Good writing is more than good grammar.

Good grammar does not always equal good writing.

What? With all the fuss that people make over editing these days it’s easy to lose sight of the writing because we’re too busy looking at the grammar and punctuation. The old saying that expresses this is: you can’t see the forest for the trees.

This is why a copy edit is not enough to ensure that writing is of a professional standard. A copy edit focuses only on the trees. It will check that each tree is straight and well pruned, but there is more to a beautiful forest than straight trees. The occasional bent, cracked or fallen one adds interest and variety, but if most of them are broken, the forest is a mess we can’t negotiate, or it is so ugly that we don’t want to go there. Vines, ferns, epiphytes and understorey shrubs add colour and texture, but too many of them obscure the trees, make the forest impenetrable and, at the very least, throw us into sensory overload. Clumped together, they prevent us from seeing any one of them to its best advantage.

In this analogy, the straight trees are grammatically correct sentences. The bent, broken and twisted ones are the more fluid parts of our language, things that have changed or are in the process of changing or, though strictly speaking grammatically incorrect, can be used stylistically to good effect, or to reflect modern speech and cultural differences.

The split infinitive is one example. Since we mostly speak in split infinitives now, to insist on writing without the splits is petty and will sound wrong in situations where informal speech is required. The fragment is another example; although grammatically incorrect, we often speak in fragments and their judicious use in written English, even outside of speech, adds punch and rhythm to writing. Writing dialogue in dialect also breaks grammatical and spelling conventions (note that I don’t call them rules) but it adds colour and reality. Overused, however, it becomes difficult to read.

It’s usually pretty clear to any experienced reviewer, where ignoring grammatical convention works and where it doesn’t. Where it works, it improves the reading experience. Where it doesn’t, it diminishes it. Where used in ignorance, it appears clumsy; where used knowingly, it adds texture and style. It is safer for the beginning writer to stick to the conventions, but not so fanatically that they apply conventions indiscriminately and remove all personality from their writing: for example, continually using is not, where isn’t would be more appropriate for the tone and style of the work.

The under story of shrubs, ferns, epiphytes and vines are an analogy for adverbs, adjectives, metaphors, similes, euphemisms, alliteration, allusion, personification, paradox, understatement and other stylistic devices. Well placed and used judiciously, these add to the reading experience, but overused or badly placed and, no matter how grammatically correct, they detract.

A whole forest of straight trees planted in straight lines without vines, under story or ferns and so on, could be an analogy for a technical writing style incorrectly applied to fiction, or for grammatically correct sentences that do not vary in their construction and are so void of embellishments that the experience is quite dull. It could also refer to an awesome science fiction novel where the bare language expresses the alien’s personalities perfectly. It’s not a matter of right or wrong, but of how you use the tools available and for what effect.

Passive writing is grammatically correct, which is why a copy editor will not ‘fix’ it, but too much of it makes the prose flat and unengaging. Beginning sentences with participial phrases (starting with words ending in ‘ing’) are grammatically correct – so long as the participial phrase is attached to an agent – but when overused, it is the mark of a hack writer. And it’s the same for beginning sentences with prepositional phrases beginning with the word ‘as’.

It is the line editor’s job to do this kind of landscaping, and a good one is aware of the current trends in writing. Of course, you can ignore current trends, such as the preference for active over passive constructions, but you need to be aware of the point of the convention that you’re ignoring, in this case it’s that active writing is more immediate and engaging than the passive form.

The writer’s challenge is to use good grammar well, while feeling free to occasionally and judiciously use  what strict traditionalists might consider incorrect grammar. We need to remember that grammatical conventions change as our language changes, and that what is acceptable varies according to local usage, and not be too picky over what may be outdated conventions, but at the same time we should not disregard grammatical conventions for no good reason.

As with most things in life, it’s a matter of balance.

Does this make sense?

10 Responses to Good writing is more than good grammar.

  1. Absolute sense. Excellent post, Tahlia. I shall be sharing.

  2. Very well put. Not only makes perfect sense but is also excellent advice.

  3. Makes sense to me. I even throw in an Oxford comma occasionally when it makes sense to break the “rules.”

    • Ah, but Oxford commas, though generally a UK English convention, are these days considered a matter of choice, not a rule, and so is comma placement in whether or not you use a comma after a short introductory clause. Whatever choices an author makes must simply be consistent.

    • The Oxford comma is mostly used by the Americans, although it is still considered a ‘rule’. Not using it is breaking the rules, not the other way around.

      • I guess it depends on what style guide you’re working to. The copy editing course I just completed stated clearly that it was a stylistic choice, but that’s Australia. We are very accepting of variations, so long as it’s consistent throughout. The Australian Style Guide states that the overriding factor for comas is ‘whether a comma is needed to ensure that the message is unambiguous and delivered effectively.’

        Awesome Indies reviewers handle different styles by accepting this kind of variation so long as the meaning is clear and usage is consistent throughout. That is what’s relevant to readers.

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