Friday, November 20, 2009

Starbucks versus Duncan Donuts: Are you a grammatical snob?

I have something to confess: I’ve been a grammatical snob all my life. I liken it to being a coffee snob. What? Not Starbucks? Don’t try to sell me that DD crap.

I know, hard to believe. It’s true. I don’t want to be a snob; I just can’t help it. I’m a hopeless self-critic, an endless reviser. I can’t be satisfied with a piece until every last bit of voice has been extracted out of it, every linguistic twitch beaten into submission. It’s an excruciating process, if only because what you get after all that is something excruciatingly boring to read.

But isn’t the writing supposed to hum soundlessly, invisibly in the background?

I’ve had more than one literati tell me my writing’s as bland as, to paraphrase, decaffeinated Folgiers.

I blame my third grade teacher, Mrs. Hansen, and all the rules she hammered into my head.

I blame Strunk and White.

I blame S. I. Hayakawa.

Most of all, I blame myself for taking these geniuses so… so literally.

The solution? Have you read Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk and Bite? It's a good start.

You can’t imagine the pain I felt the first time I finished a manuscript that actually contained (No!) sentence fragments, (My God!) run-ons, and (Egads!) a slew of other grammatical no-no’s. It was all I could do not to go back and fix things in the dark of the night.

Guess what? It was good!

Okay, maybe not Colombian blend good. Not just yet. But definitely getting there.

It’s hard. If there were a 12-step program for recovering revisionists I’d be stuck somewhere between steps three and four. Yeah, that’s a lot of steps left to go.

Repent. Repent.

Once, on a business trip in Seattle (you see where this is going, right?), my colleague insisted he wouldn’t drink another cup of Starbucks if his life depended on it. (Does everyone take their coffee this seriously?) We ended up driving seventeen blocks before we tracked down a Duncan Donuts that was open. This guy was like the anti-snob of coffee connoisseurs. But, you know what? DD coffee isn’t half bad.

On the writer’s journey, aren’t there more important things to worry about than getting sentence structure and spellings exactly right? Sure, they're important, because you want to know when you're breaking the conventions. So you can break them consistently.

But, dammit, go out on a limb. Forget your past notions. Hey, try the java from Mickey D’s. Or 7-Eleven. Or even (horror of horrors) Der Wienerschnitzel. You never know, hot dog flavored mocha might be the next big craze. At least it’ll taste like something.

Oh, and happy roadtripping.


  1. I simply can't remember the last time I wrote formally. I've checked a couple of my husband's emails here and there, but surely that doesn't count.

    Oh, the life of a stay at home mom.

    And as for speaking formally, we don't do that much here in Alabama. I wonder if I even could? Or, if I want to...

    Thanks for the mental roadtrip--very interesting!

  2. Karen, you mentioned wanting to blog. I found it was extremely easy to set this up through blogspot. Just register and away you go. Two reasons to give it a try: 1) forces you to write, and 2) forces you to realize everyone can see it. I've actually found it helping with the internal censor - turning it off, if you can believe that. Anyway, if you decide to give it a go, I'll be your first follower!

  3. I'll think about it! I am a professional procrastinator, as I am sure you have gathered by now. It doesn't pay much, but it is nice to be good at something.

    I guess I could entertain the masses with some George and Lucy antics. And of course, people will be fascinated by my pregnancy woes. Let me tell you about my varicose veins...

  4. Being attentive to grammar is a gift, but you do have to let loose sometimes with fragments and run-ons to give writing an extra punch. I've read so many mistake-riddled samples out there that I'd rather be a grammar nut and edit like crazy than have so many mistakes. Good grammar makes your work readable. I’m polishing my WIP like crazy right now, and every minute is well spent.

  5. Well stated, Medeia. The importance of proper sentence construction, spelling, and meaning cannot be understated. More to the point, having good habits and knowledge of the "rules" actually affords a writer with greater flexibility to know when to deviate, which then allows one's voice to shine through.