Critique groups are banes or blessings, depending upon your experiences. I’ve endured both, but in the long run I consider a critique group an asset in a writer’s toolbox. They come with their good points and bad, their strong writers and weak, the arrogant and the fearful. And invariably you’ll find the one who deems himself the grammar police.
He (or she) will don a green, red, or other colored pen and commence to circling passive voice, noting Oxford commas, crossing through the use of HAD and THAT, underscoring your split infinitives, and chastising you for beginning a sentence with AND or BUT. Heaven help you if you end a sentence with OF, TO or AT.
And invariably a writer will stand tall and profess that he writes from the soul, the heart, or some other part of their body, and that strict adherence to grammar rules handcuffs a creative spirit.
Grammar is Not a Cage
Pontificating about creativity is worthless if you don’t understand the structure of the English language. On the other hand, once you know it well, you can use your imagination to play those rules to your advantage in designing brilliant dialogue and narrative.
At a recent conference, I attended a basic writing class, thinking I’d relax between the sessions I was presenting, and would outline some blog ideas. Instead, I caught myself taking notes.
I learned that splitting infinitives was never taboo. You can end a sentence with a preposition. You can begin a sentence with a conjunction, and you are allowed to use double negatives. Since the Hemingway days, writing has become less personal, more communicative, and preferred in a crisper, clearer, more precise manner. Grammar is a framework for your writing, not a cage.
However, until you understand the ins and outs of grammar, you can’t manipulate it to your advantage. Lay your hands on a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style and keep it at the ready as you write.
As I edit my manuscript drafts, I keep a list of words on a notepad. Some of these are my repetitious shortcomings, but others remind me of grammar rules. One I reach the end of a draft chapter I’ve reread painfully and thoroughly, I go back in a “search and find” mode to remind myself what may need attention. For instance, my current list contains:
Adverbs – just, suddenly, nearly, finally, now, very, almost, really
Telling Verbs – seemed, felt
Passive Verbs – is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been, has, have, had – the derivatives of TO BE and TO HAVE
Body References – look, stare, glare, breathe, breath, sigh, nod, shrug
Empty Words – some, almost, beginning to, began to
The Ambiguous Noun/Verbs – there is, there was, it is, it was, that is, that was
My repetitious words in the current book consist of – new, crap, traffic, arm, knew. This list will grow throughout the current novel, and the list in my next novel will contain different words. In amusement, I noted that the words PISS, HELL, and ATTITUDE appeared a few times too many.
Obviously, my protagonist has her hands full in book two of The Carolina Slade Mystery Series.
What words prevent your writing from shining its brightest?
Choose a work-in-progress. Read only one page for fifteen minutes, solely to hunt for grammar issues. Make a list of grammar and word weaknesses and post what surprised you most here.