Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Spelling and Writing

To quote my favorite storyteller: I ain’t no grammarian.
I have long marveled at the gaping trench that sometimes opens between the mysterious art of storytelling and the craft of writing.
Why are some writers competent technicians but lackluster storytellers? Why are some storytellers grammatically challenged?
Must the great ones be stellar in both aspects? Why?
{I suspect there are too many WHYs up there^.}
Back to my favorite storyteller, Ms., Fannie Flagg. (Yes, the Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café and Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven Fannie Flagg.) There’s a quotation from her that has been a flag-post of sorts for me: I can’t spell worth a nickel, but no one can tell my stories the way I can.” Fannie used a saltier word for ‘nickel,’ but I’m not so pungent.
As it turns out, Ms. Flagg is dyslexic. She’s also a genius and a national treasure.
Maybe my point is that great writing is much more than technique. My father used to say that editors were invented to place the commas, but writing was vision first.
Like the old dilemma of whether to start from plot or character, both vision and technique matter. Try drinking nectar without a cup! But if it must be weighted, I’d tilt toward vision. A vision-less great technician is like an empty cup. Nice, sturdy, and leaves you thirsty.
This may be my excuse or justification of daring to write even though I’m grammatically challenged.
Fair enough. Now tell that to Fannie Flagg.


  1. My mom was really big on grammar when I was growing up, which might explain why I love it today. Still, I make a lot of mistakes while I draft because I don't stop to think about grammar when I'm trying to get a story down. I focus solely on the story. I'll worry about my grammar during revisions.

  2. I must admit that I'm a pretty big grammar dork. :-)But if letting go of grammar helps you create a story, then I think it's fine to throw it out the window in early drafts. I do tell my students, though, that when you're going to give your work to someone else, try to make it as error-free as possible so your readers will focus on the story and not the mistakes.

  3. One can always have someone else go through a manuscript for spelling and grammar after the story is finished. :)

  4. I read a book once that I enjoyed, but the writing felt off. Not bad, just awkward. I wondered if the writer's first language wasn't English. Later, I discovered she's dyslexic, and struggles to write (well, more so than most). So I think being comfortable with words, or not so comfortable, can come through... Personally, like Anna, I'm a pretty big grammar dork. And I think writing deserves our best. But I also think that great storytelling doesn't necessarily mean great writing.

  5. I have a related problem--I can tell stories on paper, but have a very difficult time articulating them out loud. Maybe the introverted part of me ties up my tongue?? As far as grammar and mechanics are concerned, that is (luckily) something that wonderful critique partners can help with during the revision stage. There are so many amazing writers who are faced with challenges (spelling issues, dyslexia, grammar, etc.) but who are wonderful storytellers, which proves that vision IS fundamentally more essential!
    Also, I love Fannie Flagg!

  6. I agree that vision is more important since others can help with the grammar and spelling, but I do notice mistakes, so I like for the end product not to have them because they tend to take me out of the story.

    Having said that, I'll admit I've become more tolerant of errors in recent years than I used to be, because I find myself making more and more of them as I get older. I used to never mess up things like its/it's and your/you're, and even though I still know the correct usage, I find errors in my writing often, including totally incorrect substitutions such as 'to' for 'the.' It's downright scary that my brain is sending different messages to my hands than I intend. :)

  7. Vision vs. Grammar - it's another one of those elusive balancing acts we must try to master!

  8. I'm a grammar hound, and I expect both good storytelling and good writing from myself. Among my students, I see a lot of good stories without the writing skills to get them out into the world. But I have yet to see a good writer who doesn't also have a good story.

  9. I think I love your father ;)

    I've worked hard to get a handle on and cut back on my comma use. Now I have an agent who is fond of the Oxford comma. I can't win :)

    1. Interestingly, this morning the Newbery medal winner Avi (of Crispin’s fame) blogged that he is even more challenged when it comes to spelling than I imagine I am. Not bad company.

  10. I suppose that's what editors are for: to correct our grammatical and spelling errors.

    I stopped reading a traditionally-published big- publisher novel 3/4 of the way through because, at about page 270, all the typos and copy-editing errors on that one page were so overwhelming that I gave up. It was as if the editor had an impossible deadline and ran out of time at page 269!