The point of language is to communicate your thoughts. The rules of language are there to clarify structure and prevent misreading. If you can communicate what you want to communicate without following those rules, that’s perfectly okay.
However, it’s easier to follow the rules because that’s why they’re there—to clarify your meaning—and most people are already aware of them.
And, generally, if you’re not sure if it should be a semi-colon or an em-dash, is the adverb necessary, does the repetition work as emphasis or is it clumsy, chances are you’re over-thinking it.
I know what I want to say but I don't know how to say it is another way of saying you don't really know what you're trying to say.
It’s far better, when faced with a complicated sentence you aren’t sure how to punctuate, to rewrite the whole paragraph from scratch. Don’t waste time trying to communicate your literary skills, focus on communicating the story. And definitely don’t do a half-assed job and leave it to the reader to figure it out for themselves.
Of course, for every cast iron Thou must... commandment from the writing gods, there is at least a handful of writers who did the opposite and did it well. But there was a reason why it worked for them. You don’t have the right to cite them as a justification for why you can do the same if you don’t understand that reason.
If you write something down and then look at it thinking, I’m not sure what this is saying, but maybe someone will like it, then you’re just splashing around in the water to no real purpose. I’m not saying you’re drowning, but it’s going to take you a long time to swim across the English Channel that way.
Take time to figure out what you want to say. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying don’t study grammar (to be honest you should already know all the basics you need from school), but when people point out technical errors in your writing, what they’re really saying is I was so bored/confused/lost that I started counting adverbs.
The only real secret to getting your writing to work in a way where the reader is too involved with the story to bother thinking about how many adverbs you’ve used, is to just read it back to yourself and decide, consciously, if it says what you want it to say.
It really is that simple, and yet it’s one of the hardest things for aspiring writers to do. They avoid looking too closely because they’re afraid of what they might see. What if it isn’t clear what I mean? What do I then? Start again? Oh, god, no...
This isn’t a question of talent, it’s a matter of laziness. We may not all be equally talented but we are all equally lazy. Yes, more work will be required. One draft, throw your pen on the ground, walk out of the room with both hands raised... that’s not how it works (sadly).
But if you take a section of your work that doesn’t sit right with you (or even if other people say it doesn’t work) and play around with it, change the structure, the wording, whatever—and then you decide you preferred it the way it was, that’s okay.
That’s not to say it now works and everyone who thinks otherwise is wrong, it could be terrible, but by being aware there’s an issue, and seeking to address it, your brain is on the case. Even if the writing ultimately fails to do what you hoped it would do, you will learn something. That’s all part of the writing process, to discover your own approach to language with its quirks particular to you.
In most cases, however, that time spent going over a sentence, a chapter, a whole story, will produce alternative ways of doing it. Better ways. Sometimes change comes incrementally, sometimes all at once.
We all use language every day. We all make mistakes every day. Whether in writing or speaking, we all screw up is small ways all the time. Yet we manage to make ourselves understood.
Along with our capacity to communicate our own thoughts, we also have the ability to understand other people’s. Even when they make it difficult, we want to understand. It’s the communication that’s the important thing, far more than the technicalities of which words you choose to employ.
And bear this in mind: Anytime you feel mired in getting the grammar right, the punctuation correct, when you can’t figure out where the commas go, most likely the real problem isn’t a poor grasp of the Queen’s English. Chances are you’re not really sure what you’re trying to say.
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