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writing with good grammar

Five Takes for Writing with Good Grammar

Memoir writers sometimes ask, “Is writing with good grammar important?”

Yes and no. To anyone beginning to write lifestories, I would caution, “Get your story down on paper and don’t worry about “good grammar”—at least, not at first.”

1) Composing a fluent first draft that tells the storyline is more important than producing a grammatically-correct one.

Forget the curmudgeonly high-school English teacher who used to peer over your shoulders; forget your inner censor. The correct placement of a comma is not the most important issue in the world, nor is it proof of your worth as a human being. Your first task is to flow with the prose and get your ideas and feelings written down—not to worry about writing with good grammar.

2) Grammar plays an important role in writing.

What may sound fine when spoken can become merely dull, repetitive, and inexpressive in writing. In conversation, we have recourse to facial expressions, voice inflections, pauses, hand gestures, etc., to complete our spoken words. On the page, however, all we have is the writing itself-and commas, dashes, periods, paragraph breaks. That’s why grammar, and the conventions we call correct usage, are ultimately important to you as a memoir writer.

3) Think of grammar as a code that we agree on to make communications clearer.

Periods, commas, capital letters, past tenses, the spelling of words–all of this is meant to communicate the meaning of a text to a reader who is unfamiliar with you and with your story. Writing with good grammar helps us to avoid such foolishness as “I threw the hat over the fence that I was wearing.” (How did the fence fit around your ears?) Good grammar is not a matter of “putting on airs” or being a snob. It’s a matter of effective communication.

Our language experience (especially in its written form) is codified so that both writer and reader can (as much as possible) mean the same thing by the use of the same symbols. You can understand the writing on this page because we both agree on the grammar that is in use here–I, the writer in my office in Maine, and you, the reader wherever you are.

4) Within the range of “good grammar,” there are many perfectly acceptable–and different–decisions.

That’s a wonderful thing about grammar that your curmudgeonly high-school teacher probably didn’t tell you. Where to start or end a paragraph is subject to choice–yours. The same is true for commas and periods and dashes, and the correspondence of tenses.

5) Buy yourself a contemporary grammar book to refer to whenever necessary—or find an Internet grammar site.

Books are available in many bookstores and extensive information on internet sites. (I recommend that you avoid your old high school grammar text. Its rules are probably outdated now. Language is not static; it is always in process.) Confidence will open you up to the flow of language, and you’ll notice that your writing will become more fluent and fun to do.

When you want to ask, “Do I need to be writing with good grammar (or correct spelling)?” try reformulating your question. Ask instead, “Do I need to be understood?”

Good luck writing your memoir!

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