The Making of a Grammar Ninja

by Virginia Parker Staat

A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy;
true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error.
He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down.
Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.
~ E.B. White

I fear I have officially become a grammar ninja. I’m not certain if I need a psychiatrist’s couch or a confessional. I can hear myself now. “I wasn’t always this way. I started out just wanting to write. Now look at me.”

I know exactly when my grammar ninja roots began. In the mid-1990’s, I was offered a contract to supply twelve reading passages for standardized tests in grades three through eight. It seemed like a sweet gig.

Then I received the examples. They were dreadful. The passages were boring at best. The accompanying comprehension questions the children needed to answer were even worse. They seemed ambiguous. As an example, in a reading passage for third graders, two of the answers were so similar that an eighth grader would have had difficulty determining which one was correct. How could someone deliberately trip up an eight-year-old child? For a third grader, shouldn’t we simply be testing whether or not the child could comprehend what he or she had read?

But I had signed a contract. So I determined to write the most interesting and readable essays I could. The mere thought of tripping up a third grader haunted me.

Armed with reading vocabulary words for each grade level and a thesaurus with reading level synonyms, I wrote. Over the year, I completed essays about Cinco de Mayo, the history of Chihuahua dogs, the rehabilitation of a beached dolphin, space flight, and how to make sugar crystals. My main goal was to write essays that would be exciting and fun for the children.

Unfortunately, I learned all too quickly that my employers weren’t interested in compelling essays. Nor did readability appear to be a key goal. Instead, their focus seemed set on boring. I went to a group meeting and questioned why we weren’t writing interesting stories that would engage children so they would want to read.

One of the attendees said, “Oh, you’re one of those writers. I’m the one who takes essays like yours and turns them into something acceptable.”

The meeting leader tried to sugarcoat the woman’s remarks by saying that creative people often have the most difficult time writing standardized reading passages. She told me the essays were meant to test reading comprehension and, therefore, needed to be bland.

To say the least, I was appalled. Didn’t our children deserve our best writing in order to make comprehension easier? Author and professor Lee Gutkind teaches, “Words… should embrace the reader and help tell the story—not confuse readers or divert them to a dictionary or back to the essay to see what they missed in context so that they can understand what the writer means.”

Albeit a painful experience, I fulfilled my contract. In the process, I learned a profound writing lesson. While audience and readability had been major topics in college, I now understood their importance on an entirely different level. As a result, I no longer write for myself. I continue to study how to write for my audience and strive to make my words as readable as I possibly can. Most would agree that it has become my obsession.

How do I improve readability in my work? I use orthodox spelling and grammar. I surround myself with grammar books and use them. I prefer the Chicago Manual of Style and its rules for the craft of writing to the Associated Press Stylebook and its news media focus.

I visualize my readers to improve my work (i.e., picture an eight-year-old child taking a standardized test). In his book On Writing Well, William Zinsser explains that visualizing our readers is not about how we use our writing skills to express our personality through voice and style. Instead it is about mastering the tools of our craft. He writes, “Simplify, prune and strive for order. Think of this as a mechanical act, and soon your sentences will become cleaner. The act will never be as mechanical as, say, shaving or shampooing; you will always have to think about the various ways in which the tools can be used. But at least your sentences will be grounded in solid principles, and your chances of losing the reader will be smaller.”

Writers strive for order through parallel structure. If we begin with an action verb, we don’t change to a passive verb in the same sentence. If we begin our bulleted paragraphs with an imperative verb, we stick with it throughout the list. In each sentence we maintain pronouns and tenses.

To simplify and prune, we keep a tight focus on our subject matter. We use explicit qualifiers rather than clichés and wordy construction. We aid our reader by using transition words between ideas and paragraphs.

We use active verbs and straightforward sentence structure with a focus on clarity. In his book Good Prose, Tracy Kidder reminds us that clarity is essential. He writes, “Clarity isn’t an exciting virtue, but it is a virtue always.” He also warns, “clarity can simply fall victim to a desire to achieve other things, to dazzle with style or bombard with information. With good writing, the reader enjoys a doubleness of experience, succumbing to the story or the ideas while also enjoying the writer’s artfulness.”

We further accomplish clarity when we eliminate ambiguity because it leads to vagueness and confusion. An example is the sentence “I rode a black horse in red pajamas.” Who is wearing the pajamas?

We add implied words. An example is the sentence, “He is taller than I.” The sentence can also be made less formal, “He is taller than me.” Both are acceptable; each is controversial. Strunk and White’s Elements of Style reminds us “Any sentence with than (to express comparison) should be examined to make certain no essential words are missing.” By simply adding the implied word, “He is taller than I am,” we quickly eliminate any confusion for our readers.

We eliminate most adverbs. Awkward adverbs quickly stop our readers. A famous quote from Strunk and White says: “Do not dress words up by adding ly to them, as though putting a hat on a horse.”

We unclutter sentences. We maintain logical sequences. We master punctuation.

The grammar ninja in me could continue this discourse ad nauseam. Please forgive me. Just know that it is all for the sake of a precious eight-year-old child who was tripped up by a standardized test many years ago. I am a changed writer because of it.