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Why You Need SPAG (or, YOU Get a Style Guide, and YOU Get a Style Guide …)

I’ve seen lots of complaints about the “terrible quality” of lots of fanfic.

And, yeah, I’ve seen it (I’ve doubtless committed it), but I’m not too fussed about it. If you open a story and find it unpalatable, you simply close it and find another. How hard is that? Writers will either get better or they won’t, and I don’t mind having to do a little digging to find the good ones.

That said, let’s talk a minute about spelling and grammar (commonly known as SPAG in the online writing world.)

Don’t Be a Grammar N*

First off, I hate grammar Nazis. (I also hate the term “grammar Nazi,” which trivializes the horrors that actual Nazis perpetrated, but it’s the term I see all over, so …)

Unless you’ve been asked to copyedit or proofread a piece, obsessively pointing out SPAG errors is obnoxious and pointless and won’t win you any chits in Writer Heaven. (A polite, private note to an author who’s made a glaring error in an otherwise good piece is okay, in my book.)

That said …

SPAG Is Important

Writers need to learn it and use it, even on the internet. Yes, conventions change, and language evolves, which is a good thing (no prescriptivist, I), but the first job of an author is to communicate, and blithely ignoring agreed-upon conventions can make that much harder.

When it comes to SPAG, I don’t expect perfection from anyone, but I do demand basic competence from everyone who wants me to read their work. A story that’s riddled with spelling errors, unnecessary tense shifts, mislaid apostrophes, and other SPAGy bugaboos becomes, to me, unreadable. If an author can’t be bothered to learn the basics, I can’t be bothered to work at deciphering their meaning.


There’s too much I want to read to waste time trying to figure out who said what or whether an event is taking place in the present or the past.

While obvious sloppiness or, worse, indifference, is a deal-breaker, one of the most exciting things for me as an editor or beta reader is to work with someone who is inexperienced and struggling to master the mechanics of writing but has a great sense of story and character. These folks, with time, effort, and a willingness to learn, are likely to become good writers, and it warms the cockles of this cranky old lady’s heart to watch them blossom.

So, how does one learn?

Read Good Books

Hands down, the best way to learn the mechanics of writing is to read stories that are professionally written and edited. This may sound crotchety and snobbish, but if you read mostly fanfic, blogs (like this), or other self-published materials, you are unlikely to learn much about grammar and usage basics; in fact, you are quite likely to pick up some very bad habits indeed. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say in the statistics world.

Before I started spending time on the internet, for example, I never, ever confused the adjective past with passed, the past tense of the verb to pass. Now I have to check myself every damn time because using the correct word is no longer as automatic to me as farting, thanks to the frequency with which I read stories that use them incorrectly. Same for its and it’s.

So, yeah. Thanks, internet, for fucking with my head.

What About Grammar Books?

I’m not a huge fan of books like Woe Is I and Eats, Shoots & Leaves, but they have their place and are worth looking through, if not relying on.

Grammar books are not a great way to learn the mechanics of good writing because lots of them are, to my mind, entirely too prescriptive. Yes, there are some objectively right and wrong usages, but there are also lots of usages that fall into that gray area where meaning, style, and context matter as much as, if not more than, technical correctness. (Of course, until you have some grasp of what’s “correct,” you’re unlikely to be able to wield tools like style in any meaningful way.)

These kinds of books are good for reference. When in doubt, look it up. That way, you can be confident that, when you do break the “rules” of good English grammar, you’re doing it on purpose.

If you are serious about writing, you would do well to amass and familiarize yourself with some of the standard style guides, like The Chicago Manual of StyleGarner’s Modern English Usage, or the Economist Style Guide. For those of us that use Amur’can English (see what I did there?), a good place to start is The Copyeditor’s Handbook, which is a simpler cousin to the all-powerful Chicago Manual.


I blow raspberries at all the prescriptivist grammar N*s out there, but I send boots to the rears of writers who ignore SPAG.

Go forth and write, my pretties! (But bring a good dictionary and style guide along with you.)