Improving grammar (and grammar with first person)

6 years ago | AGreyWorld (Member)

Specific question to Alexander.Hollins (thanks for the review!) you said that there are a lot of grammar issues, which is something I really need to improve. You specifically mention "especially the doubling of words, where it seemed the author had two similar words to choose and kept both. At first I thought it was an artifact of the first person viewpoint, that it’s the Main Character’s word choice, but it doesn’t seem to be."

Unless I've really not been proof reading very well then I think what you are referring to is actually intended to be because of the first person viewpoint - ie in the characters train of thought kind of thing. What was it that made you think it wasn't? Is it something you think I should still look at changing even if I tell you it's intentional?

Question for others (especially those who have no formal education in creative writing):

How do you actually learn the rules of grammar/improve your writing? I suspect any of the grammar problems are things I'm doing wrong but think are correct. I started writing as an experiment and if I want to take it a bit more seriously I should probably learn how to actually do it... Just gunning along on my own is going to reproduce the same errors and I don't really know what I'm doing is incorrect. How do you improve? I've looked at some grammar rules and the language is completely alien to me - (my knowledge really is on the level of knowing what 'nouns', 'verbs' and 'adjectives' are... Anything beyond that is just kind of instinct I've built up)

Proof reading can pick out typo like problems, and my readers point out a lot of spelling mistakes (usually words with the same sound but different spellings) but they don't tend to point out flaws in grammar.

Are the rules different for first person? I.e. when following 'thought' like narrative, is non-perfect grammar acceptable or not.

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Page: 12

Responses

  1. Wildbow (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    It sounds awful, but the best ways to learn grammar are to absorb it and through trial and error.

    Read. Read good stuff. Even if you aren't paying attention to the particulars of grammar, your brain will naturally act as a sponge and pick up on the general rules. If you are watching out for specific things, then you can use good writing as a reference point on how to address certain issues.

    Trial and error? Classes help, and beyond that, it comes down to exposing yourself to criticism and abuse, and making sure you take advice when it's given (and do so with a grain of salt).

    As far as your questions - I think the only place where imperfect language can be taken in stride is in dialogue. Third or first person, I suspect the flow of the writing and the language of it will reflect the character's thoughts on some level, and too much dissonance (that is, conflict or difference) in the writing and the internal thought of the central character can be disconcerting to the reader.

    Internal thought, I've found, tends to slip up on two fronts:
    The tense changes when slipping into internal thought, without warning.
    The language shifts from third person to first, without warning.

    Both can be resolved if you make it explicitly clear that it's internal thought and not a continuation of the narrative.

  2. Amy Kim Kibuishi (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    What Wildbow said.

    Also, I'd like to add that as cliche as it sounds, Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" helped me a LOT. It's a very thin book and you can breeze through it real quick as a reference. You should definitely check it out if you haven't already:

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Elements-Style-Fourth-Edition/dp/020530902X

    I haven't read your book yet, but based on your post it sounds like it has a similar issue mine had one revision ago. I kept repeating myself, as if repetition would make the emotions stronger or something. In fact, the repetition slowed down the reading in most cases. I didn't realize this until I shelved the manuscript for a month or two and read other books in between. It was really obvious when I went back to it, so I just picked out the more accurate word and kept that. I still have some of the repetition parts, but I think they are appropriate when the character is thinking really quickly or trying to make sense of something she discovered. It's ok to have the repetition sometimes, just not all the time. :P

    Oh! And also The Oatmeal has a handful of useful grammar comics. The semicolon one is great!

    http://theoatmeal.com/tag/grammar

    Good luck!

  3. AGreyWorld (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Yeah, the tense still confuses me a little. Take this:

    Oh, I remember now! I'd forgotten my hat.

    Is that incorrect? The first part is present tense. Should it be something like:

    Oh, I remembered. I'd forgotten my hat.

    Or, as I've seen a lot - should it be in italics? I decided not to because there is a lot of internal thought and I think it would just get messy - but I might just be getting confused between what's just narrative :S

    Thanks for the advice, I already think I'm paying more attention to the way what I read is constructed since I started - I'll try make a more concious effort (and route out some more stuff to read but TIME). And thanks for the book Amy, I think something to reference like that would be a good idea.

    I'm probably going to have a Big Read of some of my chapters with a my critical hat on and figure out what kind of mistakes I'm making.

  4. Amy Kim Kibuishi (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Yes, Elements of Style is a writing standard! :)

    As for your example, is that a line of internal dialogue or part of the narration? I italicize internal dialogue, personally. If it's dialogue, I think it's ok to say "Oh, now I remember! I forgot my hat!" or "Oh, now I remember! I'd forgotten my hat!" depending on how long ago the hat was forgotten... I think... *scratches head* I definitely recommend shelving it for at least a week before revising again to freshen your eyes.

  5. Kess (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Definitely agree with everything that has been said here. :)

    Also, getting feedback on your writing from someone who knows more about grammar than you is helpful. When asking for feedback, making sure that you ask for grammar information specifically, so that they explain /why/ things are wrong and how to fix them. It's a great way to learn.

    The example "Oh, I remember now! I'd forgotten my hat." could be correct, but it depends entirely on context. What tense is the rest of the passage in? If we assume present tense, the next question is: is the character remembering another time when a hat was forgotten (in which case, it's probably correct as it is), or have they just remembered that they should have a hat now (in which case, it should be "Oh, I remember now! I've forgotten my hat.")? There are a few options here, but it depends on what you're going for.

