Rough Drafts: Don't worry about grammar

In my opinion you dont have to worry about grammar especially as a new writer just starting out.

There will always be time to go back and add the comma after “In my opinion.” You’ll have time to debate using “don’t” or “do not.” You can second guess whether the introduction should be one or two sentences. Should there be a comma between “grammar” and “especially.” A semi-colon? What about, “starting out,” “getting started,” or end it right at, “as a new writer.”

Sure, grammar is important and I understand why it’s taught right away in elementary school. Having good grammar is viewed like having the right shooting form in basketball or establishing the mechanics of a perfect golf swing. The somewhat true belief: If you don’t learn it early on, you’ll develop bad habits and those habits become harder and harder to break.

But too much emphasis on grammar can also develop a more dangerous habit of overthinking every sentence. When you have endless rules about nouns, verbs, adjectives drilled into you at 8-years-old, when you practice diagramming sentences, feeling more like a surgeon than a writer, when you learn the rules of commas, memorize expressions like “I before E except after C,” all of these things add up and it’s like adding a list of safety precautions to your process; ultimately slowing down creativity.

And then when do you finally turn something in, you’ll see all of these red marks and crossed out words. It makes the next story that much harder to get down on paper.

There’s too much red pen in general, but especially in elementary school. Imagine if second, third, fourth graders turned in their papers and instead of any grammar marks, there were comments like, “Wow, loving the style of this! I think you’d like reading Roald Dahl. I think you’d like Judy Blume.” Or, “Hey, you like writing about bugs, you should check out these two books. You’ll love ’em.” Building an early love of reading will do more good for a writer than memorizing a list of rules. Plus, if you’re reading a lot, there’s natural osmosis with grammar. You won’t know the specific rules but you’ll be able to spot a sentence and say, “Eh, that one looks funny.”

The other problem, especially as we moved on to middle school and high school, is all of those dreaded five-paragraph essays would be due on a Monday morning. What would happen? We’d write them on Sunday night. We procrastinate the things we don’t want to do and when writing has become this cold process of rules and trying not to make a mistake, no wonder we pushed the paper off until after the Sunday Night Football game.

A healthier writing process would have been to make a paper due in three parts. Deadlines are good, they give a final push to get something out there. But the first round, every student should get a 60 out of 100. No matter what they turn in. The goal of Round 1 is just getting something down on paper. Then you spend the next three days celebrating.

And here I am making rules about “not making rules,” but students should be given no notes on their rough draft for those three days and encouraged not to look back at their papers. Build some distance from it.

Then you start the rewriting process. First by looking at the bigger picture. Do the arguments make sense? The intro paragraphs. What can be cut? What can be reworked? The next 20-30 points out of 100 are all about the rewrites. Having a few days where you don’t look at the paper helps you see it in a new light. Make some changes. Turn it in. Celebrate again.

The final stage, then, is line editing. Now it’s time to ruthlessly look at the grammar. The difference between 93 percent and a 97 comes down to all of those nagging rules about commas and not ending a sentence with a preposition.

This way you start to separate writing – which is really just storytelling – from rewriting and separate revision from grammar editing. Students can then start to say, “I love writing, I’m just not a big fan of editing,” or, “I’m more of an editor than a writer,” versus getting a 70% C- and saying a blanket statement of, “Oh, I must not be a good writer.”

I’m writing this all about school, but the same thing applies if you’re getting back into writing for fun or working on a book in retirement. The downside is you’ll have years of those perfection rules standing in the way. The default setting will be second-guessing your work.

But I want to show you something real quick. Something I hope will be encouraging. Here’s the first paragraph of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, one of the most famous openings in literary history:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Had Dickens turned this in to three different editors or grammar editing software, one might say, “This is a run-on sentence. And you can’t use the word ‘it’ so often. Especially to open a sentence.” Another might say, “You need to get rid of words like ‘epoch’ and ‘incredulity,’ no one’s gonna know what those mean.” And another might say, “Dude, just say, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,’ and move on. You’re killing us with these long-winded emails.”

If one of the most famous opening paragraphs in literary history could still have all of these nitpicky grammar “mistakes” to consider, then think about how much less pressure we should put on ourselves, especially our rough drafts. There should be way more freedom! Because yes, a typo or a glaring grammar mistake can damage an otherwise perfect sentence, but there’s also never been a moment when I’ve been reading a great story, stopped, highlighted a passage and said to myself, “Wow, look how perfect the grammar was right here!” No. The great passages stand out for reasons we can’t really explain. It just works. It hits us right. We know it when we see it.

Which means the truly great writing reaches a higher tier than perfection. So why not set our sights higher than trying to be perfect? Writing is not about the rules, it’s about telling a story in your voice. The way it was always meant to be told.

I’m working on two outlets for people to reclaim a love of writing or start writing for the first time. The first is Long Overdue Stories which is intended to help people record their own stories or stories from parents/grandparents. The other is Long Overdue Books where authors can publish their books for a wider audience, one chapter at a time.

For anyone in Chicago, I’ll be hosting a class about how to turn your stories into a book on March 4th from 7-9 pm at Third Space in Lakeview East. If you’d like to attend, you can register here or email me directly at 

I’ll be taking the month of March off from the blog, but I’m excited for some of the posts coming up in April and May. Hint: Get ready for a few restaurant review blogs.

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