Creative Writing and the Importance of Grammar

Let me pose this question first: Have you ever read an exquisite fictional novel only to be distracted by appalling misuses of grammar? I will go ahead and conclude that the answer to this question is “yes!” for most of us. Those lucky enough to be able to answer “no” should consider expanding their reading horizons to include such writers as Ursula K. LeGuin, J.R.R. Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber, and maybe even some George R.R. Martin! These aforementioned authors are masters of storytelling and creating fictional worlds, yet a fair amount of their writing is riddled with grammatical errors.

Most writers “exploit” grammar; writers in this context should refer to those who use writing as an artistic form of communication, not those who use writing as an everyday form of communication for life. Go pick up any novel, read a few short-stories, a few essays, anything; I’ll even admit that my writing is not perfect! Does this mean that the author has no knowledge of grammar? Does the author lose credibility at this point? Put simply, many grammatical errors are intentional and strategic. Don’t get me wrong; many grammatical errors are the result of either carelessness or lack of grammar knowledge. But (Oh no! I started a sentence with a conjunction!) grammar isn’t strictly about the rules; grammar is essentially a building block. Writing without perfect grammar is definitely acceptable; if you are going to break the rules, though, you must know the rules first!

As an avid reader of George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy novel series A Song of Ice and Fire and a self-proclaimed “Grammar Hammer,” I have come to understand, love, and ultimately accept Martin’s frequent use of semi-incoherent and distorted grammar. For example, Martin makes it a point to start sentences with conjunctions such as “and,” “but,” or “or.” Martin mainly uses conjunctions to start sentences when trying to convey a character’s thought process: for example, in A Clash of Kings, when Davos Seaworth arrives at Dragonstone and sees the gargoyles and stone dragons mounted on the outer castle walls, Martin describes Davos’ inner thought process by stating, “Heat rose shimmering through the chill air; behind, the gargoyles and stone dragons on the castle wall seemed blurred, as if Davos were seeing them through a veil of tears. Or as if the beasts were trembling, stirring…” (145) Using the conjunction “or,” Martin explicitly manipulates the reader into understanding Davos’ thoughts. The use of conjunctions to start sentences is a very popular theme throughout the entire book series; I think I can speak for mostly everyone when I say that I have been taught, ever since elementary school, to not start sentences with a conjunction. Why can a published writer start a sentence with a conjunction but I can’t?! Did these mistakes force me to stop reading the series? Surely not; let us now discuss another common grammar mistake in creative or fictional writing.

Have you ever been told to not write in sentence fragments or run-ons? I know I have, but let us delve into this argument. I would pay good money to someone if he or she could show me a novel that is completely devoid of fragments and/or run-ons. (Not really, but hopefully you get my point; don’t come looking for money from me!) I have recently started my annual ritual of reading Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea novel series, and, now that I am really paying attention to her grammar, I am astounded by her overwhelming use of sentence fragments. If you do not know who Ursula K. LeGuin is or what she has written, I wholeheartedly recommend some research and some reading on your part! LeGuin, just like George R.R. Martin, misuses grammar to make a point: LeGuin loves to use sentence fragments to convey a sense of importance within the dialogue. For example, when the protagonist, Ged (or Sparrowhawk if you prefer a better name), is worried about the possibility of having to leave his magical safe haven, he tells the Archmage that he wants “To stay. To learn. To undo…the evil…” (LeGuin 71) Fragments, infinitives, and ellipses, oh my! Now, the question begs: Do these fools simply not know a thing about grammar or are they manipulating grammar in their own ways? I’m going with manipulation…in a landslide.

The point I am making here is that grammar is not the end-all, say-all entity that many people (including myself sometimes) portray it to be. Grammar can be hoodwinked; grammar can be misused; grammar can be creative! A creative or fictional writer should definitely know as much about grammar as possible – syntax, usage rules, punctuation, spelling, word choice, etc. – so that he or she can get away with deliberately incorrect grammar usage. A vast majority of the errors in published works are intentional; these errors help create a sense of mood or tone that is appropriate for the context. In my honest opinion, perfect grammar has NOTHING to do with good writing or storytelling. I, for one, have a hard time focusing on developing a story or sending a clear message when perfect grammar is my primary fear. I have learned to not let that fear overcome me but instead to embrace it and bend those pesky grammar rules. Once a writer can demonstrate his or her craft, readers are more likely to give him or her the benefit of the doubt rather than to nitpick the little things. Use the “rules” as your general guidelines, but feel free to break the rules when the style or the story calls for it. Don’t let the rules strangle you as a writer.

LeGuin, Ursula K. A Wizard of Earthsea. New York City: Bantam Spectra Books, 1984. Print.
Martin, George R. R. A Clash of Kings. New York City: Bantam Spectra Books, 2000. Print.

  • Mai McCarthy

    I absolutely love and agree with you, Robert that “perfect grammar has NOTHING to do with good writing or storytelling.” Though, as a grammarian, I do prefer errorless (painless) reads. A great article!

  • Eagleheart 956

    Great read!