Editor’s Note: This blog was written by Leah McClellan and originally published on Write to Done.
Do you make grammar mistakes?
Oh, this might be good: “Top 10 video tips blogers need to know.” Oops, someone forgot to proofread. Oh, well. Click.
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Oh geez. Click.
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Every grammar mistake in a blog post is a traffic hazard.
If it’s something small—an occasional typo, a subject-verb agreement problem, or a misused homonym like there, they’re, or their—it’s not that big of a deal. Almost every road has some mud or a pothole or two.
Your readers might feel a bump once in a while, or they might slip and slide and slow down a bit, but if your content is good and your style is captivating, the reading is fairly smooth.
When the road gets rocky, forget it. And a truckload of mistakes sends readers skidding into a sinkhole that swallows them whole. And they never come back.
They’re cruising along getting images, plans, and ideas in their heads as they absorb your message. Suddenly—BAM. A word or a sentence doesn’t make sense.
They backtrack and reread. And even though they take only a moment to readjust, they’ve come out of the story and out of the flow. Instead of appreciating your subject authority or metaphoric wizardry, they’re paying attention to your grammar—whether they realize it or not.
A couple more jolts and they’re cruising the next few paragraphs to see if the road gets better.
If it doesn’t—if they run into more grammatical pits and potholes—your readers are outta there.
Bad grammar tells readers your road isn’t safe and you can’t be trusted
Every language has grammar.
In English, at a basic level, we use the subject, verb, object sentence structure: I love you. I is the subject, love is the verb, and you is the object.
Romance languages like French are similar, but there’s an exception when a pronoun is an object as in je t’aime: I you love. Subject, object, verb.
If you that grammar rule switch around in English, readers you’re joking or off your rocker will think.
And the same holds true, more or less, for any grammatical rule.
Sure, grammar gets more complicated. Shades of meaning, emotion, and time are communicated with word choices, verb tenses, sentence styles, and much more.
Plus, grammar has many definitions. The Chicago Manual of Style Onlinedefines grammar in the narrow sense as “the rules governing how words are put together into sentences.” Broadly speaking, as Oxford puts it, grammar is “a set of actual or presumed prescriptive notions about correct use of a language.” That includes spelling and punctuation. Wikipedia’s definition is even looser.
It’s easy when you’re talking. But in your writing, you only get one chance to be clear. Just one. That’s all you get.
On top of that, you’re asking readers to travel down your road to get to their destination: information, inspiration, and instructions.
You want that road clearly marked so readers know where to turn, when to stop, how fast to go, and what’s up ahead.
That’s why rules of written grammar are standardized like road signs. It’s why they’re important. And it’s why you need to use them.
Stop glamorizing writing and get real
But isn’t writing—especially blogging—supposed to be spontaneous? From the gut? Won’t too much fussing with grammar and editing ruin it?
The answers are sure, sure, and absolutely not.
Here’s the thing.
Spontaneous, in the moment, from-the-gut creativity is great. When the Muse is doing her work, words just rise up from deep in the unconscious mind. It’s almost effortless.
That’s what a rough draft is about. That’s freewriting or journaling. That’s what stream of consciousness writing is all about.
But even the most well-known stream of consciousness writers like William Faulkner, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and T.S. Eliot labored over revisions and rewrites.
Your random thoughts may be brilliant, but they’re useless if nobody can read them
If readers don’t get your writing, it’s not their fault. It’s yours.
You wouldn’t want to build a road that’s based on a gut feeling, would you? You want it graded, sloped, and angled just right. You want your reader to set the cruise control, jam up the tunes, and rock it.
But even if your content is a Cadillac, nobody’s taking that baby for a ride if the road isn’t paved.
You might think grammar is a nightmare or improving it is too much work. But unless you have your own in-house editor, you’re not only the designer, the planner, and the engineer of your road, you’re also the street cleaning crew.
And if you want people to read what you write, you’ll have to buck up.
Are your grammar mistakes killing your traffic?
Some of you know, beyond a doubt, that you don’t have a problem with grammar. Or if you do, you know where the trouble spots are; whom and whomever aren’t my favorites, either.
If you’re a beginner, though, or you’re just not sure, you’ll want to do some evaluating. Take a good look at your writing, especially if English is your second language and you don’t have native fluency.
Who can keep traffic flowing if you’re not sure how to build a road?
Here are some pointers.
1. Buy a style manual and use it—regularly.
A style guide or manual provides a set of standards for writers and publishers. It’s like a dictionary for grammar, style, and formatting, and it’s all you really need. The Chicago Manual of Style, the New Oxford Style Manual, and the AP Stylebook are all good choices. Online subscriptions are great—your best friend next to Google.
2. Pay attention to grammar as you read.
Whether it’s blogs, magazines, brochures, billboards, or even novels, learn by observing. Study how others combine words or use commas. Consider which sentences and sections rev you up and which ones backfire. See if you can find mistakes.
3. Read the good stuff regularly.
Immersion is the best way to learn a foreign language, and it’s the best way to absorb good grammar. The New York Times is a great place to start. Upscale magazines like Vogue or Architectural Digest are also first-rate, but plenty of others feature great writing.
4. Look things up when you’re not sure and even when you just have a teensy doubt.
Sometimes it’s was, but sometimes it’s were. Should you write I wish I were rich or I wish I was rich? Look it up in your style manual or online. Keywords was vs. were bring up a whole page of trustworthy sites. (By the way, it’s were.)
5. Check what you think you know.
If you punctuate instinctively or place commas where you pause, take time to consult your style manual. Or ask Google. Keywords like where to put commas in long sentences produce excellent results. (Hint: anything with .edu at the end is probably trustworthy.)
6. Get out of your comfort zone.
If you’re avoiding complicated things like semi-colons or dashes because you’re not sure how to use them, look up the rules. Are your sentences all short and simple? Try new combinations and vary the lengths. The same ol’ country road won’t be a superhighway if you don’t stretch.
7. Take a course, buy some books, or find a coach or a mentor.
Invest in your writing. Spend time in a bookstore. Check out a local college for classes or look into online courses that deal specifically with grammar. Ask established writers if they mentor new writers.
Just like civil engineers study the mechanics of road building, writers need to learn and practice the craft. It’s all about skills: if we want the readers and the traffic, we need to build strong roads.
It’s hard work, I know.
But you’ve got the passion. You’ve got the courage. And you’ve got a message so important it’s burning you up.
You don’t want to look stupid or uneducated. You want people to read what you write.
Nobody said it would be easy. If that’s what you heard, it was a lie.
Writing—writing well—is really. hard. work.
Yeah, I know. Your friends say your blog posts are great. They leave comments. They tweet. They share. They always say it’s great. Nobody ever tells you what’s wrong, even when you ask for honest feedback.
But you’re lucky if you get a visitor or two from those tweets. Something is wrong, and you know it.
What you have to tell the world is important—don’t ever let anyone tell you any different. And you can do it.
But take a look at how you’re telling it. Take a good hard look at the road you’re giving your readers.
Give ‘em the directions and the signposts they need. Paint the lines nice and straight. Trim the grass along the sides. Fix up that guardrail. Fill in the holes or repave and sweep it clean.
Tell them what you need to tell them—even if it’s the tough stuff. But don’t ask them to read your message and bounce around on your road.
Smooth it out. Do your work. And when you’ve got that road of yours all cleaned up, the readers will come. They will read. Traffic will grow.
You can do this. Why not get started today?