Writing improvement?
January 12, 2024 7:55 AM   Subscribe

My son likes to write stories. He's 18, in first year university, Chem major. He took a creative writing elective and was disappointed that it was more about how to write a story rather than actually writing. I've asked two previous questions for him if you want to go look at those. He asked me to help him find "websites to improve his grammar". He uses Grammarly now. But he says it doesn't help him to learn grammar, just shows him how to fix it.

When I edit stories for him, I add commas, capitals, etc but I tend to edit more for flow. He isn't great at keeping tense. He does use too many run on sentences.

So combing his ask, with my thoughts I have two questions.

1- Can you recommend websites, workbooks etc where he can self pace through grammar lessons?
2- Are there groups you can recommend that help each other by reviewing and suggesting improvements for stories? He enjoyed that part of his creative writing course.
posted by Ftsqg to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Khan Academy has lessons in grammar.
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 8:12 AM on January 12

No group recommendations, but the absolute best way to learn grammar is just to read a lot and pay attention to the syntax of what you read. Language is one of those weird basic skills, like walking or chewing, that's so integral to our function as organisms that we do best just working with our inbuilt learning mechanisms (modeling, practice, imitation) rather than trying to impose a lot of artificial rules or formal instruction.

Reading carefully has the additional benefit of building familiarity with the various stylistic techniques (like changing tempo, creating rhythm and shifting logical balance through syntax) that are just as important as simple "grammatical correctness" in helping create engaging and readable stories.

I hope your son is reading a ton of fiction in his preferred genre already, at least an hour or two per day (and if he's not, he should start: if he doesn't read others' work, why would anyone read his?). If he has some favorite authors, he might try reading their stories aloud, to himself or to a friend, just to start to internalize a sense of their characteristic voice and rhythm. With regular practice over time, he should naturally begin to hear his own scenes in more consistent tense, start to "feel" the endings of his sentences and instinctively place punctuation to mark them, etc.

(It can be really helpful to read one's own prose aloud, as well, to help compare the rhythm on the page with how it originally sounded in one's head.)
posted by Bardolph at 8:22 AM on January 12 [21 favorites]

I love that your son shares his work with you!

I have two suggestions off the top of my head:

1. The 24hr Room. It's a free online writers community. They do a "flow reading" every day, designed to help you get into writing mindset by reading through various novels over time. Current book is James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room. There are also Craft Conversations, Open Mics for sharing your work, an online lounge open 24 hours a day where you can co-work. It's a great resource.

2. George Saunders's substack The Story Club. Saunders is a novelist and professor who is an extraordinary teacher, and his substack offers steady information about how stories work, where ideas come from, how to do critique that isn't damaging to the writers participating, and more. He chooses specific stories and analyzes them. Most recently "The Rockpile" by James Baldwin. Saunders's book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is a close analysis of seven short stories by Russian writers and is also excellent.

If he worries about his grammar and spelling challenges, you might share that my boyfriend has a PhD in English and teaches literature at a university, and is also a published poet with a recent book out, and he can neither spell nor punctuate (nor tell time on an analog clock). I hope your son finds resources that help him make progress with this, but if he finds it intractable, encourage him not to let it hold him back.
posted by Well I never at 8:29 AM on January 12 [8 favorites]

If he wants to learn the actual rules of grammar, as if he were about to take the SAT and needed to know standard English usage, I would recommend IXL, which is purpose-built for that and very good. Make sure you scroll -- the skill list goes up to "12th grade," but he can start wherever he wants and by the end it is teaching and testing essentially every rule of standard English grammar.
posted by The Bellman at 8:43 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

My understanding is that Canadian universities like American ones have writing centres — does your son’s institution have one?
posted by lokta at 8:53 AM on January 12 [6 favorites]

I remember the GMAT having some detailed sentence correction questions that sound like what your son might be looking for. Here are some samples. So maybe he could look into prep materials for that section of the test?
posted by mullacc at 8:54 AM on January 12

> he says it doesn't help him to learn grammar, just shows him how to fix it.

> I tend to edit more for flow. He isn't great at keeping tense. He does use too many run on sentences.

I second the suggestion upthread that he should focus on reading - reading widely as well as closely. One structured way to do this is to take an english class, like "20th century American literature" or something like that, where he will not only be required to read several classics but also be guided to notice good writers' use of language, sentences, rhythms, etc. But he also needs to be doing a lot of unstructured reading on his own as well, whatever he likes, to develop an ear for the language i.e. learn grammar intuitively.

