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Do Storytelling & Grammar Go Hand-in-Hand?

Do Storytelling & Grammar Go Hand-in-Hand?

It's a truth universally acknowledged that an author in possession of a manuscript can be in want of basic grammar knowledge. 

It happens every now and then: I am asked to edit a manuscript where it appears the author failed high school English class. They instead believe that's what editors are for: to "take care of all that grammar stuff."

Editors are not there to speak for you. We don't want to rewrite your book for you. We want your voice, your words to shine on the page. 

To a degree, we are. You may pay an editor to clean up your grammar, to make your ideas discernible and grammatically correct, as well as to make sure the format is consistent throughout. 

However, an editor can only do so much if the grammar is poor to begin with, and it will cost much more money should you need additional rounds of edits due to significant changes or confusion due to poor grammar in the first place. 

What an editor should be doing for you is tightening your prose, catching those pesky copy editing issues (like properly formatted ellipses, replacing hyphens with em dashes, removing hyphens from words that don't require them, and catching homonyms/homophones). Instead, many manuscripts require fixing an author's inconsistently punctuated dialogue tags or other such minor issues that an author is perfectly capable of learning. To perform the latter is an issue that is best addressed by the author themselves instead of paying for an editor's time and expertise. 

(To be fair, authors are perfectly capable of learning all aspects of grammar, especially since they tend to have an above-average grasp of the language in which they write. And also in the spirit of being fair, there are some punctuation situations in dialogue which are trickier. These are where a copy editor should step in.)

But back to the issue I wish to discuss today. 

To be a good storyteller, must you be an excellent grammarian? Or must you understand the basics of grammar in order to write a good story? Well, no and yes.

It's a common misconception that to be a good writer, you must be excellent at grammar. That's not true at all. But for many reasons that I'll explain to you, you must have a basic understanding of grammar in order to write a coherent story.

An editor can only help you so much; you must have a foundational understanding of grammar in order to be coherent in your storytelling.

I'm not of the camp that good authors are born, not made. 

There are thousands of books out there that will teach you grammar and storytelling. Read them. Read voraciously. Read anything. Read good books. Read bad books. Read horrible books. They will not only help you with your grammar, but with your storytelling as well.

Anyone can learn storytelling, with the proper motivation, effort, and tools.

grammar is communication

One of the most frustrating things I see as an editor (or reader) is when it's clear that an author has the bones of a good story, but no idea how to coherently tell that story.

This can be for several reasons, but mostly it comes down to storytelling and grammar skills.

Yes, these things go hand in hand. It is utterly frustrating for a reader to constantly feel lost. 

This can happen because the author: 

a) doesn't know the story as well as they should, 

b) simply doesn't know the art of storytelling well enough yet, or 

c) doesn't understand how to properly structure a sentence.

Yes, grammar is that important. If you write a grammatically incorrect sentence, your reader will constantly be stopping in order to figure out what you, the author, intended to say. 

editors can't fix everything

A developmental editor will try their best to tease out the story within the author, dredging down to the depths of the manuscript they are given in the hopes of uncovering something new and awe-inspiring for both reader and author. 

A copy editor will address the syntax, word choice, punctuation, formatting, and some factual issues.

A proofreader will look for misspellings, misused words, final appearance, and general typos. 

editors don't write your book for you

(Nor do they want to.)

When you hand your book over to an editor, you are saying, "This is the best I can do. Now I need someone else to show me where I can improve." Or "I need an unbiased point of view to show me where I've gone on a rabbit trail." Or even "I need someone to catch the grammatical mistakes of which I'm unaware."

Editors look for those sorts of things. But if there are so many mistakes that we cannot follow the story itself--a grammar problem that leads to miscommunications in your manuscript--we are unable to do our job as well as we would like. 

Working with an editor should be a learning experience. When you get your manuscript back, covered in red ink or so many notes in Track Changes that Microsoft Word crashes when you open it, that's an opportunity for you to learn new things as both an author and a grammarian.

It is as frustrating for the editor as for the author when an editor misses something because of an author's poor grammar. 

I like to do my job well, and I want to help you as much as I can. But when there are so many grammar issues that I can't understand what you mean, I can't do my job well at all. 

When there is a sentence that reads like three sentences have been cut in half, half of each has been discarded, and the remaining three have been tacked together into one convoluted, confusing sentence, your editor can't do his job.

If you supply me with a 100,000-word novel with multiple grammar errors and unclear sentences, it may lead to interpretation errors on my end. I'll have to make assumptions for missing antecedents or confusing pronoun usage, leading to far too many opportunities for me to misinterpret your meaning. 

If an editor misinterprets a meaning, they are distracted from the job they are there to do, and thus their hands are tied from doing their best job for their client. It's akin to asking an editor to do their job with one eye closed and one hand tied behind their back. It's not fun, and it's much more difficult and time consuming than it ought to be.

So save yourself some money and give your editor a manuscript as grammatically clean as you can manage. If this means checking out a book on grammar or learning some mad grammar skills of your own, it's a heckuva lot cheaper than paying an editor (by the hour) for things you could have done for free. 

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