where most of my issues come up. I could be wrong, and grammar might not help. I don't see it hurting either.

As to comments about my mental stability. I might as well clear this up right now. I'm not completely stable. Never have been. I just learned to act normal around other people.

I've beaten myself up on occasion for not putting any real effort into music. When it came down to learning the theory, I didn't. Once I made the decision to write, I decided that whatever I needed to learn I would. Not changing my mind now. I don't think I will be as concerned with dangling participles, or split infinitives (although that one makes a bit of sense now).


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Kolona
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quote:
Perhaps what would be more helpful than simply learning the details of grammar, is learning how to study style. Style is how you put words together within the perameters of set out by grammar.

There's this whole argument in a nutshell. It's a chicken or egg thing.

"Diminishing returns?" I'm not sure what you mean, rick.


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wetwilly
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By all means, grammar is important to writing, but it is not all important.

Allow me to STRONGLY disagree. You can't write truly great music if you don't understand at least some music theory. You have to understand the rules of rhythm and counterrhythm, the rules of how to harmonize, what musical "moves" will create a certain emotional effect, etc. You can't paint a great painting if you don't understand the rules of perspective, lighting, etc. You can't make a great movie...well, I'm sure you get the point.

You can't write great prose if you don't understand the foundational rules that make language make sense. Those rules are grammar. Sure, you shouldn't be restricted to the rules, but, as is said often enough to almost be a cliche, you have to understand the rules before you can break them. Or at least before you can break them well. I repeat: Grammar is the set of rules that make language make sense. Without it, words make no sense. The better your command of the rules that make language make sense, the better your ability to write clear, understandable sentences.


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J
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I agree with wetwilly.

I'd also like to comment on the notion that "style happens." Style certainly happens in the first draft of any sentence or paragraph, but a writer isn't bound by the style in which they 'happen' to naturally write.

Take Hemingway. He would write ten pages for every page he kept. The nine pages he threw away were excess words, sentences, or ideas. He wrote a first draft neccesarily formed by his natural style--"style happens." Then he cut and revised and revised and cut until each sentence possessed the manly terseness for which he is famous.
This is where I think the study of grammar can be valuable. Studying grammar is one of the first steps away from being a helpless victim of whatever style the writer happens to naturally posess towards being the master of the deliberately chosen style that in the end graces the page.


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KatFeete
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I'm late to this discussion, so correct me if I'm wrong, but the question seems to be: is proper grammar important, or isn't it?

Combined with: What is this grammar stuff, anyway?

The answer to the first question is, for me, an unequivocial "yes". I cannot read a poorly constructed sentence without wincing. I have stopped reading several published authors for this exact reason, and I frequently stop reading posts on forums like this one for the same reason. It's difficult for me to take someone seriously as a writer when they splice sentences, misplace modifiers, and mix "it's" and "its" together indiscriminately.

Yup, I'm a snob. I'm also overeducated; I majored in English Literature, which makes me more sensitive than the average. But I suspect that most readers trip over errors whether they realize it or not. If you can pick up the rules of grammar subconciously over years of writing, as several people here have argued, than you will probably pick up major errors in said grammar subconciously. The effect - for me at least - is one of loosing conciousness of the world created by the words and becoming concious of the words themselves. Sometimes it's only for an instant, but it's there; a hesitation, a moment's loss of the bigger picture. A loss to the writer whose livelihood depends on maintaining that illusion.

You do not hire a man to build your house who says, "Oh, I don't know much about bricks - I just put them together so that they feel right." And you've no business being a writer unless you know something about words and they way they go together.

This is, by the way, the definition of grammar that I live by: words, and they way they go together. I could, with effort and grumbling, probably dig up stuff about subjunctive clauses and participles from my college education, but I'm not all that interested. I can identify all of the parts of speech, and that is of use to me, because it helps me notice when I'm overusing my adjectives and adverbs (frequently); I know where to put a semicolon and where to put a colon, and I could give you a pretty decent rundown of where to use and not use a comma. More esoteric stuff I use less.

You don't have to be a grammar wizard to write, but you do have to know which end of the predicate goes up. *grin*

My advice would be to purchase two books. The first is Strunk and White's, which I'm sure someone, somewhere, has recommended. It is short, clear, and handles most errors. The second is Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. LeGuin. It's a series of exercises dealing with everything from punctuation to POV problems. It, too, is short and clear, and a remarkable tool.