However, I will also recommend a classic grammar instructional book from the late 1800s: Nesfield's Manual of English Grammar and Composition. This is going to look intimidating at first glance but trust me: it is as simply and direct and essential as any Strunk & White.

There are cheap used copies of this book available everywhere, and free copies on archive.org (linked) and on Project Gutenberg since its copyright is lapsed. This is possibly exactly what your son is looking for. It's a high school level book, very thorough, and very British (so you'll need to account for differences in spelling) - but it's a classic for a reason.
posted by MiraK at 9:30 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

You might suggest that he attempt to write a story in the "voice" of a writer he likes. People who read some of my early stories told me that "this sounds like Terry Pratchett" or "this is a lot like a PG Wodehouse story.*" Which is good, because those were my goals. Through this experiment, your son might get a sense of what good writing "sounds" like. By developing ear for good writing, he may eventually discover his own voice.

(*I had Bertie Wooster's voice in my head for a month after that. What ho!)
posted by SPrintF at 10:44 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]

Yeah. Read read read, and specifically read sort of stodgy (but good!) stuff that uses less experimentation or colloquial style in the non-dialogic parts. I think he should find two or three non-fiction writers whom he enjoys and just sort of devoir their work. He wouldn't be the first story-writer to learn the structural fundamentals of English writing from Joan Didion or James Baldwin.
posted by kensington314 at 1:30 PM on January 12

Seconding SPrintF, too. If I was getting into story-writing I'd dive right into Graham Greene and Willa Cather and Alice Munro simply because if I can't sound like myself yet, I'd love to sound like one of them.
posted by kensington314 at 1:31 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

For help with grammar, I would recommend this excellent book: Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, by Patricia T. O'Conner. The book is quite readable and actually funny in places (unusual for a book about grammar).
posted by alex1965 at 1:55 PM on January 12

My understanding is that Canadian universities like American ones have writing centres

Yes, and in addition to checking out whatever is available at his own institution, he should consult the websites of writing centers at major research universities across the country - these generally have the most money to throw at this, and often have really detailed writing guides on all sorts of topics, free for anyone interested. They're a great resource.
posted by coffeecat at 2:03 PM on January 12 [3 favorites]

It sounds like your son wants to actually learn grammar rules. That is not exactly the same as learning to write well. Although if someone wants to write, it is excellent advice to read good writers - it is even more important than learning grammar rules, but it is not the same.

Your son is studying chemistry. If I wanted to learn about chemistry, he would not tell me to just mix stuff together and see what happens. If I wanted to learn baseball rules, nobody would say just play a lot with the neighborhood kids. If he wants to learn grammar rules, they exist, and I'd go with the grammar books recommended here.

It is highly unlikely that your son is using a lot of run-on sentences unless he just doesn't know any grammar at all. There is a specific definition, and they are extremely rare (I'm a professional copy editor -I've maybe seen three in twenty years). They are not just long sentences - they are two sentences together with nothing between them (Here is a run-on sentence this is what they look like). If you are editing for flow, you are probably not editing for rules.

It is a bit unclear whether your son is interested in grammar or punctuation or both. But given your question, there is no way around actually studying it just like you would study any other subject. I learned the most about grammar when I took a graduate-level grammar class. My book recommendations would be really old, but we worked our way through a traditional grammar book, like we would if we were studying a foreign language, then studied transformational grammar, which was life changing for me. I wonder if your son's school has an undergraduate grammar class - if it does, I'd go with that.
posted by FencingGal at 4:34 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]

Does he try to edit his own work or does he just produce a first draft? My thought is that he might know more than he thinks - it just isn't top of mind when he is writing.
My suggestion is that it would be an interesting diagnostic if you take something he had written and then
Step 1: you edit a paragraph or a page and then he goes through your edits and tells why he thinks that you made that change.
Step 2: He edit the next section and you talk about the changes he made.
Step 3: After he has a done a first pass, you underline anything else that you think he should take a closer look at. Once you focus his attention on the section, can he tell why marked it?

Obviously you need to adjust this to fit your personal relationship and his tolerance for correction (especially from you).

If he seems clueless about what needs fixing, then a formal review of grammar will probably be a big help for him.

