Thursday, March 21, 2013

Story vs. Mechanics—What Trumps: Story or Grammar?

Should a writer focus more on telling a story or on the mechanics of writing? Which will do them the most good as a writer? If you can only afford to focus on one, not the other, which should you worry about?

My answer is going to sound a little strange, as an editor.

Story trumps mechanics…

…but you still need mechanics


Before you go cheer about the unnecessariness of editors or seek to lynch me as a heretic, wait.

Here's why I say story trumps mechanics:

Some readers can appreciate a story despite the mechanics.

No readers will appreciate mechanics without a story.

This is actually one of the factors in me deciding to run my "First Draft Fridays". The types of readers who are interested in reading first drafts can check it out; the types of readers who are only interested in reading final product can avoid it. Easily.

As a side effect of that above "Some"/"No" premise, publishing a mechanics-lacking story can still gain you readers (though you won't have nearly as many readers as you could have had, if you at least had the basic mechanics in place, because of how different readers process text). I've seen it work. (I'm not naming examples; I'm sure you already know some.)

But a grammatically "flawless" text with a story that's…lacking? I'm not talking about matters of taste, here, cases wherein one reader might find a story flawed and another won't. (And something's in the water this morning, because that's Kris Rusch's post, today.) I'm talking objective everyone-will-agree-this-story-is-lacking level.

*shakes head* The movie world calls these kinds of things "eye candy". While a printed page can look pretty, that's not really its purpose.

And the purpose of mechanics is to ensure that you get your intended meaning across.

You can technically hire an editor to fix a heck of a lot, if you really want to, but you'd be best served by learning what mechanics you can.


Editors aren't omniscient.

That means, if you hand an editor a morass of story, the editor will have to do a lot of work, charge you extra, and probably make you say things you didn't intend, because the editor isn't telepathic and had to make reasonable guesses about what you meant to say.

I've had cases where clients who knew grammar said "Um, shouldn't this have been left two words? Because Y."

And they were right, because I'd read and edited their line as if it were X, not Y, but the writer had to know some mechanics, herself, else she wouldn't have been able to recognize the difference.

Even writers with fantastic senses of mechanics will accidentally say things they didn't intend.

A few months back, I accidentally commented on a blog to the effect that one publisher I work with removed all –wards and –ward forms of words like towards/toward. I'd meant to say all –wards forms were changed to –ward. But I'd phrased it a few different ways, when drafting the comment, and by the time I published it, I hadn't realized that I'd combined a few of them into a line that said something very different from what I intended.

It happens to all of us. But if you know enough of your mechanics to be generally clear, the editor will be able to more accurately guess what you meant to say.

So if you can only focus on one, focus on the story…

…but for the sake of your editor, your wallet, and those readers who need or want proper mechanics to be able to appreciate a story, don't neglect mechanics.


What do you think of story vs. mechanics? Which do you think you're stronger at? Which do you see first as a reader?


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