Over the past many years I have read a lot of manuscripts, from accomplished writers and those just beginning to learn the craft. Each piece of writing teaches me something. The most important lesson takes me all the way back to seventh grade and the meanest teacher at Indian Creek Elementary, Mrs. Henley who was my English teacher. She insisted that her students actually know the proper use of language including punctuation and grammar, the difference between simile and metaphor, the use of adjectives and adverbs, nouns and pronouns, and the importance of consistency in verb tense. She did not easily forgive the dangling participle or the fragment. Grammar and punctuation are basic tools for writers of every level, but not every writer has an easy command of them. The more skilled a writer becomes in the use and understanding of language, the more accomplished she becomes in her craft, and the greater the AUTHORity she has in the telling of her story.
As I carefully vet a box of 134 manuscripts --all hopeful of receiving a work in progress grant, the difference between those who have a wide assortment of tools at their fingertips and those who do not makes me grateful for Mrs. Henley. The difference between an elegant, engaging story and one that is clunky and awkward often comes down to language skill. Does this mean you can't break the rules? Absolutely not! There is a difference in using language in a casual or conversational style and using it in a way that appears sloppy or indifferent, or worse. How does a writer who is no longer in grade school scrape the rust off those linguistic tools? By reading, of course. Pay attention to the flow and use of language, the vocabulary, the craft of a well turned phrase or paragraph. It also doesn't hurt to have a copy of Strunk and White's Elements of Style on hand. As Steven King says in his excellent book On Writing...This isn't high school...you can study certain academic matters with a degree of concentration you could never manage while attending the local textbook loonybin. And once you start, you'll find you know almost all the stuff anyway--it is a matter of cleaning the rust off the drillbits and sharpening the blade of your saw.