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Best ways to brush up (1 Viewer)

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Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
I'm going to point out the practical fallacy of your theory.

Most of the people this discussion will be helpful to are writers just starting out. I don't know how much work you've read from writers just starting out. It could be a lot for all I know, but I have read a LOT of first time works, and critiqued them.

The average first time work is garbage, and the average reason it's garbage is because it's filled with sentences you'd swear were written by a third grader. The vast majority of the time when you politely point out the grammar problems which ruin the work, the first time author, who believes in their heart they've just produced "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone", or "The Hunger Games", or "The Great Gatsby", gets upset with the messenger and goes on to never improve, and never have a chance to find a readership.

So when we get a beginning author who is eager to avoid that trap, let's not tell them that grammar will work itself out. Grammar WILL NOT work itself out. There is a lot of study and work and self-evaluation and revision that comes between garbage and something you can present proudly to a reader. If you don't have a foundation, you won't make that leap in quality.

With all due respect, I see a weakness in your theory as well. You say the average first time work is garbage. That suggests that 50% of first time work is decent or more.

Personally I think people should, and I got into trouble for saying this once before, rely on their education. In that, I mean when you are actually writing -- go with what you got! I can't imagine it is a very creative process if you are writing an interesting story and on the forefront of your consciousness is what form of grammar you should use and what it is called. Perhaps you want to learn that as a side interest, but if you get too worried about it, you may never write, and find out that you are actually in that top 50%.

As a first time fiction novelist, being on this site has been incredibly helpful for me. But when you guys start talking clauses, copular verbs, participial phrases...should I use this structure or that structure..la..la..la, I haven't got a clue what you are talking about. Then I go back to my own work and see that I am apparently already doing what you all say to do.

If someone had said that in order to write well, I need to heed my grammar, I would probably not have started to write my novel. And now I’m 75% complete. Hope I'm in the top 50%. :)

 

JBF

Staff member
Global Moderator
I'm going to point out the practical fallacy of your theory.

My advice is worth every cent the reader didn't pay for it. Point away.

Most of the people this discussion will be helpful to are writers just starting out. I don't know how much work you've read from writers just starting out. It could be a lot for all I know, but I have read a LOT of first time works, and critiqued them.

Fair. I based my opinion on the style of the OP's writing, which was clean and concise and to the point. Does this carry over into fiction? I don't know. But seeing as OP seems to have a solid grasp of how sentences fit together, spinning off into the dismal swamp of high school grammar lessons seems out of place.

The average first time work is garbage, and the average reason it's garbage is because it's filled with sentences you'd swear were written by a third grader. The vast majority of the time when you politely point out the grammar problems which ruin the work, the first time author, who believes in their heart they've just produced "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone", or "The Hunger Games", or "The Great Gatsby", gets upset with the messenger and goes on to never improve, and never have a chance to find a readership.

Very much so. But there is a vast difference in the new author who can produce a work that is unreadable due to weak grasp of storytelling and one who can't string together a coherent sentence. You can generally work with the former. The latter may be a lost cause.

If you don't have a foundation, you won't make that leap in quality.

I never said grammar is unimportant. I wrote that grammar has its place, but that there are other key factors which can outweigh it as a concern.

The instruction manual for your microwave is probably more technically correct than Hemingway. Definitely more correct than, say, James Joyce or Cormac McCarthy. Difference is... you can find three of those at your local bookstore and the other in the garbage.

Science and technical precision demand a grounding in the rules as a matter of course. Art has a little more leeway.
 

BabesJJ

Senior Member
I can be careless about grammar and spelling. My big thing unless it is a professional document or something that needs to be perfect, I am very careless. My big thing is getting the ideas out and communication. For me personally I didn't learn grammar until I leaned a second language. And the basics of French are subject, verb and compliment. The sentence, I am here is an example of subject verb and compliment. I taught English as a second language for 10 years and really had to learn English grammar. So both learning a language and teaching English gave me some general knowledge. I love reading. I admire good stories. I admire people who are careful editors. I like some parts of English better than others and find them funny. I like phrasal verbs because they are so unique to English. Stand up, sit down, its a verb and a preposition. Foreign speakers tend to avoid them.
Anyway, I admire any sort of mental exercise. Memorization or methodical study of any sort is admirable, including grammar study. One idea I have is to put English subtitles on your English movie and just watch dialog. To me that would be a fun way to see some grammar in action.
 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
With all due respect, I see a weakness in your theory as well. You say the average first time work is garbage. That suggests that 50% of first time work is decent or more.