    If the first sentence is intended to be an internal aside by the character, then italics would help to clarify that. That's one of those things you have to be consistent about, and yes, I'd be careful of the page just looking messy if there are a lot of asides. Maybe think about focussing on the narrative, and only using the asides as highlights?

    Hope that helps!

  6. AGreyWorld (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Yeah, the first sentence is intended to be an internal aside (the second part isn't - but yes it is a rather ambiguous choice for an example -_-), so you could expect to see it italicised - but like I said when I italicise it it seems jarring, I prefer the feel of it without. Maybe I should cut back - but I really like them!

  7. M.C.A. Hogarth (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Definitely, by reading. Just make sure what you're reading is high quality work!

  8. G.S. Williams (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Sometimes you have to decide what works best for you in the planning and format of the story. For example, if you're using a lot of a character's internal thought process in the story, maybe it should be in first person and then it's just part of the narration. If you're writing in third person, is there a purpose for it?

    I write third-person stories that focus on multiple characters and settings, so that I can bounce between them. When I make that choice, then if the narration is omniscient enough to know a character's thoughts, I put it in italics so readers know it's a thought and not dialogue. Stephen King is a good example of omniscient third person narration that does this.

    I write first-person stories when I want a more limited narration and so the reader knows one character extremely well, when they are the lens on the story. Then, I don't have to differentiate between narration and their thoughts, because those are the same. They won't have access to the thoughts of other characters unless they're a telepath.

    In all cases, it's best to stick with past tense -- except in dialogue. Examples:

    Narration -- third person omniscient -- He saw a big house.

    Narration -- first person -- I saw a big house.

    Dialogue -- "Jim, what do you see?" "I see a big house."

    Past-tense narration is the dominant form in literature -- present tense can be used well on occasion and there's the argument it creates immediacy, but if it's done badly it can be very distracting. I would recommend following convention until you're adept and confident enough to try experimenting. And if you're going to do an experiment, do it for a good reason. Otherwise, conventions exist because they function well.

  9. Alexander.Hollins (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    a couple characters did the same doubling of words in their dialogue, so unless it was intended to be the main character mishearing what they said, it made it seem more like a writer thing than a character thing.

    Especially when talking first person, when I say "grammar" I really mean, speakability. Is this how someone would actually speak, and does it make sense said out loud?

  10. Wildbow (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    @ MCA Hogarth - I'd say reading bad work has its merits, but only when you've advanced your understanding of the language enough that you can identify why it's bad and why it doesn't work.

    I don't know a single decent author who hasn't read a hell of a lot.

    Reading doesn't just teach you the nuances of the language, it familiarizes you with what's out there. I think the key to writing is to identify the book that isn't on the bookshelf yet and write it. You can't do that until you learn where the gaps are, what the tropes and trends and themes are (and which are overused, which you can overturn).

    And experiencing stuff other than novels is very useful on this front. Figure out what kinds of stories are being told in anime and manga, in comics and graphic novels. Find lists of the 'top 10 _____', filling that blank in with something pertaining to your interests (fantasy comics, science fiction manga) and check that stuff out. Find lists of 'the most underrated ______', and look at that too, so you aren't just seeing the popular stuff but the cult hits.

    But be sure to make the time to read, even if it's a tenth of a book a night.

  11. MrOsterman (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Another good idea with First Person writing is to think about the context for the Narrator to share what is happening.

    Is this a report that he's filing with a superior officer?

    Is this a diary that she's keeping?

    Is this the rambling thoughts of a single therapy session?

    Based on the context it will directly effect the kind of grammatical "mistakes" you can get away with. If the pretext of the narration is a person speaking (I saw a house) then you can possibly slide more as long as what you write matches what people would say.

    Mind the Thorns a Reader Directed Urban Fantasy
    Bastion: The Last Hope a web novel of the end of days
  12. M.C.A. Hogarth (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    I think you bring up an interesting nuance, which is the difference between how people actually talk and how we write them, and how close you can get to the former before it becomes unreadable. I read a book recently that wrote out the dialogue the way people often do talk, and it was very close to unreadable (maybe not surprising, since some people are incomprehensible when they talk: they aren't sure what they're going to say until they say it, ramble, lose their train of thought, etc).

    There's a fine line between putting across someone's unique voice--the way they talk and think--and putting in all their pauses, backtracks, run-on sentences and "ums". You can do a little of that for flavor, but too much and it becomes tedious for the reader.

  13. MrOsterman (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    On the other hand, writing how some people talk and ramble can be such fun.... I had a character in FantastiCon who talked like a student I had had, and would ramble on for three or four different independent thoughts in a single sentence. Put my proof readers/ editors through fits.

    Mind the Thorns a Reader Directed Urban Fantasy
    Bastion: The Last Hope a web novel of the end of days
  14. AGreyWorld (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    @Alexander.Hollins, if any other characters did it in 'their' narration then I definitely need to keep a better check on it - that shouldn't be happening!

    @Mr Osterman. Hmm, I haven't thought about this - though I did consider it as just 'telling someone' what had happened in the traditional "gather round kids, let me tell you a story" haha, but I'm not sure that really works with most of it

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