Saturday, April 16, 2016

How I Learned to Stop Picking Nits and Love the Language

Edie here. Today I'm super excited to have a good friend, Ramona Richards as a guest. She's a great editor and an amazing writer. Her newest book is sitting on my nightstand right now - and isn't going anywhere any time soon because I love it so much. The details about the book are at the end of the post, so be sure to give it a look and a great Write Conversation welcome!

How I Learned to Stop Picking Nits and Love the Language 

by Ramona Richards

If when we are taught English we are just taught the rules of grammar, it would take all our love of our language away from us. What makes us love a subject like English is when we learn all these fantastic stories. Feeding the imagination is what makes a subject come alive.
~Daniel Tammet, author of Born on a Blue Day

That Infernal Editor
It’s a universal piece of advice given to every writer who ever sat down at a keyboard: turn off your internal editor and just write. Easier said than done for most of us, which is why I call it the “infernal” editor. One of the crafts we must learn to ply our trade is English grammar, and an emphasis on the importance of correct grammar is in every class, blog, or tutorial we read. But in the first draft process, that’s the exact thing that can stop us cold.

And where does that nagging editorial voice that freezes us up come from anyway?
With most writers, we were brought up to it. We absorb it in what we read before, during, and after the time we start learning what to call nouns and adjectives. My formal training dates back to junior high, in a fair land far away (Tennessee in the 1970s), when Mr. Dobbins imbedded in my brain a love of diagramming and subject/predicate agreements. Then I majored in English. Twice. Correct grammar became a passion. People were afraid to write me letters. I was a grammar dictator. I took advanced courses, and could even diagram sentences from James Joyce. The only literature classes I took were medieval and modern. I preferred studying the history of the English language to the historical classics. I wanted to be a writer and editor, not a literature professor.
The second time, for my master’s degree, I had to take a foreign language. German. Which taught me even more about grammar (German and English have similar Indo-European roots). By the time those degrees were in hand, I had Harbrace, Turabian, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), and Strunk & White memorized. I had a red pen grafted to my left hand. I was ready for publishing. I started writing more stories and sending out applications for jobs at publishing houses.

For the love of...story.
For the Love of…Story        
Then I actually got a job in publishing. Working with children’s books. And I had quite the reality check. Here are the first two lessons I learned in publishing:
  1. Story is king, no matter what your genre.
  2. There’s no such thing as a perfect book.        

I still remember the first letter of correction I received from a reader. As a grammar dictator, I was devastated, even though I’d had nothing to do with the book. It had been published long before I’d even graduated from college. I was embarrassed for my company. My boss, however, was quite nonchalant.
“Ramona,” she said gently, “if you get upset over every mistake in a printed book, you’re going to spend your life in a tizzy. There’s no such thing as a perfect book. Humans make mistakes. And grammar changes.”
Wait. What? Grammar changes?
Definitely not something I heard back in that fair land far away. I was just beginning to learn how far away it was. I soon began to read publications like The Editorial Eye, which covered the ongoing changes in grammar. Now I read grammar blogs. I went from being a prescriptivist (one who dictates how grammar should be used correctly) to a descriptivist (one who describes how current grammar is used correctly). And I discovered that editing content, editing story, is far more satisfying to me than making sure the jots and tittles were all straight.
I began to truly appreciate the beauty of this
whackadoodle language we call English.
Above all, I began to truly appreciate the beauty of this whackadoodle language we call English. It’s fluid and flexible with rules that guide yet shift. It allows for different stylebooks to flourish (Associated Press is not CMS is not APA style, and the Oxford commas are not universal). It allows new words to be added and old words to change or vanish. Nouns become verbs, and vice versa. It allows for author voice and dialogue as well as dialectal phrasings. It allows for the Oxford English Dictionary folks to choose “emoji” as the word of the year. After all, the OED has always been a descriptivist publication.
This may mean that some “mistakes” in books aren’t really mistakes. And if your grammatical knowledge is based on what you learned before 2001, please do not mention split infinitives. They’ve been quite acceptable since 1983. Or to quote a CMS Q&A column: “In this day and age, it seems, an injunction against splitting infinitives is one of those shibboleths whose only reason for survival is to give increased meaning to the lives of those who can both identify by name a discrete grammatical, syntactic, or orthographic entity and notice when that entity has been somehow besmirched.” (
Another reason to love the CMS folks.
It really is OK for us “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” And other places.
So what’s my point?

Love Words, Not Commas
My point is that an intense emphasis on whether a book you’re reading has mistakes is the same internal editor that stops you from writing. When you’re reading a new book, focus on content, on story, on flow (especially in nonfiction), and NOT on the occasional trip-up by a copyeditor. Because if you let a few grammatical mistakes or typos upset your reading of a book, then you are going to overlook some of the most beautiful and well-written (if not well-proofed) books in our language. (Even most Bibles have typos.)
And THIS is the first step to turning off your internal editor. When you can turn it off when reading other authors’ books, you can do it for yourself and your own writing.

