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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

Learn the Rules Before Breaking Them

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

I know grammar is a touchy subject for a lot of people. No one likes to be corrected or reprimanded for using the wrong word in the wrong place. I know many people who simply say, "Isn't that what an editor is for?" They don't care if they get a few words wrong, because they know it can be fixed or that people will get the gist of what was meant anyway.

I also know people who treat grammar like it is the be-all and end-all. They shudder if they see a conjunction at the beginning of a sentence and a preposition at the end (Which, interestingly enough, is generally accepted as proper English now.) They're seen by many as old-school grammar junkies.

What neither of these groups realize is that it's a combination of these things that can create perfect harmony in a creative work of fiction. Upholding a high standard for correct grammar ensures a well-constructed narrative, and it makes for excellent readability. On the flip side, being a bit lax on grammatical structure can allow for a more creative flow of the prose, making it rather musical in nature. It also gives the author of the piece a distinct voice, and can really make a book come to life. But there's a catch to this balancing act; one first has to know andpractice good grammar before break it.

If you read my blog series on why good writing matters, you probably came across the post about grammar. From a professional editor's standpoint, good grammar is essential for giving the author credibility. It assures the reader that the author knows what they're doing, and the reader will not only buy into believability of the story more, but they will be more likely to read past the first few pages. An agent will also be much more receptive to a book with good grammar than one without. This makes the book more marketable.

Once you have a well-written manuscript, you can start using grammar and sentence structure to your advantage. Use variation of sentence structures to make the prose flow, leading one sentence into the next according the mood and pace of the scene. For example, using shorter, choppier sentences and paragraphs mixed in with standard text can set the pace for a suspenseful action scene. Sometimes, a bit of non-standard grammar or even slang is appropriate in order to enhance this effect, particularly when dialogue is involved.

Carol dropped the bloody corpse she had been holding but held the knife firmly. The door had been kicked in. Two dozen FBI personnel surrounded her within seconds.

"Hands where I can see them!" one of them barked.

Carol chanced a glance out of the corner of her eye at the men surrounding her. Each had a handgun, and a few were packing larger weapons. Much larger. With a small smirk, she loosened her grasp on the knife. It clattered to the ground.


This was her chance. She yanked the chain off and threw it on the ground. The glass vial broke and immediately released a thick cloud of white smoke.


She leaped out a nearby window as her pursuers coughed and sputtered at the toxic fumes.

Notice how the purposefully short paragraphs, dialogue, and sentence fragments were used. The variation of sentences mixed in with just a hint of non-standard grammar gave this scene the desired effect. If the sentences lengths and grammar were changed, one might expect a different outcome, such as surrender of the criminal. Apart from the cues of the woman's body language, the short and direct sentences give the reader additional insight to what's coming other than what is directly written on the page.

Knowing how to productively bend the rules of grammar can be a powerful tool in the right hands. It's how good writers achieve those suspenseful, steamy, and action-packed scenes. But there's a big difference between blatantly poor writing and incorrect grammar being used purposefully and methodically to enhance well-written text.