How important really is grammar?

When I tell people that I’m a freelance editor (including other writers), they instantly assume that I’m a copyeditor, with a keen interest in working on the grammar and punctuation of my clients. I’m not surprised that writers often jump to that conclusion. Majority of editors that I encounter actually ARE copyeditors. However, what is the point behind looking at the appropriateness of a given word in a sentence when on page 152 the bad guys are setting up the bomb that will level the city, and the good guys find the bomb and disarm it by the end of page 154.

This may sound incredibly odd coming from a professional editor, but in all honesty, grammar takes a backseat to story and character.

I’m not saying that one should forget about grammar completely, definitely not. However, most readers won’t notice if the grammar or punctuation is slightly off, especially if they are so engrossed and caught up in what they are reading.

When I started my training as a professional editor, I was determined to be what is known as a developmental editor. I look at story. I look at character. I look at plot. However, a developmental editor looks at so much more. I look at the devices of writing used to convey the ideas. I help writers develop their dialogue and their understanding of show.

Let’s take a step back and look at this from a reader’s perspective. Have you ever sat down and tried to read a highly technical textbook from cover to cover? I have, and let me tell you, those things are BORING! I could never read one for longer than 30 minutes in one sitting. I always had to take them in short stints. Even if you have never read a technical textbook, you can imagine how they would easily put one to sleep.

Now imagine what it would be like to read something similar that was riddled with grammatical and punctuation errors. Any statement that was constructed in an odd fashion would be picked up even by the untrained eye. Reading it would drive you insane.

This, by the way, is what copyeditors for nonfiction do all the time. I know a few of these editors, and they could probably tell you a few horror stories — but they won’t, because they are professionals, and that sort of thing is never talked about in public.

For nonfiction, grammar and punctuation are the key to getting your readers to actually read your book, especially if the material is the equivalent of a sleeping pill. However, for fiction, and memoirs, it’s the story telling that will keep a reader engaged.

Let’s consider the following passage from an early draft of a friend’s manuscript, complete with the writing errors (presented here with her permission).

Ulceridge walked—or more accurately meandered—down the dimly lit street in Rome, he was thinking about the wondrous evening that had just concluded. He was not paying much attention to his surroundings. He had been drinking and his mind drifted.

The copyeditor would likely point out the run-on sentence and the consecutive usage of He. The developmental editor would point all that out too, but then the developmental editor would also begin to ask a rafter of questions to provoke thought and bring out more in the scene.

  • There is three sentences back to back that all say petty much the same thing, but in different ways: Ulceridge was too preoccupied with his own thoughts to take note of his surroundings.
  • It was a wondrous night, but what in particular about that night was Ulceridge preoccupied with?
  • Is there a slight skip in his step, or was he following a Gene Kelly routine from Singing in the Rain?
  • Is he walking on automatic, his feet taking him where he needed to go without his mind taking any note of the surroundings? Or was he registering the little differences which told him that he had to make a left/right turn?

A developmental editor would then continue to look at this paragraph in context with the surrounding paragraphs and begin asking thought-provoking questions based on those.

  • The character is taken hostage. Did he sense that something was wrong, or was his giddy mode totally distracting him from the danger?
  • When he is captured, does the fight-or-flight syndrome kick in? How does he try to regain his freedom?

I can give you mountains of examples where a developmental editor looks at a section of writing with a different perspective than a copyeditor. However, to give you a proper idea of how a developmental editor works, I would need to share an entire chapter; not something that I’m prepared to do on a blog.

The point is it doesn’t matter how grammatically correct something is: if a story is lacking those engagement factors, then your readers will quickly get bored.

While punctuation and grammar are important, story and character matter more.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2017

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