The Craft of Grammar Has Its Place
This doesn’t mean you won’t notice the mistakes. You will. After all, correct grammar and a smooth, unique syntax is part of your tradecraft. The gift is to be able to ignore them in light of the story being told. If you can get to this point, you can likewise ignore them in your first draft.
And this doesn’t mean that you’ve stopped caring about grammar or that you won’t be able to turn that infernal editor back on once you’re into the editing process. The knowledge doesn’t go away; it’s just temporarily reassigned. I no longer care about typos in blogs, Facebook posts, or emails (although I do make a quick judgment about the author). Instead I save my grammar dictator status for the second draft of my own books and any I’m getting paid to edit.
The first rule of professional editing is: Be kind but clear. Authors should keep this in mind for the first draft of every book. Torture your characters…but be kind to yourself. Focus on telling the story you love. Jots and tittles can come later.  

My Mother’s Quilts
A quilt is love that serves a purpose.

Inspired by thirty family heirloom quilts, each devotion depicts the enduring legacy of faith, family, and tradition. Rich, personal, sometimes heartbreaking, often funny, each reading provides a lesson and encouragement from the faithful women who crafted the quilts.

Full-color photographs of each quilt show the style and artistry of each beautiful work. The quilts, sewn by several generations over more than one hundred years, are as unique and lovely as the hands that created them. The oldest was buried during the Civil war to keep it safe, and the author’s mother created the newest in the last years of her life.

Available at all book retailers
Worthy Publishing

Ramona Richards is the author of nine books, including her most recent release, My Mother’s Quilts. Her devotions have appeared in such publications as Fulfilled: The NIV Devotional Bible for the Single Woman, Trusting Jesus Every Day, Wonderfully Made, Heavenly Humor for the Woman’s Soul, Heavenly Humor for the Dieter’s Soul, and several others. Ramona has worked on staff or as a freelancer with more than 20 magazine and book publishers, including Thomas Nelson and Abingdon Press. She now works as a freelance editor and writer from her home office in Nashville, Tennessee 

Some grammar-oriented sites I read. There are many more. 
Chicago Manual of Style
Lingua Franca
Sentence First
The Subversive Copy Editor
Throw Grammar from the Train
(which introduced me to the word “peeverein” – I am forever grateful)



  1. Now there's a much needed post. I find myself getting hung up on grammar and style while writing my YA or middle grade novels. Let me tell you something: an 11 year-old narrator isn't going to get it right. Nor should he. Nor should a narrator of any age. When we allow grammar and style to take front stage, we cannot help but clash with voice. And since voice is derived from a strong character and the experience of the author, any meddling will destroy your story on two fronts. You may get an A+ from your college English professor, but a one-star on Amazon. Of course, this becomes an issue for the new writer, who fears turning anything over to an agent or publisher that isn't perfect. Probably the reason why there is often a tremendous difference between an author's first published book and her second. Once you've got readers, the author feels more freedom to explore the language, which is what the publisher wanted in the first place.

    Thanks for a great post.

  2. I used to love to diagram sentences!! I've never know another person who loved to do them! Of course that was eons ago. I've forgotten more than I probably ever knew.

    I also have to say I had the honor of reading an advance copy of My Mother's Quilts and absolutely loved it. I highly recommend it. Thanks for a fun and interesting post, Ramona.

    1. hullo, Ane, now you do. know another person who [used to] love to diagram sentences! i LOVE grammar, but when i'm writing i invent my own words and my own "proper" form... ha!

    2. Me too. I loved to diagram sentences. Still helps me today...well, sort of. :)

  3. Absolutely LOVE this post. And I'm like Ane. I loved diagramming sentences too.

    Thank you!

  4. When I write my first draft, I "spew from the heart." Yes, I have four or five major edits afterward, but at least I have the story and my characters down. No sense stifling creativity when it's bursting forth; we have plenty of time later to hone our writing. Even then, we have to know when to let go--to realize, as you said, that no book is perfect.

    A wonderful post! Pinned and shared. :)

  5. Thanks for sharing this, Ramona. Lately I find that the only thing more annoying than grammatical errors in blog and social media posts (e.g., Your such a good writer.) is the immediate and obnoxious self-righteous correction in the comments (e.g., *You're). I appreciate the reminder to get back to the love of words above the GC (grammatically correct).

  6. Great article. I used to love diagramming sentences in Spanish but nowadays many people are not very happy with all the changes the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language want to impose. English is a very playful language and very flexible. I love it too.

  7. What a lovely post. Congratulations on your new book! (And thank you for listing mine.)

  8. Thanks for your post, Ramona. Yes, I'm one of those who just can't turn off that infernal editor. Even during NaNoWriMo, I fought with him through the entire process. Sometimes I won, but most often, he did...correcting grammar, punctuation, and dialogue. Arrrggghhh! I'm still working on it and hope that one day I can kick him to the curb, at least until I NEED him!