Let me make a confession: I don’t have a copy of Strunk and White’s book, The Elements of Style. I’ve seen it as a required reference for writers on many lists, and when the question of “What writing books would you recommend?” came up on writing boards, it was always on most of the recommendations.
Sometimes I think writers focus too much on the words, and the grammar.
Sometimes I think writers are still treating grammar as if they are in that high school English class, hoping for a good grade.
It is true that people need to be able to read your material, and that means the words need to be coherent. That’s where grammar can come in. I remember a while back this young writer — believe it was a teenager — posted a story on The Writer message board. The grammar was really bad, to the point where the story, if there was one, was incoherent. He wanted to send it out right now and said, “Tell me what I need to fix.” We told him to fix the grammar, which he didn’t want to hear. He kept telling he wanted to know what needed to be fixed so it would get published.
But, at the same time, having a grasp of grammar might not have helped. In my last critique group, there was a writer who regularly submitted his novel. He was 70K into the novel. The writer had to do a lot of writing in his job, so he was pretty good on the grammar-side. He even had an agent who was interested in the book (or so he said) if he could work out the problem with it.
He didn’t have a story. He had a collection of scenes where things were happening, but he couldn’t tell a story. He could pass an admin assistant’s red pen for a boss, but he would only get rejection letters from agents because he didn’t have a story.
Story is a difficult concept to understand, and is probably one of the reasons writers fail at getting published. I used to do query critiques, and I could tell instantly when a writer didn’t know what his story was about.
It’s also not something that can be easily explained by any how-to book. Or, unlike grammar and punctuation, you can’t go down a list of rules and check them off. In searching for “What is a story?” I was surprised to find very blogs address it. The entries quickly evolved into story points, Biblical stories, and non-fiction stories. But here’s two entries that I did find.
Philip Martin on Jane Friedman‘s blog says this about story:
Stories connect events and create meaning; they also connect people to each other.
Elizabeth Moon says:
Story is a particular kind of narrative that produces a particular kind of pleasure in the listener or reader.
So which is more important? If you were to wander the writing message boards, it would be the grammar. Grammar’s got all these nice rules everyone can follow and is easy to define. Story is shrouded in fog. Writers really like rules because the industry is way too much like the lawless Old West.
But here’s the catch:
If the grammar’s poor, it will probably keep the story from getting past a first reader, or the first few sentences. The agents are receiving so much material they’re probably not going to work with someone with poor grasp of grammar.
But if the grammar’s perfectly mastered and the story’s not there, it still probably won’t get past the first five pages.
But if the story’s there and the grammar so-so, it might still earn a rejection, but it could get a personal comment. It also could get accepted.
The cover for the non-fiction anthology is out! The book is called Red, White, & True and features stories by veterans and families. My story is called “War Happens.” I didn’t have a specific, isolated story that I’m sure the other entries will have. Mine was more about what the experience of war does to friendships.
It is due out in August, but you can preorder it on Amazon.