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When is good grammar required?

Updated on July 28, 2011

Editing Pencils

Many colors for many issues.
Many colors for many issues.

"Great Story, Poor Prose"

(Revised and updated on July 28, 2011)

When can you sacrifice good grammar in the name of personal style and free expression? The short answer: anytime you want.

Ah, if only it were that simple. So much depends upon your goals for a particular article, short story or book. Or for your career as a writer, for that matter.

Question #1

Do you hope to publish through traditional venues (magazines, anthologies, mainstream publishers), or do you plan to enter it in a contest?

If you answer any part of that, "Yes," your options just dropped.

Well-established authors, having established a loyal and hungry readership, might get away with occasionally cavalier disregard for proper grammar. On the other hand, they might disappoint their fans and drive them away. For example, I am, or have been, a fan of several contemporary authors, reading anywhere from three to twenty-three of their books. Two of those authors, however (no, I shall not name them), have finally driven me away after I've read a half-dozen or more of their books. Have their stories and characters become too formulaic and predictable? Perhaps. Yet the thing that really jumps out at me is how sloppy their writing has become.

What happened? Did they become too big to have to worry about mundane details such as writing properly? Are their editors afraid to confront their cash cows? Are they so driven to produce two or three or four books a year that they can only offer prose that reads like a Dick and Jane elementary school primer? Frankly, I assume those authors no longer respect me, the customer, enough to provide a quality product.

So be it. I read enough authors producing enough quality work that I don't need to settle for that.

Now, if you're a new or emerging author, someone who's not bringing buckets of cash through the front door, agents and editors will hold you to strict professional standards. They're unlikely to forgive poor grammar. Even if you have a catchy, compelling style, they may not read enough of your submission even to discover that fact. They have precious little time to review unsolicited queries from first-timers, so they often, upon seeing poor grammar and structure on the first page (or paragraph), set it aside and reach for the rejection slip.

First impressions mean everything. If you’re an unknown, you'll have exactly one opportunity, and a short one at that, to sell yourself as a professional. And professional writers know how to write. It really is, as it turns out, just that simple.

Question #2

Do you hope to attract a broad and regular readership at sites such as, a blog, or other online content farms?

If you answer, "Yes," your options remain limited. Avid readers know instinctively (from experience) or definitively (from education) what constitutes bad writing. Even if they muscle their way through one of your articles, short stories or book chapters laced with poor grammar, they're unlikely to return to your site in the future.

Haven't you had this experience yourself, as a reader? I sure have—more often than I'd like to admit.

Why would you toil to promote your work, to build your readership, only to chase them away after they've finally found you? How much time do any of us have in our busy schedules to read?

Yes, you must provide interesting content, and a style that readers enjoy, but you must also provide quality. For a writer, that means you can… well, that you can write. Respect your readers, treat them as the treasure they are, and you'll likely build a lasting relationship.

Question #3

Are you planning to self-publish, whether electronically or in print? If so, why are you publishing? Is writing just a hobby for you, an emotional outlet, a true vanity project—something for which you never intend to make any real money?

If you answer, "No," you would do well to return to Question #1.

If you answer, "Yes," I offer this follow-up question: So what? You still want readers, don't you? You still want your first few readers to recommend your work to others, to advance your readership. You don't want them to post bad reviews or comments, or chase potential readers away. Even if the financial aspect of your publishing isn't the most important, surely you want readers. Why else would you publish it?

In which case, everything I've said above still applies.

Bottom Line

In the art of writing, no such thing exists as a "100% Rule." We writers routinely break the rules, yet we do so for effect, to provide a nice punch at just the right moment. When we violate the rules because we don’t know them, or don't care to exercise diligence or respect in following them, then the writing devolves into a sloppy, amateurish mess.

Style preferences are completely and extraordinarily subjective. One reader's garbage is another reader's most brilliant piece ever. Readers' tastes and preferences are as diverse as writers' styles, so you may well carve a niche for yourself with your catchy style and utter disregard for the rules of grammar.

Just don't expect editors or agents to trip over themselves to gobble up your material. Or to become anything more than a niche writer.

'Til next time, remember this: To write well, you must work hard. To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn't be lazy.


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    • Lane Diamond profile imageAUTHOR

      Dave Lane 

      10 years ago from Butler, Wisconsin

      I agree, Suki, that having too many mistakes overshadows content -- rather self-defeating.

    • Suki C profile image

      Barbara C 

      10 years ago from Andalucia, Spain

      I agree with you. I hate poor grammar, it can spoil what would otherwise be an informative and interesting piece in that it's the mistakes that catch my attention and not the content.

      Wrong maybe, but I used to work as a proof reader so maybe my brain's programmed that way!


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