Grammatically Correct

I would like to take a moment to pay tribute to one of Author’s most consistent and yet least recognized contributors: Grammar maven Cherie Tucker. My relationship with Cherie began long before her inaugural column back in June of 2008.

It was my first writer’s conference, and there was Cherie teaching a class on grammar to a packed room. She had a nice sense of humor and passionate grasp of a topic to which I was personally indifferent. I had what you might call an intuitive understanding of grammar. That is, I spoke in full sentences, my verbs almost always agreed, but – particularly in writing – I was never entirely sure about whether a comma really belonged and if I should use “which” or “that.”

This approach had worked fine for a time, but I eventually began to worry about those letters and sample pages I was sending to agents. I did not like the idea that a few grammatical hiccups in the first or second paragraph might sour a prospective reader, nor – and perhaps worst of all – that identifying said hiccups was beyond my powers. If a letter or chapter was grammatically spotless, it would be so by chance, not acumen.

So I hired Cherie to read a short story I had written and teach me everything I had chosen to ignore in Freshman Language Arts. To this day I can remember nothing she taught me that afternoon except this: somehow in her little lesson she managed to convey that the purpose of grammar was to help make clear what I was trying to express.

That was the moment I made grammar my own. Proper grammar wasn’t some series of hoops lowered from on high for every hopeful writer to jump through. Commas, and em-dashes and verb agreement were tools of my expression. I could use these things to help capture the nuance of what I wished to share. I became a grammar fan that day.

All of this seems obvious enough in retrospect, but such is the case with the most valuable lessons. The truth is always clear once you see it, and I am glad for people like Cherie who continue to share what they have known effortlessly for years.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Clearly Beautiful

The Editor is on vacation. What follows is an older post. Enjoy, and I’ll see you next week.

I have a good friend who is a veterinarian and a father of four school-aged children. All his children are bright and get good grades and generally make their parents proud, but my friend was for some reason dissatisfied with their writing skills. The writing, he complained to me, wasn’t beautiful enough. How could he get them to write beautifully, not merely functionally?

I tried gently pointing out that not one of his children had ever expressed an interest in writing beyond what was practically necessary to do well in school. But he wouldn’t hear it. Beautiful writing, he was certain, could be taught. What, he wanted to know, was the writerly secret to beautiful writing?

Unfortunately, the secret is never what men like my friend want to hear. What we call beautiful writing only occurs when the writer cares about what he or she is writing. It is not really the product of training or practice or careful reading, although all of that helps in the long run, or helps certainly when the writer is not particularly compelled by what they are writing, like in, say, a school writing assignment.

But the beauty comes from specificity not stylishness, and the specificity comes from the writer’s commitment to express precisely what they mean, not something else which is perhaps only a shade lighter but completely different nonetheless. There is far more beauty in clarity than raw originality, although sometimes in seeking clarity we are forced beyond the boundaries of the conventional to find exactly what we mean.

I realized this when I looked back at all the writing I used to call beautiful when I was a young man. It wasn’t the writer’s gymnast-like ability to pick an original word that drew my attention, but their underlying commitment to honesty and clarity that expressed itself in a way that was, to me at least, memorable.

So do not think about writing beautifully, think only about writing clearly and about what you care most. Let the words take the shape of whatever your clarity demands and then let it go. If you manage to say precisely what you mean, you will have provided another person the opportunity to share in what you love, and there is little in the world more beautiful than that.

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