February 17, 2010

Grammar v. Creativity - False Foes?

As a former teacher, I have strong feelings about how writing is taught. I’ve seen the pendulum swing from “free” writing (creativity trumps all) back to strict formalized instruction and I can tell you, extremes don’t work. You can't write anything without the creative urge, but unless you understand how language works, you won’t get far.

Grammar is the foundation of good writing. Knowing the basics of written language frees you to create. Dancers begin with rudimentary steps. Singers begin with scales. Writers begin with grammar. In order to communicate effectively, you need to understand how language works.

Creativity and grammar are not mutually exclusive; they are, in fact, complementary. Together, they build sentences that soar, paragraphs that flow, stories that captivate, create meaning where none existed before.

You can be the most creative writer on earth, but if a reader stumbles through your work, as far as I’m concerned, you need to go back and bone up on the basics.

Thanks to Eileen Astels for beginning the conversation. Nothing like a spirited discussion to keep things lively, I say.

What do you say?


  1. Hey there, Kathryn.

    You know my take on this. Grammar is definitely important and I'm sadly lacking in it for sure, but without creativity set soundly in our souls, we may never write anything worthy of fine tuning with good grammar. As adults we can certainly understand the difference between story and grammatical corrections marked all over our pages, but unfortunately with children, those red scribbles too often just say "bad work" and as a result they give up trying to create.

    If only teachers could find a nice balance of introducing grammar teachings in a soft way while encouraging creativity--that would be the goal for sure.

  2. I agree. I'd love to go back in my time machine and pay more attention in my classes. Grammar is so important.

  3. Grammatical errors are distracting. I suppose it can be said that good grammar is invisible, letting creativity shine.

  4. Eileen: Ah, the elusive quest for balance! Difficult in a classroom when you are told what to teach. Still, learning grammar first won't kill creativity. After all, if you don't know the components of a sentence, how can you create one?

    Karen: English classes can be deadly boring, that's for sure.

    Stephanie: What a fabulous way to put it!

  5. Here! Here! From one former teacher to another: you have to know the grammar rules to break them correctly. And a good teacher can make that happen. :)

  6. Grammar is imperative. As Angela mentioned, you have to know the rules to break them. You have to know what works and doesn't. Voice is all about taking the rules and making them your own - not ignoring them.

    Love Stephanie's "good grammar is invisible, letting creativity shine." Well put.

  7. Angela: I suspect you were one of the good ones.

    VR: Good point about voice. I think it applies to all elements of writing; you have to understand them before you can play around with them.

  8. I totally agree. Grammar is the foundation on which to build creativity.

    There's a huge difference between a writer who has firm grasp of the basics and chooses to work beyond them, and the writer who is simply lazy or unskilled.

  9. Devon: Welcome! I think it's important to recognize also that grammar goes well beyond punctuation; it's language itself.
    BTW: I tried to access your blog and got a blank page. :(


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