Diagrammar (a moment of unabashed love for Strunk & White)
Critiquing a ms for a talented young fantasy writer, I'm getting an interesting taste of a genre in which I'm not at all well read. The story is strong enough to pull me in. I adjusted quickly to the unfamiliar names. I'm not feeling overly video-gamish about the balls-out action movie battle scenes. What is hanging me up is the desire to smack this young man's middle school English teachers. Here's a guy who's got the essential unteachable element of talent; it hurts my soul to see him tripped up by technical issues, which -- because he is a good writer -- stand out like dung piles in a diamond mine. If he was a lousy writer, I'd never notice the minutia.
Good grammar skills don't make for rigid prose. Just the opposite. When you know the rules well enough to follow them consistently, wrap your head around the structure of a sentence as a series of stepping stones -- without stumbling blocks or switchbacks -- then you instinctively know how to bend and break the rules without betraying the spirit of grammar, which is to facilitate the reader's experience.
One of the most important things a writer needs to have firmly ingrained in the brain is sentence diagramming. It's not about anal retention or rigid conformity, it's about a welcoming world of words in which the reader doesn't have to climb over anything to get to the characters and sail into the journey.
If your diagramming skills are due for a refresher, click here to revisit the basics. Or there's this...