In this episode
Mignon Fogarty—better known as “Grammar Girl”—is helping our generation fall in love with writing. The creator and host of an immensely popular podcast, she is also the author of a number of books on writing, including Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing and Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students.
Photo credit: David Calvert
Season 2 Episode 2: Grammar Girl Talks About Why Perfect Is the Enemy of Good and How She Wrote a Book from a Wall of Post-Its
Mignon, you’ve forgotten more than I’ll ever know about writing and grammar. What’s it like to try to keep all of that straight in your head?
I always start by telling people that I have to look things up every day, too. There are just so many rules to remember, so many of the nit-picky details, that I don’t think anyone could remember them all. One of my favorite reference books is Garner’s Modern English Usage which is 900 pages long. Nobody could remember all that.
It’s important to have good references or do what I did before I became Grammar Girl: rewrite your sentence to work around the problem!
Your love and fascination of language absolutely comes through in your podcast and books. It’s refreshing to know that even after 10 years of podcasting that you’re still looking things up.’
There’s always something! The other morning my husband said he felt perky. I was drinking coffee at the time and thought, I wonder if perky is related to coffee percolating? It turns out they’re not, but it’s neat to always be delving into the history of language.
When I start working with an author, some of them are so fearful about writing. They worry about whether they’re using a word correctly, where the commas go—they stop themselves before they ever start.
The most important thing to realize is that your first draft is just a draft. Not only does it not have to be perfect, but it’s never going to be perfect. Don’t feel like you’re failing because it’s not.
A couple of important things to remember. Number one: you don’t have to start at the beginning. If you have an idea or an important point, go ahead and write it down. You don’t have to start with an introduction, the foreword, chapter one, then chapter two. You can write out of order.
Number two, you need to capture your ideas. When I was writing the Grammar Devotional, which is a tip-a-day calendar in book form, I needed to come up with 365 daily tips. At first, I started with a spreadsheet, but it just became too cumbersome. So I switched to Post-It notes. I took a huge wall in my hallway and wrote ideas on Post-It notes, then stuck them on the wall. Once I had a hundred or so, I started physically moving them around in groupings that made more sense. Then I started arranging them in certain ways, like doing interesting words on Mondays and maybe punctuation on Wednesdays. Just able to see them all physically at the same time made it easier to conceptualize the big picture.
That’s similar to Dan Poynter’s “pile-it” method where you physically put pieces of paper in similar piles. I like to use the mental image of buckets where everything that we think goes together gets put in the same bucket.
Right. You don’t have to have your first draft done to go back and start editing it, cleaning up the language, looking things up you’re not sure about or rewriting sections, and reorganizing parts and sections.
Once you feel you’ve gotten to a certain point, you can hire someone to help clean it up. You don’t have to know everything yourself. If you’re stressing out over these details, you can work with an editor to get it as perfect and professional as it can be before you publish.
Give us a couple of common “quick and dirty” tips.
The first, like I said, is that when you come up against a question you’re not sure of, you can rewrite around it so that you’re not using a phrase or a verb the way that trips you up.
Another common question is where the periods and commas go. In American English, periods and commas go inside a closing quotation mark. If you’re ending your sentence with a quote, you put the period before the quotation mark. In British English, it’s the opposite.
People also get tripped up over whether to us “a” or “an” before a word. It’s not actually whether the following word begins with a vowel but whether it begins with a vowel sound. MBA, for example, begins with a consonant letter, but it sounds like it begins with “em.” So it’s “an MBA.”
We have all these rules, but what I love about your approach to writing is that these rules are there to help us communicate more clearly and to lessen the chance of miscommunication. They’re there to support us, not to dictate language. They are tools, but the tools are not the point—clear communication is.
They help you get your point across, but the storytelling and content of your message, whether it’s inspiring or not, whether people find it useful—that’s definitely more important than having perfect writing.
Look at books like Fifty Shades of Gray, Twilight, or The Da Vinci Code. People talk about how sloppy those books are written, but millions and millions of people love the books. Obviously, those authors are doing something right.
There’s also a difference between fantastic writing and fantastic storytelling. You need a story that pulls you through a book. You can always go back and make your writing more beautiful, but the most important thing is getting that first draft down. If you don’t get it out, you’re never going to write your book.
To learn more about the topics, books, and resources referenced: