The Big, Fat Grammar Guide



Dry. Boring. Rules on top of rules.

Overwhelmingly voted “Least Popular Topic” among the general writing community.

Unfortunately, grammar is also the foundation of all good writing (good defined here as publishable). Since many of us came to the fiction world from careers and majors other than English or MFA programs, our last exposure to grammar rules may have been a high school or a single general ed college class, long forgotten. Looong forgotten.

I’m here to tell you that mastering grammar basically on-the-job can be a steep learning curve.

Out of the RWs, only a few have a rigorous, academic English/Literature grounding, and I’m definitely not one of that minority. I’ve improved over the years, but I confess my ongoing abuse of em-dashes, commas, and ellipsis, among other sins. I envision my more grammar-oriented CPs as wincing and fortifying themselves with some manner of alcohol-spiked caffeine concoction every time one of my new projects lands in their inbox. However, because I respect my crit partners and the time and effort they are generously investing in me (and also kinda fear them coming after me with pitchforks and torches), I keep copies of several grammar guides and the Chicago Manual of Style on my desk, plus a cheat sheet of past corrections. I still make mistakes, but I do try to minimize them. Or at least switch it up, and make new and interesting mistakes with each story.

With contest and pitch season heating up, and the start of the Pitch Wars entry countdown, I’ve offered query and first chapter critiques whenever I can, paying forward all the help I’ve received from the writing community. Out of the numerous submissions in the last few months, many had glaring grammar errors. Not small, nit-picky tics. Glaring errors that throw readers out of the story.

We can all argue that a solid plot, compelling characters, and unexpected twists should trump minor issues, that rules are made to be broken, or that there’s no such thing as an error-free ms. True enough. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore basic grammar. It’s lazy writing, and doesn’t scream “serious professional.” Like it or not, professionalism is the bar to shoot for if you’re hoping for publication. Why start at a disadvantage by submitting a sloppy, inconsistent pitch or first pages? Agents and editors are swamped with hopeful submissions and are looking for reasons to stop reading yours and move on. Readers are swamped with choices, free and .99 books as far as the eye can see, and if your first page or blurb doesn’t hold up? They don’t click the Buy Now button or hand you their hard-earned cash.

Don’t be that guy, especially when help is readily available. I get that text books are often prohibitively expensive, even at used book stores or as e-books. To that end, I’ve put together a list of sites, all free, many sponsored by academic institutions, in order to keep you guys on your crit partners’ good side.

Comprehensive Grammar Guides:

Grammar Book. This site includes quizzes, to test whether you’ve mastered the skill you’re interested in.


Guide to Grammar and Writing. This great, as it’s divided into word, sentence, and paragraph level issues.


OWL—Purdue University Online Writing Lab



Grammar and Style:

The giant grammar and style site. It includes APA, MLA, and Chicago style guides.


My Pick:

Finally, my favorite site, especially after you’ve mastered the basics and need a quickie check on a specific question. Grammar Girls’s Quick and Dirty Guide

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