Are you a grammarphobe? That’s a term I made up for people who are interested in professional writing but hold themselves back because they’re worried about grammar. They mistakenly believe that writing is a ground-up process: First you get a thorough background in grammar, and then you’re allowed to start writing. They’re convinced the secrets of writing like a pro are hidden in grammar books.
I’ll grant you there’s a reason most of us think this way (I used to do it myself). Most of us have spent years in classrooms trying to master tasks like underlining subjects and predicates, circling adverbial clauses, diagramming sentences, and labeling parts of speech. And most of us, frankly, never get very good at any of those things. When I was finishing up my Ph.D. in English, students at the university requested a traditional grammar course because they felt shaky about these skills.
I decided not to take the course–and not for the reason you might expect. Truth to tell, I’m not very confident about diagramming sentences either. But I’d already done some professional writing, working with some of the best editors in the business, and I’d discovered a secret that deserves to be more widely known: Every minute you spend thinking about adverbial clauses and predicate nominatives is a minute you’re not thinking about what really matters: Showcasing your ideas.
Here’s an analogy. Suppose you were learning how to drive a car, and your instructor insisted that you memorize the parts of an automobile engine and learn how they work together. No one would deny the usefulness of that information. It could come in really handy, for example, when you’re talking to a mechanic who might be trying to sell you repairs your car doesn’t need.
But while you’re looking ahead to your driver’s license, wouldn’t your time be better spent learning how to handle your car in actual driving situations? To my mind, you need instruction about blind spots, four-way stops, flashing yellow and red lights, and similar real-life driving situations.
Back to writing. Will from-the-ground-up grammar instruction help you become a better writer? Watch professional writers at work, and you’ll be able to answer this question yourself.
Most professional writers are busy people, and often they’re racing against a deadline. If you could look inside a professional writer’s brain (which you’re doing right now!), you wouldn’t find terms like “adverbial clause” and “subjunctive case” rattling around. Instead you’d hear questions like these:
- How can I attract the readers who need the information I’m about to share?
- How can I win over readers who may disagree with what I’m trying to tell them?
- How should I organize my material?
- Do I have enough supporting material? If not, how can I find more examples and ideas?
- What should I leave out?
- What kind of tone will work best? For example, should I sound impersonal and wise, or friendly and down-to-earth?
So what are some practical ways you can improve your writing skills? My first suggestion would be NOT to buy a grammar workbook. Here’s what I recommend:
1. Read, read, read. Reading is the BEST way to develop the language and thinking skills you need to be a topnotch writer.
2. Analyze what you’ve read. What did the writer do well? What didn’t work? What can you learn?
3. Make a plan for every writing task. Before you start your first draft, spend a few minutes answering these questions:
- Who will read your piece?
- What does your audience know already?
- What will you be telling them that’s new?
- How can your pique their interest?
- What can you leave out?
- What are some stories and examples that can bring your ideas to life?
- How will you organize your ideas? For example, can you use the concept of “three” to create logic and flow? (three ways to… three examples of… three components of)
What about usage problems? Yes, usage mistakes can be a problem. But there are tricks to fixing them that don’t require a technical grammar vocabulary. Look for books and websites that offer quick writing fixes in everyday language, and you’ll learn quickly.
Be patient, be persistent, and keep revising. You’ll soon realize that you’re on a direct track to professional writing–and that it feels great to be on your way at last.
Jean Reynolds, Ph.D., is longtime writing professor, a Shaw scholar, and the author of seven books, including two writing textbooks.
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