Personally I think people should, and I got into trouble for saying this once before, rely on their education. In that, I mean when you are actually writing -- go with what you got! I can't imagine it is a very creative process if you are writing an interesting story and on the forefront of your consciousness is what form of grammar you should use and what it is called. Perhaps you want to learn that as a side interest, but if you get too worried about it, you may never write, and find out that you are actually in that top 50%.

As a first time fiction novelist, being on this site has been incredibly helpful for me. But when you guys start talking clauses, copular verbs, participial phrases...should I use this structure or that structure..la..la..la, I haven't got a clue what you are talking about. Then I go back to my own work and see that I am apparently already doing what you all say to do.

If someone had said that in order to write well, I need to heed my grammar, I would probably not have started to write my novel. And now I’m 75% complete. Hope I'm in the top 50%. :)


When I say average, I mean that in hundreds of first time works I sampled which first time authors spammed in Amazon's Top Reviewer's forum over the ten years I was active there, I found three ... THREE ... that were worth reading.

Hopefully a higher standard applies here, as people coming to this forum are people who believe they have something to learn ... people who want to improve. But go back and read my first comment in this thread if you haven't (#2 in the thread). What I advised there is not what you presumed in this post. It's far more basic and practical.

It's difficult to advise a new author whose work we've never seen. We don't know what their weaknesses are, and it's almost certain THEY don't know what their weaknesses are. The ONLY way for them to find out is to read accessible, well presented advice on writing and recognize the areas they're getting it wrong ... including grammar issues. I had a great education in English, and you don't want to know how many exclamation points I removed in a revision of my first novel. LOL (Or how many adjectives, or adverbs, or the word "that", or the word "could").

BTW, Copular verbs are easy. They are verbs which don't portray action. Most of the time it's a conjugation of "to be". If you write an entire paragraph where every verb is "was", that's a problem. I try to limit it to once every couple of paragraphs (fewer if it works out that way), but certainly no more than once per paragraph.

I'm not a fan of "write anything and fix it in revision". I've worked to become a writer, not a "reviser". There is enough work to do in revision without having to rewrite lots of sentences just to eliminate basic mistakes.
 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
I never said grammar is unimportant. I wrote that grammar has its place, but that there are other key factors which can outweigh it as a concern.

True, but primarily true for a writer who already has experience, because they've developed a feel for what works when.

The gentleman I mentioned who pretty much wrote his entire book leaning on the verb "was" had it even in action sequences.

The crooks were running from the warehouse. As he was jumping over the fence to chase them, he was hoping they weren't armed. So he was alarmed when he heard a shot. One of them was firing at him. It was enough of a threat that he was tempted to give up the chase.

That's not word for word, but it's a fair representation. And his writing wasn't the "garbage" I discussed, but still contains a fatal flaw. Don't you agree if he'd learned better before he wrote an entire book that way he'd have been better off? What if the challenge of rewriting all of the action sentences in his book puts him off?

Experts in every hobby and profession study and practice to achieve their expertise, and somehow people get the notion that writing is "natural". "If you can speak, you can write." Not true.
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
When I say average, I mean that in hundreds of first time works I sampled which first time authors spammed in Amazon's Top Reviewer's forum over the ten years I was active there, I found three ... THREE ... that were worth reading.

But was that only because of grammar, or did the story telling play a role?

Hopefully a higher standard applies here, as people coming to this forum are people who believe they have something to learn ... people who want to improve. But go back and read my first comment in this thread if you haven't (#2 in the thread). What I advised there is not what you presumed in this post. It's far more basic and practical.

Yes i did read that post, it was very well written by the way! But, we must have been laughing for different reasons because I don't even know what a copula is.
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Thanks for the explanation btw...I'll go check my work to see how often I use "was".


