How do I learn to be better at English grammar and editing my writing?
December 3, 2015 3:52 PM   Subscribe

I’ve been a lifelong reader and writer. I’m realizing while doing more writing (and in particular editing my own writing) that I need better resources and suggestions for learning English grammar. I've been told by some editors that I make mistakes and I’d love to have a better sense of how to polish what I write and deal with the little bits of grammatical inaccuracies that sprout up in finished pieces.

I slept through my English classes in high school and college and managed a decent grade because I enjoyed doing reading and wrote well enough. I don’t recall ever diagramming sentences or learning what adverbs are (though I’ve intuited some of it) and the idea of sitting down with Strunk and White sounds deadly boring (convince me if I’m wrong!).

What I’d love to find is resources that would help me be better at editing my own writing, searching out the grammatically correct answers to things that sound wrong and generally getting a more comprehensive sense of the mechanics of the english language.

Oh and, is it too much to ask for it to be mildly entertaining and/or interesting?

Help me hive mind, what would give me the tools to polish my writing?
posted by mulkey to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I never learned grammar in school, I just picked it up without knowing what was what. Then I had to learn grammar properly in order to teach high school students. This is my go-to book and it always in easy reach. The Primary Grammar Handbook. I particularly like the layout and ease of finding what I want, followed by simple examples with line drawings and references to wombats.
posted by Thella at 4:00 PM on December 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

I like Grammar Girl for entertaining end educational grammary stuff. Here's her page of books. She has a zillion podcasts and tips online that you can look up for free if you're in doubt, but they won't necessarily help for things you don't know are a problem.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:04 PM on December 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

The book The Sense of Style : The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker
posted by Sir Rinse at 4:13 PM on December 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

Seconding the Pinker book. It has changed the way I look at writing and validated some habits I have developed; I knew they helped, but not always why. It's really remarkably well-written, too.

Edit Yourself by Bruce Ross-Larson is a good nuts-and-bolts guide.
posted by kindall at 4:55 PM on December 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

Being able to diagram sentences is not important. I never learned that specifically, though I've taken advanced grammar classes and taught college English for nine years. If you really want to be good at writing, the most important thing to do is read - not blog posts and online journalism - but good literature with well-written sentences. Half of your "writing" time should be spent reading. The grammar sources suggested are good, but if you want to take your writing to a higher level, there is no substitute for individual attention. Is it in your budget to hire a tutor? Is there a local community college where you can take a writing class for fun? Think about trying to learn a musical instrument without a teacher. You can probably do it, but with a good teacher, you will advance much more quickly than you will on your own.
posted by FencingGal at 4:56 PM on December 3, 2015

Best answer: As an accompaniment to the more systematic references, I like the After Deadline blog from the The New York Times. It explains real examples of their own grammatical mistakes, while reassuring me that even the pros don't always get it right.

I would also second the idea that reading well-edited publications will help develop a sense of what sounds right.
posted by hsieu at 5:10 PM on December 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

As hsieu noted, the NYT does have a bad sentence now and then. Here is one that appeared this week:

"The prospect of discovering the long-sought tomb of Queen Nefertiti would be momentous."

The good news about Strunk & White is that it's charming. The bad news is that many modern wordsmiths disagree with its prescriptions.

You can probably find a copy of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss at your local library. It's not comprehensive enough to bother to buy, but it's rather fun. Of course, she has her critics, too.

One of the problems is that English is a supremely malleable language and is changing all the time. When I was kid, my parent's generation complained about the ad line "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should." (They preferred "as a cigarette should.") That battle has been lost, as have many others.

Personally, the use of "they" for the singular grates on me. It is unfortunately pretty much the standard on Metafilter.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:39 PM on December 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have just completed a small book about writing and grammar so this has been on my mind.

I've been told by some editors that I make mistakes

Everybody makes mistakes! Everybody. I don't have the sense from your post (neither in what you say or in how you write it) that your writing is any worse than anyone else's. However, wanting to be better is a good thing and manageable by just about anyone.

When it comes to writing well, reference books are mainly good for looking up particular questions, and for motivating you. In light of those two ideas, I would recommend Stephen King's "On Writing".

Reading style and usage guides for pleasure can be fun, but when the are disconnected from a writing assignment, they can often lead to overload, confusion, and misremembering.

In addition, many, many of the shorter and more personality-driven usage guides are more about the author's whimsy and idiolect than they are really how to be a better writer or language-user.

In my opinion, the top way to improve your writing is to practice writing and editing with constraints.

--Take a big idea and try to make it fit into 50 words.
--Take the first chapter of a book and try to reduce it to a brilliant paragraph.
--Take a transcript of an interview and try to write it as a three-paragraph story.
--Take a story that happened to you and write a 1000-word version, a 500-word version, a 100-word version, and the 140-character version.

These are simple exercises that you can easily do for anything you're writing. Just putting together an email? Try to write it as exactly 50 words. Have a report due? See if you can get it down to three paragraphs.

