Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
While you will want your stories to be grammatically clean, want them consistent and correct in terms of punctuation, don’t drive yourself crazy trying to achieve perfection. Especially when you’re talking obscure rules. Especially rules for the most rare circumstances.
It’s very easy to get sidetracked or lost in the wilderness of rules when searching for the right way to punctuate a particular sentence or hyphenate a compound word or use a phrase or clause. It’s easy to spend way too much time searching for an answer regarding an odd use of a punctuation mark when you would be better served making a decision and moving on.
I’m not suggesting that rules aren’t important and that it doesn’t matter if you don’t learn them; they are important and learning them does matter. But I am suggesting that you not make yourself crazy in the search for a rule if you can’t find the answer you’re looking for after a sufficient amount of time searching. A sufficient amount of time productively searching.
If you have a question about a rule or a part of speech or a punctuation mark, you can bet that you aren’t the first to have that same question. The answer is out there.
Many, many answers can be found in the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). Look there first. Check out a grammar book. Ask online.
But be cautious with answers in forums. You sometimes won’t know if the participants actually know the answer from knowledge or if they’re guessing. Many of those who post to forums do have the knowledge and many who don’t will admit that they’re only guessing, but double and triple check information you get from any forum whose members are unfamiliar to you.
I’ve seen wrong answers and plenty of bad advice on forums. Don’t ever be satisfied with one answer—look to see what others have to say. And once you have an answer from other writers or editors or grammar experts, use what they recommend to check again with CMOS or other reliable sources.
Actually it’s a good idea to check any information to make sure it’s correct and to make sure you get all the nuances. Some rules work one way under one condition and another way under a different condition, a detail you might not pick up from a question asked in a forum.
I know I’m being contradictory, telling you to research less and then telling you to research more. But you don’t want either bad or incomplete information. Once you get some information, info that uses the correct terms, it should be much easier to check out the topic and verify the rules. Maybe learn exceptions for the rules.
But what if you still can’t find your answer, can’t even find anything on the topic you’re searching for?
Maybe it’s not in CMOS or Hart’s Rules. Maybe it’s not in a dictionary or reference book. Maybe the answer isn’t in any online resource that you check.
At this point check to see if you’re asking the question wrong, asking the wrong question.
Over the past few years, I’ve had occasion to search for rules that I knew existed, but without knowing the precise grammatical term for what I was looking for. If I knew what the term was, I’d probably also know the rule—have you had the same kind of thought?
Sometimes finding the rule is simply a matter of coming at the topic from another direction or using different search terms. As I said, others probably have had the same question. Try to find references to your topic by using a variety of search terms, a variety of approaches.
If you still can’t find your answer, get back to your writing or editing, making a note to revisit the problem topic at a later time. There’s no reason to waste hours on a search for an obscure rule. This is especially true if you only need the rule for one sentence in a manuscript. Even more so if you can easily rewrite that one sentence.
Yes, many of us want to know the rule even if we can write around a problem area, but don’t let the search for an elusive rule get in the way of active writing or editing. Not unless you’ve built in that extra time for research.
Editors, I know you want to know the rules for every odd sentence construction or punctuation issue you come across, but your time is valuable. A five-hour Internet search when you’re in the middle of an edit isn’t productive. Not if the sentence or punctuation can be addressed another way. Not if the problem comes up only once or twice in a manuscript.
If, however, you don’t have a handle on a rule for a particular sentence construction used again and again in a manuscript, you will have to find an answer.
Ask another writer or editor
Check a grammar resource; check multiple sources
Visit a forum
Check published books for examples of similar usage
If you’re an editor, ask the writer what she had in mind—she might be working with some bad advice she picked up somewhere
No matter what the reason for not finding an answer, there’s no reason to pull your hair out and waste two or three hours looking for a rule for a situation that appears only once or twice in your story or one that can be easily changed. Sometimes you simply need to make a decision by working with the knowledge you’ve already got.
Rest assured that agents and acquiring editors are not going to turn a manuscript down for one typo or because one obscure grammar rule is ignored or because the manuscript contains an easily corrected mistake, even if that mistake is made consistently throughout the manuscript. They’re looking for a great story, not a pristine manuscript.* They can tell when writers have learned to use the rules. They can tell when writers care enough to have learned the rules.
Keep in mind that we’re talking about odd and obscure rules here, not grammar and punctuation basics. Those can be found anywhere—everywhere—and both writers and editors are expected to learn them. There’s no reason to not learn them.
I recommend that you read a grammar book every year. Go through sections of CMOS and Hart’s every so often. Learn rules before you need them. At least familiarize yourself with them so that when the need arises, you know where to look and what kinds of questions to ask.
Note: If you’re self-publishing, you will need to correct anything that can be corrected. If you don’t, you can guarantee that critics and readers will find and oh-so-publicly point out your errors.
Yes, we want to make every part of every manuscript correct. And when we know something’s wrong, we want to dig until we find the answer that can right the wrong. But sometimes the best “fix” is to simply make a decision and then consistently use that decision throughout a manuscript.
Don’t drive yourself bonkers trying to find the elusive answer. Make a decision for how to handle the text or punctuation and move on.
*This is not an excuse for submitting a sloppy manuscript or a poorly formatted one or a badly written one. It’s simply an acknowledgement that perfect manuscripts are rare and that your goal is not a perfect manuscript but a proficiently constructed and entertaining one.