It's difficult to advise a new author whose work we've never seen. We don't know what their weaknesses are, and it's almost certain THEY don't know what their weaknesses are. The ONLY way for them to find out is to read accessible, well presented advice on writing and recognize the areas they're getting it wrong ... including grammar issues. I had a great education in English, and you don't want to know how many exclamation points I removed in a revision of my first novel. LOL (Or how many adjectives, or adverbs, or the word "that", or the word "could").

BTW, Copular verbs are easy. They are verbs which don't portray action. Most of the time it's a conjugation of "to be". If you write an entire paragraph where every verb is "was", that's a problem. I try to limit it to once every couple of paragraphs (fewer if it works out that way), but certainly no more than once per paragraph.

I'm not a fan of "write anything and fix it in revision". I've worked to become a writer, not a "reviser". There is enough work to do in revision without having to rewrite lots of sentences just to eliminate basic mistakes.

Fair enough. And I do appreciate all the advice, but I just wanted to point out that some of the discussions that take place on here are way over my head! I understand these conversations must be fascinating for those of you with English study backgrounds. And yes of course we should learn from people's advice. But if I were to make a comparison to perhaps shed some light on the purpose of my previous post I would say something like this. I have a background in finance. If a new investor were to ask me my advice on investing, I would not say to them, look at all the people who have credit card debt and have lost money on the stock market. And that before they even start to invest they should read a book or learn basic fundamentals of finance, like how to calculate compound interest or bond yields. Because likely that might scare them off. I would say, start a savings account and put some money in it each month.

EDIT: OK so not a good comparison because saving isn't investing. But my point is just get started and learn as you go.

2nd EDIT: Maybe some of it, you may never need to know.

 
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VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
I would say, start a savings account and put some money in it each month.

EDIT: OK so not a good comparison becasue saving isn't investing. But my point is just get started and learn as you go.


I started this answer and your edit popped into the quote box. Yeah, I was about to say, wouldn't that be a bit like telling a writer to concentrate on their grocery list? LOL
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
I started this answer and your edit popped into the quote box. Yeah, I was about to say, wouldn't that be a bit like telling a writer to concentrate on their grocery list? LOL

Haha...I think my second edit is probably more pertinent.
 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
But was that only because of grammar, or did the story telling play a role?

Sorry, I forgot to get this from the top of your comment.

Most supposed masterworks had both problems. One nonfiction book--not one of the three I mentioned earlier--failed badly in grammar and typos, but his advice turned out to be excellent. I gave him a pass. But that book would never have flown with an agent or publisher. They'd insist he clean all that up.

I would NEVER suggest that one good sentence after another produces a readable novel. Writing is not for the faint of heart. Good writing requires a complex mix of skills, and grammar, where it's required, only starts us out.

Good writers usually start with some natural gifts. What we must do is recognize and capitalize on those, but not rely on them as the whole package. We have to identify and fill in the gaps.
 

BabesJJ

Senior Member
I put 3 paragraphs of my book "Unspoken Mermaid" up under fiction I think. And I had written it pretty off handedly and didn't even bother editing it before I put it up. And someone pointed out I used the word "he" a lot. So, I cut down on the he(s). Now I have become "he" obsessed. . Do I have to be an English major or a grammar expert to write? Any of these experiences help. For me the awareness comes in increments. I am more at ease just following the characters and story. Like a trance.

When I wrote my previous novel 15 year ago and was active in writing groups and blogging I went to a talk by and English writer known in Paris, Stephen Clark. He was a science fiction writer and later became famous for books mocking the French. Anyway, he self published before it was online and got a novel produced and made it look as professional as possible. And begged local books stores in Paris to keep a few copies and some French critic picked on up and he got an agent and there he went.

Anyway, he looked at us and he was in his mid 50's back then so he must be getting up there now. And he said look, at least you tried. That is all we can do. Is try.
 

EmmaSohan

WF Veterans
As he was jumping over the fence to chase them.

Someone could look at that, think Maybe that's wordy, and construct:

As he jumped over the fence to chase them...

and then think Same meaning, one fewer word. Awesome.

The only advantage that second version has, as far as I know, is that it saves a word. There was no need to categorize that first version as a copula, passive, or progressive. (Or dependent.) I think a good writer does have to develop a sense of That seems wordy. I think a writer does need a sense of whether or not an editing change leads to a change in meaning.

