Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

Tossed Out A Book…

Strunk and White… The Elements of Style…

Yup, tossed it without hesitation into a garbage can. And I own a bookstore and never toss away books. But that book is so evil to fiction writers, I felt dirty even touching it.

 I was cleaning and packing Kris and my nonfiction library to bring some of the books to Vegas last week. There, tucked between two other books and hiding on a lower shelf was a copy of the book of evil. I saw it, grabbed it and without a thought flipped it into a garbage can.

Why? Because that book can do more damage to a writer’s voice than pretending to follow the Chicago Manual of Style. I was afraid that some of the stupidity in the small thing would seep through my fingers and I would starting writing boring, plain characters.

Now, before I get fifty letters from nonfiction writers about how important that grammar stuff is, I get it. For nonfiction.

But my focus is fiction.

Creative fiction with real characters.

Characters that do not speak in grammatically perfect sentences. I learned all those grammar lessons early and have been working my entire fiction career to forget and break them.

Perfect grammar is perfect for nonfiction. Really boring nonfiction. Voiceless, plain old nonfiction.

Grammar for fiction writers is a tool to use and not use, to understand and then forget. And to break in a different way with every character.

Characters just don’t speak that perfect English crap. At least not and have a voice or accent.

So if you happen to run across a copy of that horrid little book, toss it away. It will be the only book I will ever suggest you do that to.  Don’t let it poison one more possible fiction writer.

And for heaven’s sake, don’t open it.


Both of the new workshops, The Indie Game and Fear have started on Sunday.

The first week’s webinars will be a week from Sunday for both.

We did both workshops originally as the weekend workshops. We are not changing out the videos because other than a mention of a day instead of a week, the teaching is fine in them. And the live webinars will really add to the learning.

Sign up on Teachable at


Also starting on Tuesday and Wednesday…

June Regular Workshops

All twelve June Regular six-week workshops are now available on Teachable for sign-ups. The few of you who have signed up through me using credits please write me again if you haven’t gotten a code to get into the workshop.

Class #61… June 5th … Think Like a Publisher
Class #62… June 5th … Endings
Class #63… June 5th … Point of View
Class #64… June 5th … Writing Mysteries
Class #65… June 5th … Speed
Class #66… June 5th … Teams in Fiction
Class #67… June 6th … Depth in Writing
Class #68… June 6th … How to Edit Your Own Work
Class #69… June 6th … Character Development
Class #70… June 6th … Writing Secondary Plot Lines
Class #71… June 6th … Advanced Depth
Class #72… June 6th … Novel Structure

July-October Schedule coming shortly.


    • Teri Babcock

      Thanks for this. Bookmarked should I ever need it to do battle…

      (FYI Dean, name and email in comment section auto-populated with someone I don’t know and who I’m fairly sure has never been on my computer)

    • J.M. Ney-Grimm

      Thank you so much for the link. I’m reading the takedown, and finding it marvelous. I used to be an Elements admirer, so this critique is really helpful for me. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  • Linda Maye Adams

    One of my pet peeves is people who will come in with a superiority attitude to lecture on grammar–usually because of typos. I’m a rotten typist. I tend to drop words, and sometimes I have train in my head and tree pops out of my fingers. The forms on comments like here also have such small font that it makes it easy to miss stuff even when I proofread. I do a lot of cycling so it’s not as bad as it could be.. Several years ago, an individual zoomed in on my blog and commented on the “numerous grammatical errors” all over a post. I was initially horrified, envisioning eight errors. Not sure where that number came from. I went back to look. The “numerous grammatical errors” was a missing word like “an,” which is a very common and hard to spot proofreading mistake.

    And these people seem to approach grammatical imperfection as, “Ah ha! You’re supposed to be a writer, and I caught you in a grammatical error! I’m better than you.” That creates a fear like the writer researching an obscure fact so the 1% of the readers won’t call him out.

