Daily Archives: September 19, 2020

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Rules of the Road by Jenny Jensen

September 19, 2020 by in category On writing . . . by Jenny Jensen, Writing

Rules of the Road

I enjoy driving, except for those time when some numptie ignores traffic rules. Whizzing through red lights, flying through stop signs, speeding, texting, ignoring yield signs all certainly disrupt the smooth flow of traffic, often catastrophically. We good drivers know that those who chose to ignore the rules are the bad drivers—or failed ones. While I have the choice to take defensive action in traffic and avoid most collisions I find I can’t defend against, avoid or ignore writers who chose to ignore the rules of grammar and punctuation. I’d rather just close the book or delete it.

I’m not a grisly grammarian or a pedantic pedagogue (redundant?) – really! It’s that I love our beautiful language and I love to read, to immerse myself in the lyrical flow of words well written and a story well told. I admit there have been times I wished I carried a big read marker so I could correct an egregious misuse. “Hunters please use caution when hunting pedestrians using walk trails” being one example that gave me really itchy fingers. I was laughing too hard to be incensed, though I did worry a bit about getting shot.

The rules of the written word are like the rules of the road, a map to smooth sailing. Correct punctuation guides the reader, unconsciously and effortlessly, to get where she wants to be; lost in the story. Commas tell the reader to take a breath, or make instant sense of a string of adjectives or a list. Commas are what show the meaning, cadence and flow of a character’s voice. A semi colon or an em-dash tells the reader to yield just a touch then get onto a related point. Quotation marks show who is speaking and for how long. An ellipses indicates a pause or shows that a thought has trailed off. A period brings our reader eye to a full stop.

The rules of grammar set the reader free of confusing nests of conflicting definitions. Does “Their on the way to the concert” mean ‘The goose/uncle/cockatoo belonging to the characters is headed to the concert and the object of the sentence just got left out? Or is the dialog meant to suggest there is the way to the concert, or did the writer intend a sensible contraction, they’re? Sneaky homophones.

I’m disappointed when an intriguing story is riddled with errors of grammar and punctuation. I really want to hear the tale but I’m forced to puzzle out meaning and narrative flow – even if it only takes an instant to understand, that instant is too long. It just isn’t necessary. The only time the rules of grammar and punctuation are unimportant is during the process of creating. Who cares if draft #1 is a grammarian’s nightmare? Or drafts #2 – 4 for that matter. What’s important at that stage is getting the story down, then making it work, then making it sing—no matter how many drafts it takes.

Once the story pleases the author there is no excuse to launch it into the world without a proper proofing. If a writer feels a full edit isn’t needed, that’s their choice but believe me when I say every published work should first be proofed. There are hundreds of editors—including myself—who offer that professional service at a reasonable price. A thorough proofing is worthy of the energy put into creating the book and respectful of the language and the reader.

Whew! A rant. Thanks for listening.


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