Knowing that's a progressive verb might help a little with realizing how to change the sentence and evaluating the change. But I wouldn't want to argue that helps a lot.
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
Someone could look at that, think Maybe that's wordy, and construct:

As he jumped over the fence to chase them...

and then think Same meaning, one fewer word. Awesome.

The only advantage that second version has, as far as I know, is that it saves a word. There was no need to categorize that first version as a copula, passive, or progressive. (Or dependent.) I think a good writer does have to develop a sense of That seems wordy. I think a writer does need a sense of whether or not an editing change leads to a change in meaning.

Knowing that's a progressive verb might help a little with realizing how to change the sentence and evaluating the change. But I wouldn't want to argue that helps a lot.

Emma you are the SPAG Queen! You nailed it with this post. I was trying to say something of this nature, but not nearly so eloquently as you. I bow down to you.
 

JBF

Staff member
Global Moderator
True, but primarily true for a writer who already has experience, because they've developed a feel for what works when.

There's an axiom in aviation that good judgment comes from experience. The caveat is that experience is often a result of bad judgment. I think it carries here. Failure is essential because you can't grow without it. I understand that most writers will probably want at least a passing grasp of the language in its written form before they start out, but this needs to be tempered with the fact that you can't study your way into competence. Sooner or later you have to move.


The gentleman I mentioned who pretty much wrote his entire book leaning on the verb "was" had it even in action sequences.

There's a world of difference between publishing a work that needs more attention and posting an amateur story for criticism. The issue here maybe a couple of things; he may have self-published without ensuring proper edits beforehand, he may have asked the wrong people, or he may have been more concerned with getting in print and devil take the hindmost.

The crooks were running from the warehouse. As he was jumping over the fence to chase them, he was hoping they weren't armed. So he was alarmed when he heard a shot. One of them was firing at him. It was enough of a threat that he was tempted to give up the chase.

That's not word for word, but it's a fair representation. And his writing wasn't the "garbage" I discussed, but still contains a fatal flaw. Don't you agree if he'd learned better before he wrote an entire book that way he'd have been better off? What if the challenge of rewriting all of the action sentences in his book puts him off?

I see the issue. That said, I suspect there's more at work here than the grammatical. My gut says it falls under one of the aforementioned flaws that appear commonly with self-published works. Chiefly, that at no point in the process did the story appear before someone capable of highlighting flaws or otherwise convincing the author to address them.

Experts in every hobby and profession study and practice to achieve their expertise, and somehow people get the notion that writing is "natural". "If you can speak, you can write." Not true.

I haven't seen it argued that writing is natural. Nor do I read that speaking the language automatically translates into mastery of the written word. I'm sure everybody's met someone at some point who posits the idea of writing a book and doesn't make it beyond the first few unreadable paragraphs.

This falls back to the difference in art and science. There are different expectations for brain surgeons and novelists, and for good reason.
 

EmmaSohan

WF Veterans
Take, "I enjoyed the drink because it was sour". Do you get a break for "it was sour" because you started strong with "I enjoyed the drink"? "I enjoyed the sour drink" doesn't convey the same message. It only describes the drink, not why "I enjoyed it". "I enjoyed the drink because the sour quality tickled my fancy" drops the copula but is wordy.

To argue both sides, my rule for this that works well, as far as I know. So if you know that rule, you can speed up the decisions and have a teensy better chance of getting it right.

But if you just listen to how it sounds in your head, that will probably work. And probably the only way to get it wrong is to know the official grammar rule and then follow it when it's wrong.
 

EmmaSohan

WF Veterans
positioning adjectives and adverbs is simple

I was gobsmacked! The actual rules and principles for positioning adverbs seems very complicated to me.

However, there are a lot of choices, and usually the choices are all reasonably acceptable, so a non-native speaker has a lot of ways to say something reasonable.

In general, the flexibility of English lets us write more powerfully, but perhaps it makes writing well more difficult. And maybe it becomes more useful to know what you can do. But as far as I know, a native English speaker can position adverbs well. But there are a lot of difficult tasks native English speakers do easily and well, such as using "the" and "a". I have deliberately mispositioned adverbs:

Angrily she responded, "We'll improve security for the next meeting, and I'll inform the secretary so that accurately the minutes can show a unanimous vote.