    The rules are not a one size fits all. A non-fiction example showed up this week–I had a good laugh over it because the English teacher was actually ignorant. She got a letter from the White House and was appalled at what she thought were grammatical errors. The letter capitalized “Federal government” and “State.” So she corrected the letter with a red pen and sent it back. The problem was she was completely wrong. There’s a government style guide and the capitalizations are correct according to the guide. I used to do a newsletter when I was a government contractor. I had to follow all those rules to get the newsletter through the front office comma mama (that was her nickname in the office).

    People forget that that there are truly only two rules, and sometimes you have to pick your battles.
    1. If what your writing has to go through someone else like an administrative assistant or a teacher, then they make the rules. It’s silly to argue about serial commas and waste time (why the lady above was named comma mama).
    2. It has to fit the context. Writing for the government is very different from regular non-fiction. Writing fiction is different from everything else, as it should be.

    And I still see beginning writers asking if it’s okay to use contractions in fiction. :Face Palm:

    • Anon

      Once, I saw the applications for a position at my government job (I was one of those giving input). One stuck out in a good way because it was the only one that showed any *voice*. In chatting with my manager (the one doing the hiring), she hated that application because she thought it was written unprofessionally. It was an interesting reminder to me how very different fiction writing is from other sorts of writing. (Needless to say, that person didn’t get the job.)

  • Harvey

    Excellent advice, as always.

    I’ve always wondered why fiction writers, who are supposed to be the most accomplished free thinkers, bind themselves with things likc Strunk and White’s and the various style manuals.

    When I’m writing a series, I create my own style manual: things like character names, place names, etc. that need to carry over. (Yeah, I pretty much refer to my reverse outline for the previous book(s).)

    But to invite the critical mind directly into the writing is just nuts.

  • emmiD

    Oh my! That’s the Advanced Placement Language and Literature Bible. (Although I preferred Gower’s). You are so correct; it just stifles voice and character development. Maybe there should have been a match involved 😉

  • Michael W Lucas

    It’s evil for narrative nonfiction too. Downright satanic.

    S&W is a like a coloring book and you’re working on the whole “Stay within the lines” thing. You need those rules when you’re about that stage of your education… what you’d probably call a stage 0 or -1 writer. After that? God, no.

    Whenever someone comes to me and asks for nonfiction writing advice, I slap that book out of their hands. Because some well-meaning but clueless person has given them a copy.

  • Janine

    I come from a non-fiction background, mostly journalism and scientific writing, where proper grammar is a must. The latter especially requires dry and formal writing. Which is why some of my earlier forays into fiction sounded quite formal. I would usually get comments like “characters sounded too formal and mature”, especially when I’m writing 14-16 year olds in first person. I quickly realized how harmful proper grammar was to my fiction writing and turned off my grammar corrector. Since then, my fiction voice has grown and I no longer get the “formal and mature” comments. Instead, I got the “incorrect grammar” comments from critique workshops. Whatever. If I wanted to read writing that’s formal and dry and bland, I’ll read a stack of scientific papers. At least I’ll learn something.

    I find it funny that writers are running to run manuscripts on their grammar correction apps like Grammarly and suggest other writers do the same since they believe “readers won’t read a book with bad grammar!” Especially since they are now easier than ever to access. I remember when Word didn’t even have a grammar correction tool.

    • dwsmith

      Janine, exactly. I have shouted for years to get writers to turn off their grammar checkers. Things are deadly to fiction writing. Grammar checkers are a great addition to everything writing EXCEPT fiction.

      • Céline Malgen

        I have used Grammarly a few times, but only in a very specific way: with a finished manuscript, as a tool to pick some obvious typos.

        And I only ever follow the suggested changes that make me think “Wow, how could I miss that one?” Like when I typed “an” instead of “and” or obvious typos like that, that are difficult to spot when it’s your own writing but can’t be unseen once you’ve spotted them. But I never follow a suggestion when I’m not sure about it, or obviously if I feel that it is flat wrong. BTW, I think that’s also the advice you give about the comments of first readers – follow only what you agree with.

        I think in that way it can be a useful tool, but it should definitely be avoided if you’re unsure about your knowledge in grammar and might start to apply the changes blindly.

