Ellen Jovin is a cofounder of Syntaxis, a communication skills training consultancy. She has a BA in German from Harvard College and an MA in comparative literature from UCLA, and she has studied 25 languages just for fun. Ellen lives with her husband in New York City. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
In this post, Ellen discusses how her pop-up grammar advice stand led to her new nonfiction book, Rebel with a Clause, what she hopes readers get from the experience, and more!
Name: Ellen Jovin
Literary agent: Victoria Skurnick, Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency
Book title: Rebel with a Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarian
Release date: July 19, 2022
Genre/category: Nonfiction, grammar, language, general geekitude
Previous titles: English at Work, Essential Grammar for Business, Writing for Business
Elevator pitch for the book: I traveled nearly 30,000 miles around the U.S. to address the most pressing—and amusing—grammar questions of our time. Learn grammar while laughing your way through this groundbreaking new grammar travelogue!
What prompted you to write this book?
In 2018 I created a popup grammar-advice stand called the Grammar Table, which I set up outside my Manhattan apartment building so I could answer grammar questions from passersby. Right away I got a lot of traffic from grammar enthusiasts as well as people who don’t even like grammar, and visitors and friends started telling me it should be a book.
I already had an agent, so I wrote a proposal for her suggesting I take the Grammar Table around the U.S. and write about my megageeky experiences. I love road trips, I love grammar, I love chatting with strangers, and I believe in the societal importance of creating bonds based on what we have in common. This book was a chance to merge all of those interests.
My husband, Brandt Johnson, came with me and filmed all the Grammar Table encounters, and he is now making a grammar documentary about the table’s travels, so basically this was one long grammar party on the streets of this country!
How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?
The idea of the book preceded publication of the book by 3.75 years. And yes, the idea did change once I was on the road, but only in that my geographic ambitions expanded. When I originally wrote the book proposal, I was thinking I’d go to some U.S. states, but once we got the hang of the Grammar Table road-trip rhythm, it became clear we could do all of the states, so that became the goal pretty early on.
Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?
Yes, the biggest surprise was the arrival of a global pandemic. We had made it to 47 states when we were grounded by COVID, so instead of finishing the journey, I began writing. We do plan to hit the remaining three states—Hawaii, Alaska, and Connecticut—this year.
Another surprise was how many publishing terms I didn’t know, in spite of my lifelong reading habit. For example, I had to ask my editor what “first pages” were. Those are the first version of your book you see in layout, and the next version is called “second pages.”
I also read my own audiobook, and when I had to go back to the studio to redo a few sentences, the audiobook producer referred to those as “pickups.” To me that sounded like we were going to play basketball. Anyway, after all this, I have a bigger vocabulary!
Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?
Yes, I am amazed that I am not better at this fairly advanced stage of my life at managing the emotional highs and lows that accompany the writing process. But I have mostly accepted that accepting the roller coaster is part of the deal for me. It is a privilege to be able to write the book you want to write, and I am terribly grateful for that opportunity.
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
An appreciation of the joy, flexibility, and mutability of language, surprise at how many people care about language, a lot of laughs, and maybe a feeling of tenderness and empathy for our fellow human beings. Oh, and more grammar knowledge! Lots of grammar knowledge!
If you could share one piece of advice with other writers, what would it be?
To respect the importance of business skills to the success of creative projects. I have seen quite a few artistically gifted people get in their own way when it comes to practical details such as punctuality, marketing, and finances. Reliability and pragmatism are not to be disdained.