Monday, February 11, 2013

Writing a book is like...

I have a feeling that some people are afraid of grammar, just as some people are afraid of mathematics. In a way, they serve a similar purpose. Mathematics provides a set of rules for handling numbers: grammar provides a set of rules for handling words. In the latter case, rules are necessary in order to facilitate communication. Now, unlike maths, if the rules of grammar are broken, the process of communication does not completely break down. Even with mathematics, sometimes we are happy with an approximation. Usually, however, it is a good idea to get it as right as possible.

I understand that some people have difficulty coming to grips with the rules of grammar, and question their importance. Sometimes, however, I feel that the reaction is less a considered response than a defensive reaction: “What use is grammar anyway!” I think of it this way. If you are building a house, it is a good idea to have both a brilliant architect and an excellent builder. Sure, we may be able to live with a little shoddy workmanship here and there, but I bet we would rather not. It is similar with a book: the architecture is the story; the building materials are the words. Surely we want to get both the architecture and the building process right. Yes, we may be able to live with a few misspelt words, grammatical errors or clunky sentences; but surely we would rather not. Some people are better at getting the story right than at getting the words in place, and as a creative writer, your first priority is probably the story. Nevertheless, if you design a beautiful house but don’t build it well…?

The job of a manuscript assessor, editor or proofreader is to help you get the building right. They won’t do it for you, but they will point out and help you to repair any parts that aren’t quite up to speed. Some of this is only a matter of taste and style; some of it is actually about ensuring that the building remains standing. If grammar terrifies or bores you, the editor can help you with that side of things.

Finally, I would emphasise that the pleasure I get from reading is not just about the story. I get as much pleasure from the texture of a book, from the way words are strung together, from a beautifully constructed sentence or paragraph. Although I can overlook things that aren’t quite up to scratch if the story is good, I find more pleasure when those elements are minimised.

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