  • Jason M

    Haha… It’s been thirty years since I looked at that book. I remember it bored me to tears in ninth grade.

    I would say, though, that a working mechanical knowledge of grammar is important in third-person POV fiction. For example, knowing different ways to write a description — choosing among appositives, gerunds, infinitives, fragments, etc — is one of the tools of a fiction writer. Should I put the adjectival participial phrase at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of this sentence? Should I break the rules here and plop in a couple fragments? I compare the process to playing with Legos.

    • Tony DeCastro

      I honestly can’t remember what most of those terms are …in fact I think the only I recall is a fragment. I’m too disinterested to go back and re-learn those grammar terms. So I guess I’m just going to have make do without knowing where to put the adjective participial phrase…

  • Mel Todd

    This is my own failing, but what I would really like is a website – and no Merriam Webster doesn’t do this – where I can type in a word and get the possessive and plural versions. I’ve never been able to get them correct. I’d like to just be able to check a word. The only thing I really use the grammar check for is typo’s and commas, cause it seems like everyone else in the world knows where to place them but me.

    • dwsmith

      Mel, it’s called “Google” and works like a charm. And Mel, how you use commas is part of your voice and pacing, so leave them alone and ignore other people. Who cares what they think anyway. If they are focused on commas, the really need a life.

    • Harvey

      Mel, in line with realizing there’s a reader on the other side of the page when you’re writing, all you need to know about commas is this: Like all other marks of punctuation, the comma forces the reader to pause in his/her reading. In other words, you can’t read “through” a comma. So use it where you want the reader to pause. Punctuation is just another tool to use. Once the writer understands it, he/she can wield it to direct the reading of the work.

  • Tony Decastro

    “One notable exception to the bullshit rule is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. There is little or no detectable bullshit in that book. (Of course, its short; at eighty-five pages it’s much shorter than this one.) I’ll tell you right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style. Rule 17 in the chapter titled Principles of Composition is “Omit needless words.” I will try to do that here.”
    -Stephen King, “On Writing”

    • dwsmith

      I tend to never disagree much with King, but that is his literary background showing. And he does not follow that advice in any measure. It is hugely damaging to beginning writers. So sorry, don’t agree on that one.

    • Anon

      I think that “omit needless words” advice is one that so many writers really agonize over, going through their manuscript again and again to try to say things more concisely. It’s the kind of advice that sounds good and wise, but if you let it be anything more than a very rough general idea of a tip, it can cripple your writing. That’s the sort of advice that leads to twenty re-writes and taking a decade to publish a book.

      I actually had two copies of S&W, though I think they just kind of came to me somehow. I never got around to reading either copy, then I started reading some opinions/analysis about it and decided to toss them both.

  • David Anthony Brown

    Reading the essay Sean linked, I forgot how damn confusing Elements of Style is. When I read the stupid book, I scratched my head at some of their examples and wondered what the heck was wrong. So much of it is just pure snobbery. I still my copy of Elements. I think I’ll tear the binding out and toss it in recycling.

  • Dave

    Love the rants to break off the fetters ye old literature teachers tried to shackle us with.

    I’m not gonna comment directly on the post, but just wanted to say that I watched ‘Papa Hemmingway In Cuba’ the other night. They had old Hemmingway standing in his office at the typewriter.

    I immediately thought of you and what you’ve told us Hemmingway used to say to get people off his back with 33 rewrites and the whole nine yards.

    Oh, yeah! And poor old Hemmingway was staring at a blank page for days on his typewriter trying to think of the perfect sentence to write.

    Needless to say, I got a good chuckle out of their portrayal of the writer. I was waiting for them to show him plotting and outlining his next book. 😉

    • dwsmith

      And now you know how myths are continued. Sadly. Like movies and television shows having large editorial offices that a writer visits. I laugh every time because all editors I know have small offices, not much larger than closets, are lucky to have a window, and one chair, with shelves piled high with manuscripts. The myths they are powerful things.