But I haven't yet noticed any author making suboptimal choices.
 

clark

Met3 Member
Staff member
Chief Mentor
The quest for brevity can be too fixated. Could we return to Emma's post #32?

As he was jumping over the fence to chase them
OR
As he jumped over the fence to chase them

Someone made the point that version 2 means the same as version 1, but in one less word. So that's an Arbitrary Good, yes?

In most writing, poetry or fiction or CNF or essay or business docs or technical writing. . .a resounding yes! Less is more.

But if nuance is involved, delicate imperatives emerge.

I'd like to look at the two fragments as if I were a reader caught up in the story and responding to the versions--a reader unversed in the technical vocabulary of grammar.

Version One: okay he's going over the fence, he's in the air . . .WAIT! . . ."AS . . .ah! something's going to happen while he's up there

Version Two: okay, the fence is behind him . . .he carries on
 

TheMightyAz

Staff member
Mentor
The quest for brevity can be too fixated. Could we return to Emma's post #32?

As he was jumping over the fence to chase them
OR
As he jumped over the fence to chase them

Someone made the point that version 2 means the same as version 1, but in one less word. So that's an Arbitrary Good, yes?

In most writing, poetry or fiction or CNF or essay or business docs or technical writing. . .a resounding yes! Less is more.

But if nuance is involved, delicate imperatives emerge.

I'd like to look at the two fragments as if I were a reader caught up in the story and responding to the versions--a reader unversed in the technical vocabulary of grammar.

Version One: okay he's going over the fence, he's in the air . . .WAIT! . . ."AS . . .ah! something's going to happen while he's up there

Version Two: okay, the fence is behind him . . .he carries on

Yeah, the constant battle between brevity and voice is something I'm always fighting. The one thing I would add though, is I believe it's a necessary process, and that generally speaking 'cutting' is a good way of finding out what's filler and what's missing. To concentrate ONLY on cutting down is deadly to style, but to concentrate on cutting down AND finding more interesting content to replace those cuts, is style building. I believe that's where the individual writer lives. That and metaphor.
 
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EternalGreen

Senior Member
I think anyone with enough inborn ability and (good) training can write. I don’t benefit from gatekeeping. I have no university degree; I do not know anyone who’s part of the self-appointed “literary establishment.”

Writing is a craft and a trade, like welding.
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
I think anyone with enough inborn ability and (good) training can write. I don’t benefit from gatekeeping. I have no university degree; I do not know anyone who’s part of the self-appointed “literary establishment.”

Writing is a craft and a trade, like welding.

An interesting point. I agree writing is a craft, but it isn't really a trade. No diploma or certification is required, unlike welding. And unlike welding, writing is also an art, like a playing music or painting. I'm not sure why that is an issue, but I think because the OP was about brushing up on grammar. But they do show the true talent, or "inborn ability" of a writer with his statement:

" There are various tools like Grammerly and Hemingway that do this stuff for you but they're not completely reliable and it seems like dealing with the symptoms rather than the underlying gap in my ability."

By the thoughtfulness and creativity of this composition, it's obvious to me they are good to go. The question still remains:

"In people's opinion, how important is it to understand and be able to master the building blocks of English language rather than writing from what feels and looks right which is what I'm doing now?"

I still say go with what feels and looks right. But maybe that's because I haven't mastered the building blocks myself.
 

Kensa

Senior Member
I didn't study literature either. I write because I have stories in my head. Two years ago, I wrote a short story that was important to me. I put it in a drawer for a few months. When I read it again, it was cold and flat, I hadn't been able to convey my thoughts and emotions. That story wasn't the one I planned to write, I felt very frustrated.

I think grammar is a tool, it allows you to speak the same language as your readers, to make yourself understood (intellectual level). Style is a tool to convey emotions.
I'm not a poet, I don't like when an author plays with words for the sake of playing with words. But I'd like to be able to write the story I want to write. So I practice and try to learn the techniques needed to achieve that goal. Maybe one day, I'll be good enough as a writer to like my own stories after a few months in a drawer...
 
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