You will discover that this microediting — this condensing and telescoping downward — drives you toward simplicity and clarity.
posted by Mo Nickels at 5:41 PM on December 3, 2015 [15 favorites]

Best answer: It sounds like you really have two questions:

1. How can I learn formal grammar?
2. How can I be a better writer?

Good writing is good not because the grammar is correct, but for many complicated reasons, some of which are: the writing flows well (ie it sounds good to the ear when read aloud), it's coherent, the topic is engaging, etc. Similarly, bad writing is bad not just because the grammar is bad (although that can certainly be a factor).

The book that really helped me with my writing is Joseph Williams' Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. It's helpful because it gives you principles that help you understand what makes writing sound bad or hard to understand. It gives a ton of examples too.

A bit from the introduction:

The principles of style offered here will not describe sentences in terms that fifteenth-century students of Latin would still recognize, but in terms that help you understand how readers of modern English read; in terms that will help us understand why readers might describe the first sentence below as turgid and confusing, the second as clearer, more readable. But most importantly, in terms that also make it clear how to revise one into the other.

1a. The Committee proposal would provide for biogenetic industry certification of the safety to human health for new substances in requests for exemption from Federal rules.

1b. The Committee proposes that when the biogenetic industry requests the Agency to exempt new substances from Federal rules, the industry will certify that the substances are safe.

Parts of the book are (at least) mildly entertaining and interesting also.
posted by number9dream at 6:17 PM on December 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

I am extremely thankful for my AP English Language teacher putting us through a brutal regimen of learning how to write well. We used Patterns of College Writing, and there were some really good examples of well-written essays that you'd see in journalism, and it points out exactly what was interesting and good about how they were written well. You don't have to get the newest one, the oldest one that's used for only 1 cent is also fantastic. There is also William Zinsser's On Writing Well. Purdue University Writing Center (OWL)is fantastic.

Also, paying attention to your conjunctions and sentence variety always helps. I find myself needing to review often because I end up misuing them, and it sounds terrible!
posted by yueliang at 6:25 PM on December 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: " I've been told by some editors that I make mistakes and I’d love to have a better sense of how to polish what I write and deal with the little bits of grammatical inaccuracies that sprout up in finished pieces.

I slept through my English classes in high school and college and managed a decent grade because I enjoyed doing reading and wrote well enough. I don’t recall ever diagramming sentences or learning what adverbs are (though I’ve intuited some of it) and the idea of sitting down with Strunk and White sounds deadly boring (convince me if I’m wrong!).

I had to take two semesters of copy editing when I was getting my journalism degree. I've been paid to edit copy.

In my professional life, I've had to edit in AP, Chicago, and a bunch of house styles. The first thing, stylebooks exist for clarity and consistency, not moral force. While it's relatively easy to sin against the AP, it's nigh impossible to make an actual grammar mistake — "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" is grammatically correct but nonsensical; "Furiously sleep ideas green colorless" is ungrammatical.

So, first off, recognize that your scope isn't being bad at grammar, it's either not conforming to (and likely not knowing) the style appropriate to your subject and publication, or it's unclear what you're trying to communicate.

From there, the best advice is really not to edit your own stuff. Even people who are fastidious and excellent at catching errors struggle with their own work.

But if you do have to edit your own stuff, a couple things can radically improve your results there. First, print it out. Second, read each word out loud, one at a time. You'll catch a lot of odd stuff like that. (If you're still not noticing mistakes, try reading it upside down or backwards.) Mark things you catch with the good ol' red pen.

The other thing that I'll say is that reading style books is a poor way to internalize oft-arbitrary rules. For pretty much every stylebook, there are tests (either online or printable) that will allow you to practice on specific aspects. Practice is the only way to learn these things, and those tests are often a lot clearer and more focused than trying to check every sentence against the stylebook as you edit.
posted by klangklangston at 11:44 PM on December 3, 2015 [9 favorites]

Best answer: My own writing improved tenfold once I started working with a copy editor at work. She always used "track changes" in Word so I could see and accept/reject the changes. Often, she'd leave comments as well to ask clarifying questions.

Over the period of writing 3-4 500-750 word pieces a month with editing and really paying attention to her comments, I was able to internalize the feedback. By the time I left that position, I averaged maybe 2-3 comments/changes to each piece, significantly down from the 20+ I started with. I've been complimented by other copy editors on the cleanness of my copy since then.

If you have any kind of budget for this, get thee a copy editor and contract them for a few pieces.
posted by smirkette at 7:37 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Read well-written work regularly. I find a New Yorker subscription is pretty great for this. The writing is world-class, and there's enough content in each issue (and they come often enough) that it's tough to get through each one before the next one arrives. Another flagship is The Atlantic. Read good writing regularly and pay attention to the structure of the sentences and paragraphs as you read.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:55 AM on December 4, 2015

The best, most practical grammar guide I know is Diana Hacker's Rules for Writers.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:46 PM on December 5, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses everyone! I appreciate the advice.
posted by mulkey at 4:28 PM on December 6, 2015

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