Best of luck!


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rickfisher
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quote:
"Diminishing returns?" I'm not sure what you mean, rick.
I mean you're so good at it already.

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Kolona
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Oh. I'm sorry. I wasn't fishing. I guess I was just feeling insecure.


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djvdakota
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Just a moment while I roll my eyes.

Here's the thing. LDS has quite clearly demonstrated through his responses in these posts that he has mastered the use of grammar.

He may not be able to rattle off a verbal diagram of every sentence he writes (though it seems he's working at that skill), but he can construct sentence after sentence that is grammatically correct and easily understandable.

Isn't that all that matters? Really?

If not, then I suppose I'll never succeed as a writer.

What KatFeete said (Oh, and welcome to Hatrack, by the way) hit the nail on the head:

quote:
I could, with effort and grumbling, probably dig up stuff about subjunctive clauses and participles from my college education, but I'm not all that interested. I can identify all of the parts of speech, and that is of use to me, because it helps me notice when I'm overusing my adjectives and adverbs (frequently); I know where to put a semicolon and where to put a colon, and I could give you a pretty decent rundown of where to use and not use a comma. More esoteric stuff I use less.

It's the USE of grammar--the knowing how to put words together so people can understand the meaning you are trying to convey--that demonstrates mastery. Not an anal-retentive obsession to be able to rattle off all that garbage about gerunds and dangling participles.

There I go again!


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dpatridge
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HOORAY! someone finally said it, i didn't feel like saying it myself, i rant too often as it is, but i agree completely with djv.

i couldn't even tell you what i used where in any of my sentences, but i can tell you when sentences work, and when they don't. that is all that really matters


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djvdakota
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Thanks dpr. But I'm just going to step off my soap box now.

cy'all back in Open Discussions.


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wetwilly
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DJV and KatFeete, good calls, both of you. I couldn't agree more.
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Kolona
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Weird, really weird. When I'm thinking I'm being insulted, I'm not, but then I'm blindsided by some bona fide barbs from elsewhere. Even weirder, I would have thought getting knee-deep in grammar was appropriate on a writer's site. Maybe I'd better head back to that 'insecure' topic.

I think there's a difference between having a grasp of grammar and mastering it. Just because a person can cook, doesn't make him a gourmet chef.

I agree with KatFeete's observation that relying on the grammar you pick up as you go through life means you're picking up the level of grammar to which you're exposed -- errors and all. If writers don't attempt to hold the high ground, who will?

And throwing around words like 'garbage' does a disservice to those, like LordD, who choose to expand their knowledge of grammar. Reminds me of crabs in an open bucket. No lid is needed on the bucket because if any crab tries to climb out, the others pull him back down.


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Lord Darkstorm
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For good or bad, whether it helps or not, and regardless of anyones opinion, I intend to learn. Learning grammar is something I have decided to do. I feel it is an important part of my learning proccess. Do I expect anyone else to feel the same? No, not really. All things that involve a creative side, or talent, also require skills to master. Writing requires more than just the ability to put together nice sentances. Character development, plot, conflict, and the list goes on. Just writing might get me to a point where I want to be, but there will always be a lack of understanding.

Would there be as much disagreement on the need to develope a believable character? Or a plot that has consistency? If I ignore good ways to describe, or show without long boring telling, is that just as unimportant as grammar supposed to be? I bet this sounds like I'm ranting, but I'm not.

I'm trying to make a point. I have made up my mind the direction for me, and I don't need approval. I was also hoping others might benifit from the help I wanted from the more knowledgeable people here. I have realized there is a vast disagreement on the issue. No one has to follow me down the road to learning grammar. It is a choice I made for myself.

As some of you know, I like a heated discussion from time to time. I just don't see this subject as one that should be. The books on grammar I have read, and some I'm reading again, point out the conflict between the way grammar is percieved and details percieved. Let them argue, we can come up with much better topics to disagree on.

I'd be lying if I said I haven't enjoyed the various opinions. I would just prefer that we keep it to a civilized disagreement.


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Christine
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The follwoing, IMO, sums this discussion up:

1. Grammar is an essential tools for writers to be able to comprehend and USE. (Note: I highlighted "use" because being able to construct a properly worded sentence is far more important than knowing whether "construct," in this context, was a verb or a verbal.)

