Listening to Language

Monday night I met with my critique group. We are an odd bunch, gathered together by our mutual interest in writing. There are over a hundred people who have joined the group on MeetUp.com, but we have about 12 people show up each meeting on average. The size means that one rarely gets to submit their own work, but just attending the meetings has increased my productivity and awareness of the traps into which new writers frequently fall.

This week we critiqued three pieces as per our standard operating procedure. They were all strong pieces (which is not always the case, but we’re all learning here). One in particular stuck out from the rest: the opening three chapters of a spy thriller. There were somewhat obvious things that needed to be fixed (currency consistency being one) but overall the writer had a strong grasp of his genre. His piece was gripping and exciting in spite of the grammatical mistakes.

Several members of the group (including myself) noted the infrequent use of commas. It was so strange–frequently when a writer neglects to include commas, the work is a mess of run-on sentences. This one had fully constructed and poetic sentences … which tended to run together because the eye did not know where to stop. The writer shyly admitted he had not taken an English class since Freshman comp. We all found his writing was not hurt from his lack of grammatical education. He clearly listened to his inner voice as he was writing his novel, even if only on a subconscious level.

I think as writers we sometimes forget to trust our instincts. I for one can get bogged down in too much academic detail, worrying about things like gerunds and comma splices, to such an extent that I forget what I’m trying to do: construct meaning out of words and phrases. As a copy editor, things like extra spaces between words and punctuation marks get me on edge. The commas bugged me, but even as I penciled them in for the writer, I remarked to myself that this writer had natural talent, something all writers covet and envy in others.

I’m not suggesting that we throw our Strunk and White out the window–far from it. But I do think that sometimes we should take a step back and let our ears do the writing. If Monday’s meeting taught me anything, it was that first drafts are for capturing the language, tone, and voice of our story. Punctuation can come later.

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4 thoughts on “Listening to Language

  1. Neurotic Workaholic says:

    I teach freshman comp, so grammatical errors bug me too. But on the other hand, I often write like I talk, which means I end up with a lot of run-ons too. Like you said, first drafts don't have to have perfect punctuation anyway; if we kept stopping to proofread, it'd take a lot longer to finish the first draft.

  2. Laura M. Campbell says:

    It is so true. Most books and advice on critique feedback and revision say that the first read though feedback should focus on the larger issues (characterization, clarity, scene structure and voice), rather than line editing for grammatical errors.I'm terrible when it comes to punctuation. The more I try to learn the less I know. So, I just work hard on the language and hope my revision stage for punctuation won't send me to the looney bin.

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