If You Want to Write, Master Grammar

First, I am really not the world’s foremost expert on grammar issues.  I suck at figuring out whether to use lay vs. lie.  Just suck at it.  And it seems I have a may vs. might issue as well.

So, this is not me standing on high lecturing people for not being as wonderful and fantastic as I am.


I just finished betaing a novel for a friend.  And I was reminded of this issue, because this friend is a self-confessed not-so-great-with-spelling-and-grammar person.  So, I was making some “basic” corrections.  To vs. too, who’s vs. whose, medal vs. metal.

I’m not making this post to rip on my friend.  We all have our weak spots.  (See above for my lay vs. lie issue and I’m pretty sure I do not use whom ever even when called for.)

The key is knowing that you have weak spots and being religious about looking for those issues in your own writing.

Yeah, sure, a good beta with an eye for grammar (most of mine focus on story issues not grammar) can really help with this.  You know, “Just give it to John and he’ll find all your your vs. you’re errors without breaking a sweat.”


That doesn’t work.

For a few reasons.

First, I always think of these things from a corporate perspective.  If my boss asks me to write a memo summarizing an issue, I can’t rely on being able to send it to John for a quick proofread before it’s due.  I need to be able to do that myself.  Otherwise, John’s going to have a job next year and I very well may not.

So, I always think in terms of standing on your own two feet when it comes to writing anything.  It’s nice to have someone who can read your work, but you can’t rely on that.  I guess that’s just my office job mindset coming into play.

Second, let’s say you do have great betas who are more than happy to read through everything you write for grammar issues.  You still can’t rely on that.  Why?

Because, that novel will go through umpteen rounds of revision (all the ones you made before you submitted it, all the ones from your agent, all the ones from your editor) before it’s done.  And you can’t rely on a beta reader to read all those versions and catch those issues for you.

And if you can’t catch those yourself, then you kind of have a problem.  Say your agent comes back with edits.  You add some new chapters to make the changes they suggest.  Now what?  Send it back to the agent?  That’s what you’ll probably do.  But if you aren’t schooled in catching those errors, you just sent your agent a work with all those issues in it.  Which means your agent better catch them before sending it off to potential publishers.

Now what about editorial notes?  Or galleys?

Again.  You add some text and send it back without going through your betas because you have all of 48 hours to proof and send back any changes.  And now, because you can’t catch those issues yourself, you’re relying on your editor to catch them.  And maybe they don’t have the time to do so.

I still miss things in my writing.  I probably always will.  And I’m not as organized about this as I’d like to be.  But this is what I’ve tried to do:

– I read Strunk & White.  And in the “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused” section I went through and starred items that I knew would be problems for me in my writing.  Aggravate vs. irritate, among vs. between, etc.  When I finish a story (and I’m not as good at this now as I was at the start), I do a word search through my piece and look at each and every one of these issues to see if I need to address it in this particular piece.

– I also keep a running list of issues that I know I should look out for.  (I don’t know where it is at the moment, but it’s somewhere.)  Same thing.  I do a read-through looking for those particular issues.  (Too many “that” or “just” usages, for example.  Or using “but” too much.)

– I also do at least one clean read-through of a story looking for little things–Do I have punctuation at the end of every sentence?  Do I have any extra spaces at the beginning of a paragraph?  Do I have any extra spaces at the end of a paragraph?  Are there commas when there should be before or after dialogue?  Is all dialogue in quotes?  Did I mix up any who’s vs. whose, to vs. too, your vs. you’re, it’s vs its, they’re vs. there vs. their?

(Note that for that last one, that if I had a habit of mixing those up, I’d do a find on each of those and make sure it was the right one rather than trusting myself to catch it on a read-through.)

We’re all different with different strengths and weaknesses.  But if you want to be doing this for a long time then put in the effort to master grammar.  Don’t rely on others to catch things for you.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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