Hugh Linehan: How can writers get it right if they don’t know when they’re wrong?

There’s a rich choice of creative writing courses, but precious few places to learn the basics

Most professional publishers conform to a set of common rules of grammar and accepted usage. Punctuation and sentence structure are expected to follow these conventions. In their absence, clarity is lost and confusion is inevitable. Photograph: Getty Images

The written English language is constantly mutating. On its margins, long-standing rules fall out of fashion and ultimately become archaic. Colloquialisms from the wilder shores of contemporary slang are injected into the mainstream, where over time they achieve respectability. Economic power and cultural hegemony drive change; for a century or more, American idioms have been gaining ground over British ones. Different anglophone countries all have their own rich local traditions, while the globalisation of English as the world’s second language brings new inflection points.

But it’s not a complete free-for-all. Most professional publishers conform to a set of common rules of grammar and accepted usage. Punctuation and sentence structure are expected to follow these conventions. In their absence, clarity is lost and confusion is inevitable.

None of these rules need necessarily apply to creative writing and fiction, although it’s a good idea to be aware of them before tossing them out the window. Where, though, are you supposed to learn them?


In a heartfelt and moving article on this week, short-story writer and aspiring novelist Joyce Butler described the shock of hearing that "my novel-writing skills are practically non-existent, I'm rubbish at grammar and punctuation, my dialogue skills are defunct, and I tell too much without showing enough". This was on the basis of feedback from an experienced retired editor. For Butler, who has published a number of stories and is working on a historical novel, the critique came as a punch to the solar plexus of her self-confidence. She hasn't written a word since she received it six weeks ago. We should be grateful to her for speaking openly about what was clearly an emotionally bruising experience, and hopefully she'll find a way to use it positively in the future. But how many other aspirant writers are similarly unaware of the flaws in their work?


Some of the criticisms Butler describes are stylistic, the sort of “kill your darlings” advice which aims to weed out whatever is superfluous or over-ornate. Others, though, relate to the relatively simple nuts and bolts of language construction. “Incorrect tenses, lack of punctuation and poor sentence structure are weaknesses I have blindly incorporated into my writing, on repeat, for the past five years,” she writes sadly.

This can be a touchy subject. When UK journalist Hannah Fearn asked her fellow editors on Twitter this week to come up with the most common errors made by writers, she got a predictable flurry of complaints about people who didn't know the difference between "less" and "fewer" or the meaning of "disinterested". But she was also attacked for snobbery towards writers whose work didn't meet grammatical standards and for celebrating an elitist ethos which allowed gatekeepers to exclude writers from marginalised communities. More than one respondent asked what the problem was; the editor's job by definition was to fix these errors.


Is the standard of professional written English falling? And, if so, does it matter? With some caveats and based on personal experience, this curmudgeonly editor would say yes on both counts. It’s not pedantry to say that sentence construction is to writing as bricklaying is to building. Precision and control are vital, but it is unclear where they are now taught. Professional musicians learn how to play their instruments. Why should writers be any different? The idea that sub-standard writing can then be farmed out to editors to act as some sort of linguistic AutoTune, ironing out the bum notes, seems farcical. The real tragedy in Butler’s article is that nobody had pointed out these problems in her writing before. And the harsh reality is that the so-called gatekeepers probably didn’t have the time to do anything more than send a rejection letter (if they even did that).

The elephant-sized paradox here is that, when it comes to learning how to write for a living, there have never been more creative writing courses and writers’ workshops available in Ireland. Meanwhile, the number of places available on graduate and post-graduate journalism courses is rising in response to increased demand (which, given the state of traditional media, is a conundrum in itself). And more people than ever before have third-level qualifications, many of them in disciplines such as the humanities and the soft sciences which, in theory at least, require sophisticated language skills in order to deliver theses and dissertations.

If the shared rules governing written English are to become more fluid, that might or might not be a bad thing – they were much less prescriptive up until the 19th century – but at the moment some people are left lost and disadvantaged by a system which never properly told them what those rules were in the first place.