However, if his marked up drafts are much better than the original, then the answer may be building in the discipline to do a second draft. Note: I am assuming that trying to get the first draft gramatically correct might get in the way of his creative flow so it make more sense to build in a second draft review for grammar and punctuation before he shares it with anyone else.
posted by metahawk at 4:44 PM on January 12

Does he speak language other than English? Learning another language makes you deal with the bullshit that is English in a whole other way. Like "what the eff is a pluperfect" or "why the hell is 'If I had had had a chance, I would have said.' a totally legitimate sentence?"
I think French and German are the best for this, but really anything other than English will help.
posted by fiercekitten at 4:59 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]

Seconding metahawk's suggestion as a good first step for figuring out if he does in fact need the grammar fundamentals, or if he just needs to work on editing. Like, I've been doing creative writing as a hobby for over ten years now and my first drafts frequently have some of the same errors you point out (tense changes, overlong sentences, etc.), but it's not because I don't know the rules, it's just because I'm focused on getting it all out. I fix all that stuff as I edit. Nothing wrong with a messy first draft! The important thing is getting something down that you can then edit.

It's also worth exploring how he learns best. In general, I think the sponge method of just reading a lot gets you pretty far when it comes to absorbing the basics, but that's not going to work for everybody, and maybe he does need to sit down with Strunk & White, or something like the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves to get him thinking about grammar and its uses. Also, more English classes will help him learn to read more closely, which helps with writing.

Re groups to recommend, if he has any interest in a fandom, writing fan fiction is a fun, low-stakes, and easy way to practice writing. Many a professional author got their start writing fic, and many even still write it after they've been published. It's a common fandom practice to have a beta reader who will edit your fics, and while it for sure takes some work and luck to find someone who's decent at it and clicks with you, it's a big part of how I improved my writing.

Also, if he's just a first year, then there are still a lot of higher level composition and English classes available to him. Just because one class disappointed him doesn't mean all of them will. This might be a question for him to put to his academic advisor, or the relevant dean or department head. He can ask them what classes would be the best fit for what he wants to learn.
posted by yasaman at 5:26 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

I think there's something to be said for software that tells you what to change; if you pay attention, you'll see patterns and learn from them. I'd also be cautious of college level grammar classes; the one class I dropped in college, where I was majoring in journalism, was grammar, because it was nothing but formal analysis of sentence structure, with diagrams.

Having tried both, I prefer Pro Writing Aid to Grammarly. It does some teaching as well as directing.
posted by lhauser at 7:18 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

Grammar and spelling will improve with age, especially in college. But since he's in college, why not take a college course on grammar, etc? One of two university courses that truly paid for themselves was a course on language structure. We (re)learned diagramming sentences, as well as how different structures could change the tone of a piece. Lots of writing exercises to embed the lessons. If the college has a creative writing course, they probably have something like this.
posted by Ookseer at 9:13 AM on January 13

One of the potential values of taking a creative writing course is finding writers who get your work, who read well and give good feedback. If your son found anybody like this, the lot of them can start a feedback group among themselves. If not, though, online groups abound; narrowing down what sort of thing he writes (if short fiction, a specific genre like mystery, fantasy, etc.) can help with making recommendations.

I don't know from Canadian universities, but writing centers are rarely equipped to teach people, though they can do a lot to talk about writing in context. The research points toward grammar lessons on their own, whether through a class or a book, generally don't help people learn. While writing is obviously a different skill from speech, children don't learn to speak by referring to a set of rules about language and then go about implementing them. So your son likely knows a bunch of grammar rules already; one of the sticking points I've found is distinguishing actual grammar rules from folklore (either a teacher's preferences or archaic bromides that don't admit that language changes). Talking about possible edits in the context of an actual piece of his own writing will likely go farther than abstract principles.

A long of way of saying he should reach out to his writing center, provided one exists, and asking what kind of help they can offer rather than assuming.

Reading is definitely a worthwhile pursuit in the same way it'd be hard to make music if you never listen to it. Though I'm not confident books will do the trick, here are some titles you and he might check out: The Well-Crafted Sentence by Nora Bacon, The Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon (who has several books along these lines), The Glamour of Grammar by Roy Peter Clark, How to Not Write Bad by Ben Yagoda, and Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams et al.

+1 to Woe Is I and to visiting some writing center websites, which are full of useful info targeted specifically at students.
posted by xenization at 10:47 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]

In general, I think that the acts of reading and writing are the most effective ways to soak in how a deeper understanding of the art of it. That said, since he's coming from a sciences thinking background, he might also find it helpful to:

1. Read up on diagramming sentences. I took a 300-level English class on grammar and this was about half of what we did. It helped me to think analytically about the structure a sentence and how elements fit together. Grammarly has a basic overview explanation.

2. Consider taking at least a semester of a foreign language class, such as Spanish, German, or Latin. Learning what tenses are in the context of another language gave me the tools to recognize what simple past versus past perfect are in English.
posted by past unusual at 3:05 PM on January 14

« Older Escrow service for small crowdfunding campaign   |   Ideas on game/structures for conversation-prompt... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments