Bad Excuses for Even Worse Grammar: “But it’s my Voice!”

As an editor, I run into the worst of the worst in bad grammar, punctuation and sentence structure. The most common excuse I hear is, “But it’s my Voice! You can’t change it or it loses all of my creativity!” Let me give you some advice. If you need to violate all the rules of good writing for the sake of creativity and some imagined “voice,” you are completely missing the fundamental purpose of the grammar rules: to make your writing easy to read.

A while back, I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.[i] Let me give you a little insight into the mind of an editor as I read the first page:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night [missing comma] he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. [Incomplete sentence] Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. [Incomplete sentence] His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath….In the dream from which he’d wakened [missing comma] he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light laying over the wet flowstone walls. [Incomplete sentence!] Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. [Incomplete sentence!!] Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. [Incomplete sentence!!!]

I can’t recall how many chapters it took for me to stop being horrified and enjoy the story. My creative side understood the purpose behind McCarthy’s rule breaking, but my OCD editor side went into apoplectic shock somewhere after Chapter 2. There were places I had to read and reread before I grasped what the author was trying to say because of punctuation mismanagement. And yet, the work is brilliant. Had McCarthy not broken the rules, it would not be the same book.

You are not Cormac McCarthy.

McCarthy began his legacy back in 1965 with a book called The Orchard Keeper. When he started out, he had more respect for the rules. He used commas back then, for instance. Forty-odd years later, he has completely abandoned commas, quotation marks and complete sentences. I await his next book to see if he will give up periods, too. Nonetheless, McCarthy’s longetivity combined with the right mix of darkness and character selections have earned him the right to break the rules.

Again: You are not Cormac McCarthy.

Ignoring the rules of good writing most often will result in your manuscript being tossed in the slush pile: not exactly where you want to be. Your best bet is to learn and use good English grammar, punctuation and style. The editor or agent who reads your manuscript will appreciate it and recognize that his publishing company won’t need to spend endless hours making your great story readable. I can’t tell you how much editors value that one big thing. The truth is – they will not invest those hours. There are too many good stories out there waiting to get published.

Not all of you will listen to this advice, however. You will insist on abusing the rules of good writing for the sake of “voice.” I can’t tell you that you haven’t a chance at being successful at this: McCarthy has proven it can be done. So instead of beating you in the head with my grammar manual, let me offer you a few pieces of advice…

  1. Know the rules before you decide to break them.
  2. Be consistent.
  3. Don’t make it up.
  4. Be choosy: Don’t break all the rules in one shot.

If you want to creatively dismiss the rules, you first have to know what they are. If you do nothing else for yourself, pick up Webster’s English Grammar Handbook[ii] and learn at least the basic rules. Learning good grammar will help you understand which rules can be broken without making your writing – and your reader – suffer.

Be consistent. If you have even a glimmer of hope in successfully breaking rules, you must be consistent in your endeavor. If you decide you don’t want to use quotation marks, don’t use them just here and there whenever you feel like it: Don’t use them at all. Make your own rule about breaking the rule.

Don’t make up messy punctuation combinations. I had a client that liked to combine commas and hyphens, periods and hyphens, and periods with exclamation points and question marks. For instance, this person would write:

We lived by the sea,-and it was a wondrous sight..!

TOTALLY unacceptable. If you want to use a comma, use a comma. If you want to use a dash, use a dash [not a hyphen]. If it’s an exclamation, use an exclamation point – simple as that!

Finally, creativity is all about being choosy about the rules you break. If you read McCarthy’s work, you’ll note there are some rules he did not break. He maintained excellent paragraph structure. He did not indulge in passive voice. He paid close attention to verb tense: he did not switch between past and present tense. He maintained a one-character viewpoint.

Breaking rules confuses readers, even if they don’t formally know the rules. If you break too many of them – or the wrong ones – readers become frustrated and put the book down. They want the basics done right. If you choose to ignore some of those basics, at least make it predictable and don’t inundate your reader, or your editor, with unnecessary rule breaking.

[i] 2006. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

[ii] ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1272126759&sr=8-1


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