2. If a writer is unable to use the language, then he shoudl stop writing and study grammar. He should study grammar until being able to write properly is second nature.

4. LDS can write properly constructed sentences. If the grammar fiends disagree with this, please provide examples.

5. If LDS wants to study the intricasies of grammar anyway, he is free and welcomed to do so. In that vein, a forum for writers is a wonderful place to pursue such a study as we should all be profficient in the subject.


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Kolona
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There seems to be some straw dummies being erected here. Having a solid comprehension of grammar is invaluable, but I missed the part where anyone said a writer absolutely must be an initiate into the dark mysteries of grammar. No one is suggesting getting grammar PhDs. However, actually mastering the intricacies of grammar can only be an asset to a writer. So why the antagonism toward it?

If a writer "should study grammar until being able to write properly is second nature," and so many here don't believe they need to study it, then we've all arrived and should be living off our writing incomes. Yet KatFeete can tellingly say:

quote:
I cannot read a poorly constructed sentence without wincing. I have stopped reading several published authors for this exact reason, and I frequently stop reading posts on forums like this one for the same reason.

Maybe we're not as far along as we think.

Where are you coming from, Christine? Please provide examples of anyone saying LordD can't write properly constructed sentences. (The bold print and "grammar fiends" were obviously meant to be part of a civilized discussion, right?)

We are obviously all not profficient in grammar since there have been admissions of not knowing the fine points and not really caring to, but LordD has consistently said he felt lacking in the area and wanted to improve. A writer's forum should be "a wonderful place to pursue such a study," but words like "anal retentive," "garbage," and "fiend" kind of put a damper on things.

As I recall, LordD asked for suggestions for improving grammar and sentence structure, specifically ruling out style several times in this whole discussion, and among the suggestions was mine to study diagramming sentences. He liked that idea as well as the others, and I believe Christine suggested offering a paragraph to dissect. At that point, anyone who felt the discussion was more information than they wanted simply had the option of not reading the thread. And this thread seems to be a screed to dissuade LordD from studying grammar.

I don't get it.


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Lord Darkstorm
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quote:
I don't get it.

I think I do. I came very close to making my opinion public...then thought better of it. There was just no way I could find to make it anything but a flamable concept.

It really isn't important. I can respect some people don't think it is important. I'm as stuborn as most, more than others. This whole discussion has been interesting, and enlightening in ways. I'm sure there are published authors out there with little knowledge of grammmar.

I'm glad there are people here that are willing to help. I do appreciate the time they are taking to help me understand. Which so far has helped me make sense of a few things that never seemed to click.

[This message has been edited by Lord Darkstorm (edited December 12, 2004).]


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KatFeete
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Thanks to all who've said hi. I'm not technically new, seeing as I joined back in August, but since one of my periodic life explosions has kept me off the forum since then the sentiment is still applicable. *grin*

I note with some pride that I'm being cited by both sides of this debate. Of course, it could just be that I didn't make my point very clearly (ironic in a grammar discussion, eh?) But I suspect the problem here is one of degree, not kind.

Everyone seems to agree that having a good understanding of the language is essential for a writer. Where we differ is in how we define "good".

And that's fine. It's a judgment call.

No. Really. It is. Lord Darkstorm (to use a much abused example - sorry, LDS) expresses himself perfectly coherently; for a lot of people who've posted here, this is a "good understanding" of grammar, and the only measure that counts. That's fine.

For myself - and, at a guess, for Kolona and a few others - it's not a good understanding. I could list off several errors in his posts, if I had his permission to critique in that way, though such harsh light on informal postings is rather unfair *grin*. For LDS himself it's clearly not a good understanding either. He wants to be better. That's fine, too.

Is such knowledge required to be published? Certainly not. I said it myself: I've stopped reading published authors because I couldn't bear their clumsy grammar. That it bugged the hell out of me didn't keep them from being published.

Is such knowledge required to be a good writer? Certainly not. Read Jane Austen sometime. Reading too much Victorian literature has ruined my ability to use semicolons properly forever. It didn't stop my professors feeding it to me as literature.

Will such knowledge make a better writer? Yes.

Which brings us, I suspect, to the crux of the matter. Grammar is scary, and being told - directly or implicitly - that you will be less of a writer without it makes the best of us defensive. At the same time, being told that it's useless makes those of us who've spent time mastering the damned stuff testy.

