In fifth grade, I attended the all-girls, private Catholic school I’d been in since kindergarten, with kids who had last names like Demoulas and Sterling (look them up). Sister Catherine, our esteemed leader, hated us all. But she disliked me less – or appeared to anyway – because I grasped English. I could diagram the fuck out of a sentence.
This was cool since the girls in my class were elitist snobs who knew I didn’t come from money. Having a somewhat friendly face around (even a nun) helps get you through the day, ya know?
In sixth grade, when my parents got divorced, I was enrolled in public school. I thought: HELLS, YEAH! Normal kids like me who will have ordinary, non-billionaire last names, also like me. (They were and they did.)
But those kids also figured I was just some snot who got tired of being surrounded by the same sex while her hormones went into overdrive. I must have ditched my rich pals in favor of a co-ed school so I could look down on the girls and steal the boys away, right? Seriously, in sixth grade, this shit is very real.
Anyway, making new friends in junior high sucks donkey balls. So I tried to suck up to Mrs. B, my new English teacher, hoping to spark a smile when she recognized my aptitude. It worked before …
Me: “Mrs. B, I looked at the next chapter last night and I saw we were going to be diagramming sentences. Can I help with that?” (I still smile and tear up when I see a proper diagram. Yes, I am that much of a geek.)
Mrs. B: “Becky, we’re not going to do diagrams. We’re skipping ahead.”
Me (crestfallen): “Why?”
Mrs.B: “Because it’s too complicated. Besides, no one needs to know how to diagram a sentence.”
We could spend the rest of this millennium talking about what that conversation means in the grand scheme of public education. Instead, stay with me for a sec.
I was bummed I wouldn’t have an opportunity to stand out in English. I had zero friends and having the teacher as an ally couldn’t hurt. (Desperate times call for desperate measures.) I was bummed I wouldn’t be able to do something I knew how to do well. When you go to a new school, you search for familiar shit anywhere you can find it.
BUT thirty years later, let me tell you, Mrs. B was right.
You don’t need to know how to diagram a sentence.
You also don’t need to know the definition of gerund, third-person omniscient, or denouement. I mean, if it’s your thing, if it turns you on to understand it all, I totally get it. I’m with you, actually. But the rest of the universe – writers and non-writers (the only two categories) – do not need to know this crap.
If you want to write, and an editor says your work bites because you change point of view or tenses too often, tell them to screw.
If you pour your heart and soul into something and an editor says, “You’re ruining your work with too many gerunds,” you could reply, “Pulling your head out of your ass might be fun.” (That might be the longest sentence I’ve ever penned. I’m blaming the fever. Plus, it’s funny.)
Generally speaking, writers are riddled with anxiety and self-doubt, but are compelled to write anyway. We can’t help it. We’re almost always desperate for validation, tired, overwhelmed and frustrated. We spend far too much time wondering if we’re talentless hacks wasting everyone’s time – including our own. We cry and hope, wait and pray.
We do not need help in the oh-my-God-I-suck department.
But more importantly, an editor succeeds when the writer he works with succeeds. So if an editor does not raise you up, stir your confidence, show you how to improve without crushing your spirit, walk away. (My policy for everything,by the way.)
For clarity, an editor should be firm. A good editor will even make you uncomfortable. Parting with precious words is difficult for every writer. But an editor should never make you feel like giving up. That’s just plain wrong.
So, no, you don’t need to know how to diagram a sentence à la sixth grade English. Leave the technical bullshit for the people who like technical bullshit. (Waves hand.) Meantime, just write.
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