Low-Budget Writing Program: Part 6 Grammar and Punctuation and Bears! Oh, My!

I am the last person who should be giving anybody grammar and punctuation advice, but I will tell you about the books that have made my self re-education slightly easier.  You could, of course, go right to one of the style books, but there are over a dozen, and many more blogs, columns, and other sources.  I was looking for something that would entertain me into better usage.

Of course, when it comes to usage, there is the question of whether you side with the followers of linguistic prescription (the rules are always correct) or linguistic description (actual usage is more correct).  There is no right answer, by the way.  Just MANY different opinions, and most people fall somewhere in the middle.

‘When the student is ready the teacher will appear. When the student is truly ready… The teacher will disappear”

-Lao Tzu

This is a motto of mine.  All of these books were found in used book stores, gifting me with their timely appearance when I was on a strict budget.  Since I have been avoiding writing this post successfully–for a year–you are getting the added bonus of which book actually stuck around in my unreliable memory the longest.  Lucky, lucky you.

Scan_20171127 (36)Angels sang and the sky lit up with glorious rainbows when the prophesies came to pass, and I finally came across “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White (Forth edition by Allen & Bacon, Massachusetts 2000).  It was a shockingly thin book. (Six different publication dates, 1935 the earliest.  That is some serious staying power.)  I’m not sure why it took me so long to find a copy, since every time I’ve gone to the book store since that day there have been at least five copies to choose from.  I guess I was not ready before that day.

The word ‘style’ in the book’s title is not an accident, and that style is concise. If a writer wishes to be clear and bold with the English language, then this is a benchmark to guide you. Even if your style is wordy and obscure, it will still make an excellent base for writing in general.  (I, personally, got a huge kick out of the older ‘misused’ words, but I’m a total word-nerd.)  White’s added chapter five, with its twenty-one approaches to style, is worth serious study.  I may not keep a copy of the book in my pocket, as is suggested, but it sits on a shelf, close to hand.

Scan_20171127 (30)“Mortal Syntax” by June Casagrande (Penguin Group, New York 2008) is next on the pile. Clever and funny, this book is actually a defensive rant about all the things the author was accused of being wrong about–repeatedly–while she ran a grammar column.  (This is actually her second book, and I’m keeping an eye out for the first.)  In these pages I learned there were several style guides, and they didn’t always agree with each other.  No wonder the arguments get so heated, for there is no One True Way.  I enjoyed her biting humor, but the funny stories stayed with me longer than the actual grammar advice, and that wasn’t for very long, either.  My search continued…

Scan_20171127 (34)“Words Fail Me” by Patricia T. O’Conner (Harcourt Brace & Company, New York 1999) is another good and clever book full of anecdotes, but the rules she tried to convey were quickly forgotten.  It’s a good writing style book to try on, like a rambling conversation with a knowledgeable writer while wearing comfy yoga pants and sipping tea, and worth it if your brain remembers rules better in this way, but of limited use to me in the long run.

Who is the clear winner, and the book I will read again to brush up on rules before self-editing?

Scan_20171127 (32)“My Grammar and I… Or Should That Be Me?” Caroline Taggart and J. A. Wines (The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, NY 2009) is the closest to a school textbook, and it shocked me that that was what I actually needed.  I guess logic-brain wins this round, when I was putting my money on creative-brain all along.  Now, don’t be fooled thinking this is just dry rules.  The authors sprinkle in just enough Sahara wit to keep you from nodding off at your desk, then drooling until the bell rings and startles you awake.  Most importantly, I came away with a working knowledge of grammar and punctuation, which was the whole point of this project.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a year since I read this, and while I may have retained enough to get by, I definitely need to read this, again.  Soon.  An added bonus will be when I self-edit, I will know what to call the things that went wrong.  (Other than “Bastard,” that is.)  “Compound conjunction” and “irregular verb” will mean something, and not be just static in a confused brain.  I’m getting giddy just thinking about it!

Well, that’s the best advice I can give to date on this topic.  There’s nothing to fear about grammar and punctuation, and I’ve run out of time for the bears (maybe next time).  Don’t go off thinking you can go straight to self-publishing after this.  This should be just enough to not get you laughed out of the publisher’s office, or make a complete fool out of yourself online.  Self-publishing is going to require more eyes than just yours!  Either find some highly skilled (but free labor) beta readers, or your going to have to come up with the money for a good editor. Don’t trust yourself to catch every thing!  Even professional editors go to another editor.

While hanging out with other writers online, I found a grammar/editor blogger named Thomas Weaver who is fun, interesting, and does a daily Writing Glitch series that is great for testing your knowledge.  Follow him if you like a challenge, or if you might need something professionally edited in the future.  https://northofandover.wordpress.com/2017/11/27/writing-glitch-547/#like-10679

You may have missed the other posts of the Low-Budget Writing Program:

  1. Butt in Chair
  2. Monster in My Manuscript
  3. Take Over the Literary World!
  4. When the Manuscript Goes Into the Garbage
  5. Fear is the Mind-Killer
  6. Grammar and Punctuation and Bears! Oh, My!
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The Editing Pit

 

I think unpublished manuscripts are like the Home of Dreams from the movie “The Money Pit.”  I can picture Tom Hanks laughing like a maniac as more and more time, money and work get funneled into the manuscript.

But, as he was told, again and again, “If the foundation is good, everything else can be fixed.”

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is proving to be a daunting task, despite it’s deceptively thin appearance.  I’ve made it through the first three sections on sheer goat-headedness.  The elements seem to come in three Flavors for me:

First, rules I understand and already try to use.  (“Yes,” she whispers, as she pumps the air with her fist.)

Second, rules that I am unfamiliar with, but understand and will try to apply to my writing.  (“Hmmm.”  The writer scratches her head thoughtfully, brows crunched together, and tries to appear dignified.)

Third, rules that… can’t… brain.  more examples, plz…  halp…  (The room echoes with the sound of a head hitting a desk, while the soft pat, pat, pat of brain tissue, slowly leaking out of an ear, marks the passage of time.)

I think it’s going to take more than a single read through to get a good grasp of it all, although my worst offences seem to be related to #18.  My style seems to favor two clause sentences, giving my paragraphs a singsong sound.  I’m trying to control the urge, but it just seems to happen before I realize it.  I’m not doing it on purpose, because it can get really tedious. My brain just seems to organize thoughts this way, and sometimes I….   DAMMIT!!

My favorite section so far, Misused Words and Expressions, is full of fun, archaic words.  I feel at home, among these words, and easily grasp his points.  If I was being tested, I would expect a good passing grade, although most of what I would get wrong may be simply outdated.  I’m sure I have never applied the word ‘clever’ to a horse, incorrectly or otherwise.

However, I think the section would be better titled Pet Peeves and Things That Really Piss Me OffI swear I have felt the sting of a ruler on the back of my hand from his tone of writing.  Despite only being in the ‘F’ words, I am already flinching from a smack on the back of the head.  I know it’s coming…

For now, I keep shoveling grammar and style into the manuscript, hoping to turn it into the Dream Novel.  (Don’t laugh!)

My last post referred to a bunch of writing books by author, but not the titles.  It was a presumption on my part that everybody else has read them all, and I was last to the party.  In an effort to help those who haven’t gotten around to them, I will post an extra blog with an annotated bibliography of the books I have found helpful to date.  Look for it in the next week or two.