Grammar vs Creative License

Today’s post comes from some comments I’ve read both here and on the writing forum I frequent. It can cause arguments, so let me get one thing straight from the beginning—I believe with all my heart that each one of us is entitled to our own opinions.

It’s just that I think some of you are wrong.

Hey, I’m entitled to my own opinion as well. That’s my opinion. You don’t have to take it seriously, and you shouldn’t lose any sleep over it.

So, here’s my opinion. For the most part, if one is writing a novel, proper grammar has nothing to do with creative license. I’m not talking about dialog. People talk the way they talk and of course that should be expressed by the author when writing dialog.

“Ain’t that right, young feller?”

Of course it is, so long as those quotation marks are present. Other than dialog, being that free with grammar rules is to be avoided, for the most part, in modern novels.

“But what about James Joyce?” you seem to ask. “He wrote whole novels in dialect and they’re classics!”

Sure, he’s classic, but I’ll tell you a secret. I hate Joyce. It isn’t that I’m too stupid to get it, or too nonintellectual to understand the skill it takes to write in that fashion. I hate Joyce. I hate any author where I have to fight against the structure of the writing to get to the story.

I love Austen, by the way. The old-fashioned gait to the language adds rather than distracts from the story, and the grammar is there, it’s just a bit outdated.

“Oh,” you seem to say, “I see. You must be some sort of grammar fancy-pants. I bet you write Literary fiction.”

Actually, I don’t much care for literary fiction. I read it from time to time, but it’s not where I turn to for fun. Reading, to me, is for fun more than anything else. I certainly don’t write in the literary style, and I don’t tend to use twelve dollar words when a ten cent word will do. I enjoy plain language, and I personally think that it takes a certain strength of will for an author to refrain from showing off when he writes.

The following is a bit from my supernatural mystery, Ghost in the Park. It’s not an especially important bit, I just reached in and grabbed something from the middle.

Sitting in the chair near the bed, I stare for a long time at my friend and listen to him breathe. Eventually, I tire of watching Chase being alive, and pull up a Jack London novel on my phone. Todd and Harris chat together for a while, and then leave the room to explore the hospital. I suppose that even the dead get bored on occasion.
I’m reading part two of the book, and in the fifth chapter, when a nurse walks into the room. The nurse calls to Chase, and as he stirs, I set aside my tale of a wolf pup learning that the law of the land is “eat or be eaten.” When he awakens, Chase looks groggy and weak, but he is otherwise himself and even manages to flirt a little with the pretty nurse while she gives him his pain medication. I am not noticed until the tall blonde quits the room.
“Hey. When did you get here?”
“A little while ago. How are you feeling?”
“Kinda like I got shot,” Chase says, and then laughs. Grinning at me, he continues, “I think the morphine just hit. I get the good stuff.”
It’s little wonder that Chase is feeling no pain. Chase wants to sit up for a while, so I help him adjust the mechanical bed and the pillows behind his back. Even with the morphine, he winces as the movement jars his shoulder. I see now that his right arm is in a sling.
“How bad is it?” I ask.
“Well, it’s not good, but no irreparable damage done. The doc say’s I’ll make a full recovery but it’ll take time. I’m off the clock for at least a couple months.”
“How long do you have to stay here?”
“A week, maybe. I guess I hit my head pretty good. Knocked me out cold..couldn’t call for help…lost a lot of blood. So, they want to hang onto me for a while.”
Though his speech is a bit hesitant and he grins at odd times, I’m relieved to see that my mate is basically himself. I have no idea how long Chase was dead, and I’d been worried about brain damage from lack of oxygen.

End excerpt. I think you can see what I mean. It’s first person present, so we are in the main character’s head throughout. That does not mean that I threw grammar out the window just because the narration is deep in his head. Yes, it is heavily colored by Bryce’s personality and word choice, but it still has grammar. There may even be some grammar mistakes, but that is because I am still learning the ins and outs of grammar, not because I’m not trying. You can also see that I write fairly plainly, this book is not pretending to be a literary gem. It’s perfectly possible to use correct grammar without being pompous about it, or striving to write in the literary style.

The reason for this entire diatribe is that I have noticed something in the comments that I have read which seem to value poor grammar as part of the writer’s literary style or voice.

They seem lazy. I’m not saying that they are lazy, just that they seem so. For all I know, those writers could simply be so excited about writing that they are not taking the time to learn the grammar that they need. There has not been one James Joyce among them. And Joyce, though I dislike his style personally, was a master of his style. He had to carefully learn the rules of grammar before he plotted which bits to chuck out the window.

The fact is that so far in my study of this subject, the writers who are shouting style over grammar all have one thing in common.

Their writing is bad, and I don’t want to read their books.

And there’s the rub. While it’s true that you have the creative license to write any way you wish, if you expect people to pay for your writing and read your work, you’d better pay attention to the will of the masses. If people see a sample of your writing and grammar has been thrown out of the window, they are not likely to buy the book. It’s as simple as that. They will never see that underneath it all you are James Joyce reincarnated, they won’t want to read it.

