Authors have a weird relationship with grammar. And by weird, I mean an irrational obsession. Authors tend to fall into the “FORGET THE GRAMMAR WHAT ABOUT MY STORY” camp or the “I have combed my story seventy-four times to hunt down every stray comma and misused semicolon.”
Neither approach is healthy.
Grammar is one of the basic tools used by a storyteller. It is important. If your story reads like an illiterate drunk chicken scratched it out in the dirt, it doesn’t matter how great your idea is. But most writers aren’t illiterate. Most have a basic competence. So we’re going to assume moving forward that you know how to construct a complete sentence.
Yet despite the fact that most authors have basic competence, grammar tends to be the first thing reviewers, beta readers, and fellow authors point out when offering feedback. So if most authors are capable of constructing a complete sentence, why is the majority of critique directed at authors focused on grammar?
First, most readers don’t read critically. They read for enjoyment. Even most writers, if we are being honestly, don’t read critically. Being able to read critically; knowing how to dissect a story down to its core components, is a learned skill. Sure, good writers read a lot and can spot trends and see patterns. But if you ask them why those trends and patterns work; why those trends seem to be successful, they can’t articulate the why.
Literary criticism is about the why.
“I don’t like this character.”
“This doesn’t seem believable.”
“I can’t follow what is going on.”
These can be difficult questions to answer. So when a reader comes across a story that doesn’t work for them and they are asked to review it or give an opinion, they will lean on what they do feel comfortable with. And that is often grammar. Or they will make a vague statement like “The story needs an editor.” But if you corner them and ask them to explain why an editor is needed, they often will only point to minor typos they noticed.
Which brings us to the second issue. The common trait of all great stories is that the grammar is invisible. When the reader is engaged with a story, they don’t “see” the grammar and punctuation. Think of grammar like breathing. When your body is healthy, your breathing is automatic and you don’t think about it. You only notice your breathing when something is wrong. You develop a lung infection and suddenly you realize your breathing is labored. Something triggers your asthma and you start wheezing.
If people are noticing your grammar, that means there are other things wrong that are drawing attention to it. These other problems are pulling the reader out of the story so they are not fully engaged. And when a reader is not fully engaged, they start noticing the building blocks, the grammar.
The good news is, you can help your fellow authors and beta readers provide better critiques by asking the right questions. By providing direction, you can help your readers give you the type of feedback you need to improve your craft.
At Bards and Sages, we use a scorecard* that focuses on specific trouble spots: character development, dialogue, narrative voice, originality, plot, point-of-view, and world building. You can create a similar system for your beta readers or critique groups to keep everyone focused on the root issues. Grammar can always be corrected later. Just presenting the score card to a beta reader or critique group can help them get in the right mind to read critically and actively engage with the story to identify problems.
*While grammar appears on our scorecard, it has never been the determining factor for a story being rejected. If a story scores 4’s in all other categories and a 3 in grammar, we don’t reject it. We will fix the issues during the editing process!