I was perusing the 16th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style this weekend, as editors are wont to do, when I noticed this statement:
“The great mass of linguistic issues that writers an editors wrestle with don’t really concern grammar at all–they concern usage: the collective habits of a language’s native speakers.” (5.216)
This spoke to me. As an editor, I guide writers in honing their narrative voices and their characters’ voices. It’s in usage that “voice” comes to fruition. The phrases we use, the way we construct sentences to emphasis one thing and deemphasize another. Another way to think of “voice” is as the personality of a piece of writing. Usage conveys personality. Therefore, I spend a lot of time helping writers identify how their usage can shift for different projects, different characters, different scenarios.
It may seem obvious that this comes into play with fiction, but it’s also vital in nonfiction. There’s a reason readers connect with one piece of writing about a specific topic, such as a historical event, let’s say, while feeling completely unmoved by another book about the same topic. The voice of that narrative resonates for you for some reason, and that “reason” is very likely rooted in the way the author used the language. Is it grammatically perfect? Probably not. There are so many grammar “rules” that grammar perfection is probably a white whale. Anyway, I don’t think readers want grammar perfection. I think they want grammar that isn’t feeble, that doesn’t have obvious and distracting failures, of course, but more importantly they want a voice that resonates for them, leading to a book they can love.
And a book they can love is its own form of perfection.