I say to you, if you wish to be a writer, you must learn the tools of the trade backwards and forwards. That means grammar. Then once you master it, you made decide with an informed mind what is to be cherished, and what thrown away. I am not grammar master, but I realize this, and I keep learning. I read posts about it, and books about it, and do whatever I can to give myself the tools I need to write effectively. I am no devotee, setting aside time everyday to study grammar, but I do study it, and I do learn.

Any writer who does not, is indeed lazy, and masking that laziness in excuses of style.

Brother Joe, Niece Steph, and Friend Sami. enjoying proper grammar at the lost haunted bridge near Greencastle.

Brother Joe, Niece Steph, and Friend Sami. enjoying proper grammar at the lost haunted bridge near Greencastle.

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About Julianne Q Johnson

I am a 48 year old woman who moved recently from Louisville to Indiana with 3 cats, 2 ferrets, 1 goldfish, and one fiancé. I have been writing all of my life, but now I have finally buckled down and written a book. This blog is a place for me to share my writing, my love of taking pictures, and my trials and tribulations in trying to get Ghost in the Park published.
This entry was posted in Bad Writing Advice, Grammar, writing, Writing Advice and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Grammar vs Creative License

  1. It’s about the flow of a story, for me. Prose has a flow, a rhythm to it, that makes it beautiful, or not. That is part of style, so you can’t simply separate grammar from style, because grammar facilitates a proper rhythm. Prose with sentences that are grammatically false is like a road with potholes, you’re always bouncing up and down, you can’t get comfortable with reading it. Like music with sudden jarringly false notes inserted, it simply doesn’t flow. Besides, there is more than enough flexibility in English grammar to encompass wildly different styles of writing without breaking the rules.
    I’ve more thoughts on this but I don’t want to clog your comments, so here’s a Link:

    http://wp.me/p3JDow-K

    • “Besides, there is more than enough flexibility in English grammar to encompass wildly different styles of writing without breaking the rules.” Exactly! And I feel that often, vast differences can be achieved with subtle bending. English is a wacky, conflicting, and astonishingly versatile language. I wish I could convince more beginning writers of that, that it’s not necessary to chuck the rules out the window, or fail to learn them, to develop their own style.

  2. linnetmoss says:

    I agree with you that there is a huge difference between writing ungrammatical sentences because one doesn’t know any better, and writing them by design. Joyce’s early work “Dubliners” is a masterpiece of elegant and concise prose, and perfectly grammatical. I see nothing wrong with experimentation, but it should never be an excuse for poor style (grammatical or not).

  3. Ye Pirate says:

    Interesting post. I agree totally with learning the rules before chucking them out of the window. Jack Kerouac also played in a similar way with ‘grammar’ but one sensed he knew exactly where he was.
    Your point/points were well-made, and I agree generally, or even fully, but still want to leave the door open for the author that comes along and does his or her thing. I am a it worried about the notion of learning grammar ‘rules’. If someone has not a feel for correct grammar, generally, then they will not write properly,in exactly the same way as not having a good lexical feel, or a feel for the right words. For me, a big one is punctuation – quite a few writers seem to struggle there, and veer between bad English and bad style. Anyway, am with you, except for split infinitives!

    • Well said. I’m still learning proper grammar, I’m just glad that I have the desire to learn it. My biggest problem is with those who think it isn’t worth the time, and that creativity trumps knowledge and skill. The best writing is a combination of the three.

    • Oh, and as far as split infinitives go, I’m rather fond of Star trek, I’m afraid. So I will boldly go with split infinitives when I feel like it. ;) I will also go so far as to mention that most modern English usage guides do not proscribe them.

      • Ye Pirate says:

        Of course! There was a bit of tongue in cheekness from me there! I agree with your indisputable point there..

      • Lol! Besides, split infinitives aside, I’m not exactly a grammar queen myself. I’m still learning!

      • Denise says:

        The movement away from frowning on the split infinitive does highlight how grammar rules change and therefore following the rules isn’t a complete cut and dried thing – we might even disagree on what constitutes good grammar.

        I’d go further and say that it’s not just grammar – people need to learn the rules of good writing before they break them. Such as sympathy for characters, clarity, credibility. Simple things that make reading enjoyable for the reader. That’s where grammar comes in – good grammar makes writing clearer.

        My pet peeve is people who write non-fiction with no regard to good composition and especially academic texts that might be grammatically correct but “dress up” a point in obfuscation, breaking all the rules of clarity.

      • I agree that folks need to learn the rules of good writing, but I’d add that sometimes the best way to learn style and such is to get a couple of novel length stories under your belt and then study books you admire. Writers gotta write, but they must learn and read too.
        As for textbooks, I am torn on the matter. Yes, clarity is important, but I don’t learn well myself to have a story condensed down to dates and dry facts. Yet anything else muddies the facts, and puts the writers opinion throughout.

  4. sandradan1 says:

    I am a writer, and journalist by training, so I can no more write bad grammar than I can eat a burger [I’m veggie]! SD

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