Sunday, January 29, 2017

Are Correct Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation Important for Creative Writing?

I have to confess that I have a visceral reaction when I see creative writers or literary magazines use incorrect grammar, spelling, or punctuation. For instance, I recently browsed the website of a new, online magazine that is calling for submissions for what they describe as “non-fiction.” For some reason, these editors, who aspire to be at the forefront of their genre, don’t know that “nonfiction” has not had a hyphen for at least ten years. Given how easy it is to look up spellings online, is there any excuse for that sort of error?

Did Shakespeare use “correct” grammar and spelling?
How important is it for writers to use correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation? Some of us are more particular about these mistakes. Those slips and lapses bother me a great deal. They indicate to me a lack of seriousness and professionalism. For a writer not to use correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation is like a would-be lover who dresses up for a date but puts his sweater on inside out.

Maybe I’m influenced by the fact that I make my living as an editor. I traffic in rules of language and usage on a daily basis.

I have to keep reminding myself that the rules for spelling, grammar, and punctuation in English are a relatively recent phenomenon. Grammar and spelling began to be codified in the late eighteenth century. Shakespeare, for example, spelled words differently all the time, and he often made what we would call grammatical mistakes, using phrases such as “more fitter,” or “more sweet.” See the fascinating essay on this topic by Professor Karl Tamburr, “Why Shakespeare Didn’t Know Grammar.”

Not everyone has the same tolerance or intolerance for errors of grammar, spelling, or punctuation, anymore than everyone wakes up on the weekend at the same hour. My biggest quarrel with incorrect usage is that it leads to confusion. That is where rules become more than just conventions. 

Some authors feel as if their work is just the creative side of writing. That’s why they became a poet or novelist or playwright and not a journalist. They sweat the details when it comes to characters, plot, dialogue, imagery, the music of language, etc. “Don’t bother me about grammar and spelling, that’s what they pay copyeditors for.” Yes, but isn’t that a bit like expecting someone to clean up after you? Do I detect a bit of elitism in that attitude?

There are other class and cultural issues here. Those with a more polished education often have a firmer command of the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. I find that my students in the large public university where I’m now teaching creative writing are less likely to know these norms than students in elite private colleges, who had more expensive educations.

My mother, Mickey Rogow, was a product of the New York City public school system. She ingrained in me from an early age the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. The child of immigrants, my mother learned English as new Americans often do, with an accent, since Yiddish was also spoken in her home. Attending elementary school in the slums of Harlem and the South Bronx, she had teachers from the previous groups of immigrants who made fun of her accent and her mistakes in English. To her, making errors was not simply a matter of academic rules. It was evidence that you might not sufficiently belong to U.S. society, that you were a greenhorn, fresh off the boat, someone with less of a claim to being and remaining American. That’s partly why the rules of English are not just arbitrary conventions to me. They are shibboleths that demonstrate that you are an accepted part of society.

Should we look beyond that somewhat colonial heritage to reject the rules of the dominant culture? I do believe that creative writers have the ability and the right to make their own rules. I love the creative way that Ntozake Shange has invented her own spellings and punctuation to render Black English on the page in a lively and accurate way:

she wuz sullen
& the rhinestones etchin the corners of her mouth
suggested tears
fresh kisses that had done no good

from “one,” for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf


But that’s a different story, when you set out to make your own rules. If your goal is to follow the rules of standard English grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and you fail to do that correctly, be aware that some editors, and some readers, may judge you.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

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