Let's calm down, folks. If you've spent or are spending your time learning grammar, bravo! You'll be a better writer for it. If you've spent your time mastering character development or the nuances of plot twists instead, bravo also. You'll be a better writer for it. I doubt that one is more important in the great scheme of writing than the other. It all depends on how you choose to focus your energies.

And if you've spent your time figuring your word count, playing Solitare, and posting insanely long diatribes to online communities... join the sinner's line and enjoy the company. *grin*


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djvdakota
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Fantastic summary, Christine.

My main trouble with this entire discussion has been the obsessive connection LDS seems to be making between the study of grammar and the art of writing.

There is no such connection beyond the need for a writer to be able to coherently express himself.

He can study grammar all he wants, and I encourage him to do so. But if he thinks it's going to transform him into the next great writer of our age he's mistaken. A knowledge of grammar does not an artist make. Being an artist is about heart and soul and the ability (natural or developed) to reach the heart of his/her audience.

I heard of a piano competition not long ago in which the judges handed out NO awards. Why? The performances were technically precise, the compositions properly difficult for the level of competition. But not a single one of those brilliant young pianists played with any heart. One judge said he'd rather hear thirty technically poor performances filled with heart, than to have to listen to one more technically perfect performance with no heart at all.

I think the same can be said of writing. Perhaps that explains the extreme popularity of Harry Potter?

So study your grammar, LDS. But you'll not find your heart in a grammar book.

OK. THIS time I'm done.

Oh, and Kolona, my comment about 'gerund and dangling participle garbage' was NOT a personal attack on anyone. Though I agree, it was a stupid way for me to express my thoughts. Apologies to those who seek to climb out. I choose to stay in. But a) at least I'm not at the bottom of the grammatical bucket (but then, neither is LDS) and b) I'm honestly not trying to pull anyone else back in. I just want to be sure LDS is clearly seeing the misconnection between knowledge and heart (for lack of a better analogy) that is being bandied about in this discussion. It's a good thing to know your grammar. It's a better thing to write with heart.


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Survivor
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Well spoken, DJ.

I try to keep that in mind as I critique, that just because I'm pointing out technical flaws doesn't mean the work itself is hopeless. Whether it's grammer problems or poor handling of the characterization.

I just watched some technically darn near perfect Anime, but there was a certain coldness to the way the writers thought of the characters. Yes, the characters were exceptionally well drawn (in all relevant senses), but they weren't the point of the series, the point was a big mystery revelation that I had pretty much figured out well before getting anywhere near the end of the show.

Submit something to me, and I'll help with grammer if you need my help there. But grammer isn't everything. As long as you aren't making gross errors that obscure the semantics of your work, it is hardly anything.


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wetwilly
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Which show was that, Survivor?
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Magic Beans
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All this talk about grammar, technique, and style is almost pointless.

There is value in discussing it, but that's not the half of it, and that's why I said it's almost pointless.

What story are you telling? That's the question. You can't separate style from what you're trying to accomplish with the story any more than you can separate what brush technique you use from what kind of painting you're creating. You can't separate writing style from the story's demands any more than you could separate musical technique from what kind of song you're playing. The painting dictates the technique as interpreted by the painter, and re-interpreted by one who views and appreciates the painting. The song itself dictates the technique used to play it as interpreted by the musician, and is re-interpreted and appreciated by the audience. The story itself dictates the style used to write it as interpreted by the author and is re-interpreted and appreciated by the reader.

Any fool can paint a picture, but it's VanGogh's interpretation of the night sky we love. Any fool can strum on a guitar, but it's Hendrix's "Castles Made of Sand" we love. Any fool can write, but it's how John Crowley writes in Little, Big that has us gasping with pleasure at every single page. VanGogh knew what he wanted you to experience when you saw his painting, so that's how he painted it. Hendrix knew what he wanted you to experience when you heard his song, so that's how he played it. Crowley knew what he wanted you to experience when you read his story, so that's how he wrote it.

There's no recipe book for this stuff. There is only everything that's already been written, and that which has yet to be written.

[This message has been edited by Magic Beans (edited December 13, 2004).]


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Lord Darkstorm
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Kind of funny, but my heart has been in it. It is my skills that I find lacking. I do work hard on learning how to put a story together. Some things deserve to be in a story, while others do not. It can be a bit overwhelming all the different aspects in crafting a good story. I have been working on those aspects, and see results within my writing.

