Stephen King’s On Writing is fifteen years old this year (fifteen! the mind wobbles!), but still an engaging read on its own merits, especially for the overlapping middle section in the Venn diagram of Writers and Stephen King Fans. It came to mind last night because, you see, I’ve been noticing this trend.
An aspiring writer (or rather, folks who write and aspire to make careers of it) can have a wonderful grasp of characters and how stories flow, a bright and new and incisive way of looking at the world, the best and most creative ideas–but none of it matters, because their grammar and spelling are terrible.
And if someone points out the problem, they respond airily, “That’s what editors are for.” Whereupon one has no choice but to grind one’s teeth and turn the subject.
Because, guys, I hope you realize that is not what editors are for.
If we must have a toolbox, let it look like this one, please!
The middle section of On Writing is called “Toolbox,” and in it King details all the things you’ll need to have with you in order to write successfully. (I just used an adverb, which he would decry, but you know what? “No adverbs” is less of a rule than a guideline, anyway.) Vocabulary and grammar go on the top level of the tool box, accesible at need–and guess what? You always need them.
Now, I admit, I’m a bit of a grammar nerd. I love all of the bits and pieces of English and how they fit together, like the nuts and bolts and cogs and gears and bellows and pumps and little spinny things that make up some wonderful, vast Steampunk machine. We can debate the merits and uses of the Oxford comma or the split infinitive or God help us the passive voice all day long, and I will not sigh or check my phone nor excuse myself from the discussion, not once.
But you don’t have to be a grammar nerd to recognize that grammar, good grammar, is what carries the freight of your ideas from your brain to the brain of your reader. If that train of thought is rickety, or ill-constructed, or just plain can’t roll out of the station, the idea transfer will be imperfect at best (and since what happens in the reader’s brain never 100% matches what happened in the writer’s brain, “imperfect” is already the best one can hope for), and at worst, impossible.
Take another metaphor. My son, the Viking Prince, has decided he wants to be an artist. I may have mentioned this before. And he practices, and he tries, and he draws pretty damn well for a four-and-two-thirds-year-old. Now, a drawing, like a story, is meant to convey an idea, and if the viewer can’t tell what he’s looking at, then the drawing has failed in its purpose. (Old-fashioned, I know.) What a four-year-old can convey, with the tools available to him, is going to be different from what a fourteen-year-old, or a forty-year-old, or a four-hundred-year-old (shout-out to all the immortals in the audience) can (or should be able to) convey.
Voltron, reposted with the artist’s permission.
But if the grownup spurns the basic, the most basic, fundamental, necessary tools of grammar and spelling, then he is crippling himself. Because you cannot, you can not convey ideas of any complexity without a proper understanding of how the language works. You are an adult trying to paint the Sistine Chapel with stick figures. The four-year-old is doing the best he can. The forty-year-old must do better.
An editor can’t read your mind, and he can’t tell your story for you. If the editor wanted to tell that story, he would write it himself. It is not his job to turn your childish scribbles into the Sistine Chapel.
So please, if you have true aspirations towards being a writer, do not neglect the basics. (Never neglect the basics, in anything–but that’s a post for another day, maybe.) You can’t build a glorious cathedral without humble things, boards and stones and chisels and planes. These things are not beneath your notice; they are necessary. Fundamentals are called that for a reason; they are the basis, the foundation, for all the wonderful things you can build on top of them. So fill your toolbox well.
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