The other day, my husband, AKA Ghostwriter Joel, got kind of an unpleasant shock – in the form of a client’s corrections on a manuscript he ghostwrote. This client happens to be blind, and the book is about his adventures as the first blind person to kayak the Grand Canyon solo, among other things. Since he can’t see, he wasn’t exactly comfortable being the only person to proofread the book. So he had his high school English teacher do it.
That’s where the fun started.
Joel opened the file and saw the entire manuscript was marked up, from start to finish. Seriously, she might as well have taken a red pen to the whole thing. It was covered with the kind of comments you’d expect to find on a 9th grade term paper on The Scarlet Letter — every time Joel wrote the word “yeah,” she changed it to “yes.” Slang expressions were converted to proper English. And on every other page, there was a comment amounting to something like, “This should be more formal.”
Now Joel has been writing professionally for so long I probably shouldn’t even say. So as you can imagine, seeing his worked ripped to shreds like that was more than a little insulting.
His ego, however, wasn’t the problem.
The problem was that English teachers don’t know anything about writing.
I should clarify that. There are some English teachers who probably write beautifully, and who understand that language is a living, breathing thing that is constantly evolving and changing.
But there are also English teachers who believe that writing has to follow the rules. This teacher was one of those.
The thing is, in real life, most of us don’t communicate according to the rules of proper grammar. Everyone has their own, unique way of saying things. We use slang, we use colloquialisms, we put words together in ways you won’t find in any style guide. And because of that, our words do more than give us the facts – they tell people where we come from, where we fit in, how we see ourselves, and who we are. They bring our personalities to life.
That would be completely lost if we wrote the way our English teachers told us to.
Imagine how boring it would be if everyone wrote their books and articles and web copy the exact same way they wrote that term paper on The Scarlet Letter. Of course the content would be unique, but the voice, the tone, everything else would be the same. It would be almost like everything in the world was written by one person. (A person who was, very likely, an English teacher.)
That’s part of the reason why, when Joel and I ghostwrite, the biggest thing we focus on are those little language quirks – those unique turns of phrase that are specific to the person whose story we’re telling. Of course we add and embellish and exaggerate a little, because the idea is to showcase their personalities and how unique they are.
Not to pass a standardized test.
Now, I’m not saying you should throw all the rules out the window. Spellcheck is still your best friend. Using an ‘s to make a word plural is always a no-no. And please, I’m begging you, learn the difference between your and you’re.
But the next time you write something, maybe try loosening up a little and using some of the same language you use when you talk. Ask yourself, “Would I say that in real life?” and if the answer is “Hell no!” change it to something you would say.
Just don’t show your English teacher.