Lately I have found they way I write isn't as good as I would like it to be. I don't expect learning grammar to replace the other skills that are required to put together a good story. I'm sure you can agree that it is easier to listen to a piano piece that is played well, than one filled with mistakes. Writing correctly can't hurt a story, but poor writing doesn't help it. I try and work on any area I find lacking. My grammar is lacking.

Besides, good writing is my goal, and grammar is the foundation for writing.


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mikemunsil
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quote:
... and grammar is the foundation for writing.

No, thinking is.

If you need a grammarian, hire one. Hire one by offering to trade hours spent critiquing, or writing code, or whatever you have to offer, for hours spent correcting your grammar. Get off the grammar kick and start thinking about writing, then write. Worry about the grammar later.


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Survivor
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Last Exile. It's very beautiful, the music and acting (both voice and keyframing) are wonderful, the drawings are great, the milieu really holds together and draws you in, the characters are wonderfully imagined and actualized. I loved watching it...but the "payoffs" are never designed to be the things that are really important to the characters. Things that are only important to the characters themselves are dropped as though they don't matter at all if it doesn't directly advance the grand plot or produce a good visual.

That said, the degree of technical mastery is impressive and the plot is interesting in its own right, as is the theme (ironically, the theme has to do with the importance of people living for their own individual purposes rather than the jaded amusement of those whom fate has placed in better circumstances--I'm aware that this is a common sub-theme in a lot of modern Japanese narrative art, but in this one it's really at the forefront).


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KatFeete
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quote:
All this talk about grammar, technique, and style is almost pointless.....

What story are you telling? That's the question.


No.

Look, writing and reading are damned unnatural things to do. When you speak to someone - when someone tells you a story - they're picking up on a thousand different cues: facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, pauses.... What's said always takes second place - or third or fourth or even fifth - to how it's said. Communicating over the phone or listening to recorded music is doable, but more difficult. At heart we want the live performance, the face-to-face conversation, the real thing.

In writing we have none of it. We have only what's said. We have only the words; the least important, the most lifeless component of the story. That's it. That's all.

Grammar, at its heart, is a code, a way of putting some of that life back into the words. Ignore grammar, and you make noise without context, words without meaning. You give your audience no clue how to respond to what you're saying, and so, by default, they respond with nothing.

I know a lot of good storytellers, people with the most fantastic stories you've ever heard. But when they try to write those stories, they fail. They haven't got the grammar. I could write down their stories, word for word: I could even do what mikemunsil suggests, and act as a hired grammarian, rewriting the story to fit the rules - but I'd have to rewrite so extensively that, in the end, it wouldn't be their story, their voice, at all. Only mine.

I'm not saying your work must be grammatically perfect. I'm not even saying that you can't break the rules; you can, and sometimes you should. But when you say:

quote:
There's no recipe book for this stuff.

I have to disagree. There is. It's there for a reason: the furtherment of our understanding of each other.


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Lord Darkstorm
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If grammar isn't the foundation of writing, why do all schools teach it? Even if the current system of teaching isn't what it should be. If someone had told me in high school that one day I would not ony pay for, but look forward to, a book on diagramming sentances I would have laughed at them. Followed by a lecture on the dangers of taking acid.

We all learn grammar to some degree, and that is what allows us to communicate ideas to each other. Do we need to know all the parts of a sentance to understand the sentance? No, we don't. How would we communicate if we all had our own structures? Would any of you understand me if I hadn't learned how to "wing it" to pass english class? I doubt it. Grammar is the basis for communication between people. It doesn't matter if you learn the details behind it, you will never get your ideas across without being able to write in a manner that fits the basic structures of grammar. It is fortunate that the "rules" give us room for variation, but there are still rules.

"Store corner left." Does this make sense? How many people could figure out the intent behind what should say, "To get to the store, turn left on the corner of Main Street." I think we can take for granted that we have learned enough grammer by reading, writing, and school to lessen our need to understand it.

I feel a need to know enough grammar to understan what I'm doing with it. Since I want to be a writer, grammer is one tool I feel I need to get there. It is only a tool, one of many. I would be curious to know the true reason behind all the negativity of learning it. Since I never made a statement like "Only people who know grammar can become a good writer." Or some other statement which would amount to the same thing. I want to learn it for me, that's all. No one else has to learn it. I doubt learning it will be easy, or quick, but I still want to learn.


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