Even if it is essential to know it quite well to express our ideas precisely, grammar can be really frustrating at times.
This is why often, when people think about creative writing, they tend to focus primarily on the creative part.
Besides, these days creativity is glamorous and in high demand.
So much so, that a creative approach to a problem, even if fruitless, is regarded more benignly than a non creative and just as fruitless one.
Of course, this makes sense. In fact, if we constantly strive to find new ideas, chances are that on the long run we’ll end up with more creative and useful ones.
For example, even if during his career Picasso realized something like 13.500 paintings–not to mention his other artworks–a large number of these paintings are now, and rightly so, gathering dust in some attic or basement.
However, it’s those relatively few that managed to change the way we can experience reality on a canvas that everybody remembers–those that changed the rules of the game.
13,500 paintings are a staggering number. A number that speaks of hours and hours spent studying, learning, experimenting. In fact, to be truly creative we need to know quite well the field we’re working in.
In this respect, a visit to El Prado museum in Madrid would make it immediately apparent that Pablo Picasso was also an accomplished painter who mastered the traditional painting techniques; not someone who, being unable to paint a decent human figure, decided it was time to ‘revolutionize’ the field…
In creative writing the same rules apply. If you really want to learn how to write well and how to keep upping your style, you have to do these three essential things:
1) You have to read a lot and in many different genres. This is not to make sure you know all the conventions of a genre and stick to it—though this can be helpful. This is to make sure you get a stronger and stronger feeling for the clip that, regardless of genre, effective prose has. Really, I strongly believe that any writer who doesn’t read, to preserve his or her purity or who knows for what other reasons, is an unfortunate oxymoron.
2) The second thing you have to do is to write a lot. Every day. You know how it goes, practice makes perfect. But, I would add, only if it is deliberate practice. Have a look at Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Ericsson and Pool.
3) Finally, you have to know how to put together the words on a page in such a way they perfectly replicate your thoughts. In short, you have to know grammar quite well–grammar for writers of course.
To be as clear as possible on this point, you haven’t to become a grammarian or a linguist. Actually, that might even be of detriment to your writing. But you have to know grammar in such a way you can come up with at least a dozen ways of saying what you are thinking, and then choose the one that the passage you’re writing calls for.
I found the following list of grammar resources quite helpful. I’m sharing it in the hope someone else can find it just as helpful.
Grammar resources for writers
The dictionary I use more often is the Oxford dictionary. I use it because it’s quite large, has an uncluttered interface, and offers many suggestions about usage and potentially tricky grammatical points.
Another great choice is the Longman dictionary. In particular, it offers the opportunity to easily explore related topics of any word you want. The use of this feature can lead to quite interesting discoveries.
Perfect synonyms don’t exist. But having access to a thesaurus can be helpful. In fact, if you develop the habit of looking words up in a dictionary and then go hunting for synonyms, you’ll be able to make your writing a lot richer and more nuanced. This is an important asset. Just think of foreshadowing, and the way it is important to choose just the right words to make it work–to make the passage neither too obscure nor too overt.
Over the years, I read many books about grammar, but most of them make statements that are simply too generic and therefore useless, if not downright wrong.
Luckily, I came across The Language of Fiction: A Writer’s Stylebook, by Brian Shawver. This book doesn’t cover every aspect of grammar for fiction writers, but in what it tackles it is precise, accessible, and never dogmatic.
Grammar Girl If you like online resources, this is the go-to website you should bookmark. I don’t always agree with what I read. But in grammar some degree of disagreement is to be expected. I mean, even for a dead language like Latin is they are still debating about style issues.
If you want to go deeper in usage and how certain words are misused you can have a look at the Guide to Grammar and Style.
However if you really want to have a look at the way English is used in real contexts the only and truly valuable resource you should rely on is the Corpus of Contemporary American English. You have to spend a few minutes to learn how to query the system, but then in this corpus you can find the answer to almost any doubt.
Let’s be clear: as of today, there’s no program able to check a piece of writing better than a human editor. Period. If a program works better than an editor is just because the editor in question is a lousy one.
However, it can help running your writing through the automated comb of programs like Hemingway or Grammarly. But remember that they should never be blindly trusted, especially for creative writing. In fact, you can copy and paste any passage from any famous book and you’ll find that these programs will flag a lot of stuff. Most of the time blundering beyond belief.
The last ingredient
Grammar resources can be helpful. Just like any other kind of resource. In fact, they can make your work smoother and more efficient. But you have to bear in mind that no dictionary, no grammar book, no teacher in the world will ever be able to turn you into a good or even a great writer if you are not willing, or rather eager, to put in all the hours it takes to get to greatness.
Indeed, some of the world’s most important classics have been written with paper and quill, in times when the world’s literature could be contained in one small library.
In fact, it is the mind that guides the hand, and not the other way around. And all the apps in the world are worth nothing, if they are not fed with your unique creative spark and then used over and over to turn that spark into a glorious fire. Your fire.