PROPER ENGLISH AIN’T PROPER WRITING

Not to insult anyone, but I’ll bet I’m going to. Over the many years I’ve written and helped oversee a writer’s critique group, I’ve notice something very odd. English majors, teachers, etc.,  have a hard time writing fiction.

Now, before you throw rocks at me, I know, there are exceptions to that rule, but they are rare. I think all exceptions to the rule were talented writers first, then decided to teach ‘cause making a living writing is pretty difficult. People who major in English and especially those who go on to teach English and/or creative writing immediately have their hands tied behind their backs if they get hit by the writing bug. What ties their hands? Conforming to the strict rules of English grammar. They almost can’t help themselves.

My apologies to a few close friends who are working at both. Hopefully you’ll be the exception, a few of you already are, but for the most part it ain’t gonna happen. You know why? Cause not one of them would have the nerve to write it ain’t gonna happen in an article or a fiction story. They wouldn’t use fragment sentences, most wouldn’t end a sentence in a preposition but would opt to rewrite the blamed thing if it took them all night and it read: Up with this I will not put. That’s not mine, originally, but I like it so much I stole it from Winston Churchill, if my memory isn’t playing tricks on me.

For a few years some time ago we had a delightful woman in our critique group. She had a great sense of humor, could critique and/or edit stuff other folks wrote with flair, but when it came to writing, she had no sense. No sense of place, no hearing, smelling, touching, tasting, though she did allow her characters to see something once in a while. Not often. What did she do for a living? She taught high school English.

Now, I know I’m going to be in trouble with her if she ever reads this. When she first came to our group, she introduced herself and told us what she did for a living. After a few weeks she began to read some of her work. We tried to be kind and helpful, but it was difficult. As I mentioned earlier, she had a marvelous sense of humor, and I soon learned to tease her about some of her weaknesses in writing. Once, jokingly I told her that English teachers couldn’t write fiction. Sounds snarky, I know, but my hope was she’d prove me wrong. She laughed and listed  some writers who had done just that. I don’t recall their names, I hadn’t heard of them.

Each week we would tell her that her dialogue was great, though everyone sounded highly educated in her 1800s western town. But there was no internalization of the POV characters, no sense of place. She would nod and smile and bring another five pages the next week with a dab of sense of place and a smear of internalization that told us nothing valuable about the character. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed her company, looked forward to hearing her read in the hopes she’d taken at least a bit of our advice. We were, after all, a critique group.

Ah, you say, what the heck do we know anyway? After all, we never took one single course in creative writing. Okay, I admit it, mostly our published novels appeal to the masses. Those great, if not unwashed at least middlingly educated,  millions who devour genre fiction by the tons, but most of us couldn’t write a literary book if we had a thousand years to try. I wouldn’t know the difference between a declarative sentence and prepositional phrase if they both bit me. And I couldn’t conjugate a verb in my lifetime. I almost failed high school English, but redeemed myself when we only spent six weeks on grammar and the rest of the time on reading the great novels, writing reports and essays,  and what was then called Magazine English. I was never quite sure what that was, but I did well enough to make up for the Ds in grammar. Writing essays came easy for me, even if I didn’t know proper terms regarding grammar. I knew how to write properly, knew what was correct and what wasn’t, though I had no idea why. Then I learned how to break those rules and develop a voice. My new friend just shook her head in dismay.

But she was of great value to our group. She could make sure everyone was not breaking the grammar and punctuation rules. She shuddered at fragments, but we ignored her. After all, it is genre fiction, isn’t it? Too bad she finally gave up after starting three novels and quitting in the middle of each one only to begin yet another. Somehow, she was never quite satisfied, but didn’t know why. By then we’d given up trying to tell her.

The truth of the matter is, somtimes too much knowledge ties knots in our efforts to create good fiction.

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About veldabrotherton

I'm primarily a writer, but I also speak and teach workshops and co-chair a large critique group. My brand is SexyDarkGritty and that applies to my western historical romances, mysteries, women's fiction and horror novels. After almost 30 years in this business, I still have something to learn and attend conferences to network with other writers, publishers, editors and agents.
This entry was posted in creative writing, critiquing fiction, English teachers and fiction, genre writing, rules of grammar in fiction, sense of place, using the five senses in fiction, Velda Brotherton. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to PROPER ENGLISH AIN’T PROPER WRITING

  1. A.D. says:

    Amen to this! I taught English Language at university level and it's a constant struggle to leave out an excess of semi-colons and colons and leave in the dangling participles when writing fiction .

  2. Yes.This is very true.When you know the rules,you lose the creative side ,somehow, because you will focus on the rules and not in the passion ,or creative writing itself.

  3. Dane Zeller says:

    I'm just brainstorming here, but maybe we didn't have good teachers of grammar and punctuation in our early years. Punctuation is how we give our writing rhythm. If we remain disinterested in punctuation, we toy with the creative process.Also, we all may be suffering from DSS, Diagram Sentence Syndrome. Nail the sentence down to its body parts, and we've completely ignored its meaning. However, this ailment shouldn't forgive us of the need to know the job of each word, and how the order of words affects the reader. This, too, is a part of the creative process.We all can identify the semi-colon. It's the period above the comma. Those of us who were awake in English class know the rule: "a semicolon unites two related complete sentences." But we are not educated in punctuation until we know the purpose of the semicolon: how it affects the meaning of written words.If someone earlier in my education told me that the semicolon was the "California Rolling Stop" of punctuation, I wouldn't have had to learn it two years ago.And, so it goes, with all of those other tiny components of writing we seem to leave in the charge of "literary" writers.

  4. y-write says:

    You are so right, Velda! Rule-mongers tend to put themselves in a box and the voice they were meant to have suffocates. It is not necessary to announce that you, the writer, are highly educated in and of yourself when you are writing. What's necessary is to tell the story.

  5. JC Piech says:

    Oh wow, that was comforting to read! :DI've never known the proper grammar terms for this or that, but I have a sense of where to put things. I know I don't always get it right but it's easily fixed. A lack of creative freedom on the other hand is much harder to cure.

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