For advice that is unconventional, contrarian, pithy and uncannily spot-on, the go-to guy for me is Dr. Gary North.
Dr. North has made his living for nearly the last four decades as a professional writer and editor: books, articles, manuals, websites, speeches, ads, etc.. (Having a background as a Ph. D. in history, recognized author, economist, publisher, speaker and path-breaking theologian, I’m sure, helps.)
He is also a very successful marketer. His free website, Tea Party Economist, is now, after just one year online, one of the top websites in its ideological, thematic category (libertarian, free market economics). The Facebook page for that site has well over 3,000 likes now and growing.
His penchant for being contrarian and provocative while at the same time eminently practical and clear-headed comes through even when he’s offering basic writing advice.
The article reprinted below is a case in point.
It should ruffle the feathers of plenty of English teachers, majors, tutors and “purist”, non-commercial English writers!
So be it. Here is the voice of wisdom and experience in the marketplace speaking.
The Most Important Rule of Grammar for Becoming a Successful Writer
Nov. 16, 2012
This is the most important rule for successful writing: ignore grammar when you are writing.
The question has come up regarding the number of hours that someone must practice to gain mastery of skill. This number is going to be considerably lower than the number of hours that it takes for someone to become a virtuoso. The fact is this: virtuosos require at least 10,000 hours of dedicated practice, but 10,000 hours of dedicated practice do not generally produce virtuosos. The question of the required number of hours of dedicated practice has to do with that which is necessary to an outcome, but not sufficient to achieve that outcome. The individual doing the practicing has got to have the innate gifts, as well as the opportunities, to become a virtuoso.
Let me give an example out of my own life. I write very fast. I did not always write as fast as I write today, but I always wrote better than most of my peers. I began writing at the age of 13, and I have never ceased writing. By the time I was a junior in high school, I wrote better than most of the people in my English classes, and I took an advanced English class. My superior performance had to do with an innate skill that I possess.
This is even more true with respect to my speaking ability. I could speak in public better than most adults by the time I was 16. I think I am a better speaker today than I was at 16, but I cannot prove this. I don’t have tapes of my speeches at the time. I do know this: it is taken me far less time to develop my speaking skills than it has taken to develop my writing skills. I do not speak in public that often — maybe a dozen times a year. On the other hand, I write extensively every day. I crank out about 50 articles a week.
Sometime in the 1970s, writing became almost innate with me. I had to work on my writing skills from 1955 until the early 1970s. I was able to write effectively after 1965. I was able to get published in a number of national publications are but it still took me longer to write an article that was fit for publication than it does today. In the 1970s, the process sped up.
The biggest thing that changed my writing ability in the last 35 years is writing advertising copy. That enabled me to communicate better, faster, and more effectively than anything else I ever learned. In this case, necessity was the mother of invention. I learned the art of writing advertising copy by copying one of the masters in the field, Joe Sugarman. I did not take a course in writing advertising copy until I took a two-day session in the mid-1980s from a man I have known for over a decade, Dan Rosenthal.
In terms of the amount of writing behind me, is far more than 10,000 hours. It is probably closer to 40,000 hours. On my economic commentary alone, I spent 500 hours a year every year from 1977 until early this year.
I have the basic skills, and today I probably would be considered a virtuoso, in the limited fields in which I write. I could not do it in the field of fiction, but I can do it in the field of journalism.
I do not think about my style when I write. I quit writing from an outline when I went to work for Ron Paul in 1976. Before that, I outlined an article. Then then I wrote it out in longhand. Then I then I re-wrote it when I typed it. When I went to work for Ron Paul, I began ghost writing the articles for his newsletters off the top of my head. I used an INB Selectric III typewriter. That was a major change in my writing career.
In 1981, I use my first word processor: a predecessor to WordPerfect. That fundamentally changed the way I write. I doubled my output in a week. It made correcting my mistakes far easier, which made it easier for me to write faster, because I did not worry about making a major mistake that would be difficult to correct later on. That relief of fear of the cost of retyping fundamentally change the way that I write.
Now consider what I do in comparison with some woman who was spent her life teaching English grammar to seventh graders. She does not know how to write. She knows all the parts of speech, and she uses those horrible diagrams that English teachers use to make life miserable for students. She cannot write fast. But when she writes one sentence at a time, or when she draws diagrams of sentences, she innately knows all about parts of speech.
This is why grammar should not be taught to anybody after the eighth grade. Frankly, I think it should not be taught to anybody after the seventh grade. You get grammar when you’re young, and then you hone your skills by writing. The best way to learn grammar is to be in a home in which both parents speak grammatically correct English. My point is this: it is not knowing the parts of speech, or the rules of grammar, which makes a person a good writer. He becomes a good writer when he pays no attention to the parts of speech or grammar. He innately knows grammar, and so he concentrates his attention on the flow of the words, not the rules of sentence making.
Anybody who is still worried about sentence structure is not a writer. He is still laboring under the illusion that writing comes from a mastery of grammar. Writing uses a mastery of grammar, but it does not come from a mastery of grammar. The ladies who are masters of grammar do not know how to write. If you are instinctive in knowing every part of speech and every grammatical rule, you’re probably an English teacher.
I know a few of the rules, and sometimes I can even remember what some of the parts of speech are called, but basically I have paid no attention to grammar since I was 12 years old. I concentrated on learning how to apply grammar in written essays.
I think Dorothy Sayers was correct in her tripartite division of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. I also think she was right when she said that grammar is usually confined to children who are under 10 or 11 years old. After this, they begin to specialize in logic. Sometime around the mid-teens, the ones who are serious and who have the opportunity to practice their writing do develop their rhetorical skills. Once you have developed rhetorical skills, you pay almost no attention to grammar.
A virtuoso on the piano probably practices his scales every day. This is a physical skill. You have to keep working at a physical skill. But a mental skill, such as writing, is very different. In this case, if you spend a lot of time doing the equivalent of practicing scales, it will eat up your time, and there will be no benefit in terms of improved writing ability. Don’t get sidetracked with the peripheral issues. Don’t worry about grammar when you are in the middle of writing a great novel, or an editorial, or an advertisement. Fix the grammar when you do the final editing of the paper, not before.
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