Should fiction writers care about grammar?

A while back, a writer friend was teaching a fiction writing class and asked me some questions on behalf of some students who were struggling with grammar.

 I answered her questions — straightforward stuff about sentence-ending prepositions and placement of adverbs. Only afterward did I notice the nagging doubt in the pit of my stomach. These were fiction writers and I, indirectly, had them thinking about language “rules.” I could tell by the questions coming from Naomi that, as her students turned their focus to grammar, they were worrying about making mistakes and embarrassing themselves by exposing their imperfect grammar.

For fiction writers, this fear can be counterproductive. How can you focus on story and message and voice and character and description when you’re afraid every preposition or introductory phrase could be your downfall?

When you think about this long enough, you could easily conclude that fiction writers shouldn’t worry about grammar. But anyone who’s ever agreed to read a friend’s “novel in progress” knows the flip side of this argument. Grammar and punctuation errors aren't always nitpicky, minor things. They can make a big difference in the overall quality of a written work.

So what exactly is the role of grammar for the creative writer? Should he learn and follow the rules? Or should he cast them aside in the name of creative freedom?

The more I think about this, the more I think the answer is neither. Or perhaps both. I think that fiction writers who want to defy every grammar rule and convention under the sun should do so without hesitation. But the best way to get away with breaking the rules is by demonstrating a mastery of grammar.

Take for example the structure “might could.” That’s probably not one you want to use in a paper in an MBA program. “The leading economic indicators suggest that the GDP might could improve in the coming quarter.” Yet I’ve seen fiction writers like George R.R. Martin and Kerry Madden use “might could” to great effect. Martin uses it to strike a medieval tone in his “Game of Thrones” books. Madden used it in “Gentle’s Holler” to give her characters a Southern/rural voice.

Readers get it. It’s clear that the writers are using “might could” quite deliberately and not out of the belief that it’s more proper than a simple “might” or “could.”

What does that tell us about the grammar “requirements” on fiction writers? Well, it seems to me that if Martin or Madden had littered their manuscripts with “it’s” in place of “its,” the word “alot,” or evidence they don’t know “their” from “they’re,” they wouldn’t have earned the license to use structures that people consider “nonstandard” – terms like “might could” and “ain’t” and awkward double negatives and sentence fragments. (Indeed, they never would have been published in the first place.)

And from that perspective, I can see clearly the importance of grammar for fiction writers. For them, grammar is important. They should know as much as possible about syntax and usage rules and punctuation and word choice and spelling. But, whenever they feel it's appropriate, they should ignore those rules completely. Once a fiction writer has demonstrated that he knows his craft, readers will give him the benefit of the doubt in all his language choices. But if it’s clear he has bad grammar, every departure from the “proper” can and will be chalked up to ignorance.

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