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Never Learned Grammar?
by Terry W. Ervin II

Many writers I’ve encountered have adequate inspiration and ideas, but once they sit down at the computer, they discover they’re in trouble. Rules for capitalization, punctuation, antecedents, prepositional phrases, tenses and passive sentence structure become issues. Struggling through an annual Christmas letter or a business memo is one thing. Completing a 5,000 word short story or a 90,000 word novel is another. At this point it matters little whether the writers never paid enough attention while in school or simply learned and forgot most of that “grammar stuff.” All they know is that their grammar knowledge deficit is a major roadblock.

Grammar is important! Agents and editors look for reasons to reject a submission. Sure, the story may show promise, but so do many others that cross their desk—ones which are not rife with grammatical errors. Agents and editors get FAR MORE submissions than they could ever represent or find room for in the publication schedule. It’s simple numbers.

A manuscript or short story that isn’t perfect is not doomed to rejection. Editing is part of an editor’s job. However, a query letter, like a resume, should be error free.

Not only will editors and agents balk at reading a story littered with grammar mistakes, but friends and critique partners will too.

What can a writer who finds himself in such a position do? There are several options.

Hire Somebody. While this option may be a quick one, there are pitfalls. First, the writer must find someone not only with the skill, but also the time to mark corrections. The second is to figure out how to pay for it. Prepare to dig deep into those pockets. The writer who hopes to get a professional critique along with a professional edit will have to pay even more.

Many editing services don’t post their fees up front. Expect to pay anywhere from $1.00 to $3.00 per page. For a 90,000 word novel an average cost would be $700.00 and a 5000 word short story would cost $40.00. These are hefty sums, especially since editing services don’t advertise refunds to the writer whose manuscript doesn’t sell.

Find a Partner. A common theme heard in lounges at writer conferences and at online writer sites where one can post to find a partner or writer group is, “Looking for critique partner who can help with grammar.” A common follow-up refrain is, “Will help with ideas, characterization and plot in exchange.”

There are far more writers out there who can offer help with ideas and plot than there are who can (and are willing) to help with grammar. It’s not that the grammar-competent writers look down upon those who are not. Fiction which lacks punctuation, randomly changes tenses, misuses pronouns, lacks proper capitalization, and is littered with sentence fragments is very difficult to read. It takes a long time to correct before the story even comes through. That is why editors reject such submissions.

If a writer with weak grammar skills finds a partner willing to assist, in addition to being thankful, they should take notes and learn. Not only is it more tedious, but it also takes far longer to edit a grammatically inept manuscript than it does to simply evaluate one for plot, characterization, and consistency. Such a partnership is destined to be a lopsided one, bound for Splitsville. While critiquing has merit, every hour spent critting another writer’s work means one less hour available to complete one’s own work.

Learn Grammar. Simply learning (or brushing up on) the basic rules of grammar will pay off in the long run. It can save money and the sanity of crit partners, and will definitely save time.

If a partner with strong grammar skills is available, pay attention to their corrections and suggestions. When writing new material, implement what was learned.

Grab a favorite novel off the shelf. Read it, but this time not for pleasure. Observe how the author wrote it. Take notes on dialogue, sentence structure, capitalization, punctuation, and other areas of weakness.  Edit a dozen pages from a current project while referring to the notes. Then, apply what was learned to new material.

Get a good grammar reference book. They can be found at most used bookstores for a fraction of their original cover price. Sometimes one can be obtained from a university bookstore as a used book as well. Often a good dictionary will have, as part of its contents, a “Handbook of Style.” That may be sufficient.

While many grammar texts focus mainly on what would be appropriate for essays or nonfiction, I would recommend The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. It provides detailed information and examples of some of the more common questions in writing. Other writers recommend The Everything Grammar and Style Book: All the Rules You Need to Know to Master Great Writing by Susan Thurman. It is simple, straight forward, and easy to read.

Another option would be to seek online grammar information. The Guide to Grammar and Writing, sponsored by the Capital Community College Foundation (http://www.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/), provides a comprehensive list of topics and is a good place to start.

Study, effort, and practice implementing the rules of grammar in writing will pay off. It will save time, money, and writing partnerships. Improving grammar skills will enable the submission of better, more professional manuscripts.

Copyright Terry W. Ervin II. All rights reserved.


Terry W. Ervin II is an English teacher who enjoys writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. He is a frequent contributor to Fiction Factor and his fiction has appeared a number of places, including The Sword Review, Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and MindFlights.

When Terry isn’t writing or enjoying time with his family, he can be found in his basement raising turtles. To contact Terry or to learn more about his writing endeavors and recommended markets (among other things), visit his website at:



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