In 2005, which I can scarcely believe is more than ten years ago now, I became Eclectica Magazine’s poetry editor. Eclectica had already been publishing work online for several years—this year will be their twentieth—and I had been contributing work for a few years when I started my new role and began receiving submissions from poets all over the world.
When I look at all of the different roles that I have in the writing world now, what I mainly see is how they complement one another. Editing has clearly influenced subsequent roles like teaching and tutoring, particularly regarding the importance of communication with writers and the knowledge that there is always a human person on the other end of the text.
As I prepare for—and become increasingly excited about—Grammar for Creative Writers on April 11th, I’ve tried to think more clearly about what I have learned from selecting poems for Eclectica’s quarterly issues over the years, particularly regarding the grammatical choices that writers make and why.
As I think about this, I have to keep in mind that my own beliefs about grammar have changed, and that early in my editing life, I might have referred to grammar “rules” and “errors,” while now I prefer to use the words “conventions” and “choices” (for more about this transition, take a look at my last StoryStudio blog post).
But not all of the grammatical usage that happens in a poem (or other piece of writing) is equal in an editor’s eyes. Here are a few of the distinctions that I make when I am reading for possible publication.
Grammar is a process and not all writers are in possession of the same knowledge. When I look back at poems that I wrote several years ago (and that were sometimes published), I will see commas that I wouldn’t use today in quite that way and semicolons that are a bit “off.” As an editor (and all publications and editors are different, of course), I will sometimes move (or remove) a comma or other punctuation mark. But only if I’m quite certain that it is a “mistake” and not a rhetorical choice on the part of the author. If I think that it might be an intentional choice but could be read as a grammatical error by readers, I’ll get in touch with the writer and explain my thoughts if I’m interested in accepting the poem for publication.
Grammatical Choice that Affects Meaning
Sometimes the words on the page read a bit different than we intend. As writers, we have a pretty clear idea of what we meant to say, but sometimes that meaning isn’t there quite as clearly for another reader. Unfortunately, as an editor, I might not always know what was meant to be on the page. This is something that is, at least to me, more important than making sure that commas are doing what is expected of them (unless their placement is what is affecting meaning). So what should writers look for? I’ve found that pronouns are a frequent cause of this. Sometimes a writer will use a pronoun without realizing that there are multiple possible nouns. Who or what the pronoun is referencing might be unclear and the meaning on the page might be different than what was intended.
Grammar as Rhetorical Choice
Here I’m thinking of less standard punctuation choices, and the two that stand out to me the most are dashes (the em dash is the one I’m talking about here) and ellipses. I am a big fan of the dash myself and find oodles of them when I look back at past work. A good thing to keep in mind is that there are conventions to using both dashes and ellipses, and that isn’t always clear in a poem. And of course, not using punctuation at all is also a grammatical choice. When I come across a poem with no punctuation (or limited punctuation), I ask myself whether that choice makes sense for what I see to be the poem’s purpose. And I always keep consistency in mind! End stopping only some of the lines or only using commas sometimes pulls me out of the poem and makes me wonder why the choice was made instead of thinking about the poem’s meaning.
There is so much more to be said about all of the above, and I’m looking forward to going more in depth about not only poetry, but fiction (particularly dialogue formatting) and other genres as well on April 11th. Grammar is one of my favorite things to talk about, and I can’t wait to have some in-depth conversations. I’m looking forward to meeting you soon in Grammar for Creative Writers!
Jen Finstrom is an instructor in the First-Year Writing Program at DePaul University. Her poetry has appeared in several journals, including RHINO, Cider Press Review, Midwestern Gothic, and NEAT, and she is the poetry editor of Eclectica Magazine. You can learn more about grammar to be aware of in your creative writing in Jen’s next grammar class at StoryStudio, coming soon, and on her blog, Grammar Fairy Godmother.