Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
While there are rules for the fiction elements as well as rules for punctuation and grammar, most writers eventually discover that they don’t have to be slaves to the rules in order to create compelling stories.
Yes, glaring errors, especially in plot or spelling or even with punctuation, can ruin a reader’s enjoyment of a novel. But consistency can mitigate errors. Maybe not blatant, in-your-face mistakes, but certainly errors where there’s some leeway or discussion over the rules.
I recently read two novels back to back, one with many more commas than I would have recommended and the other with many fewer commas than I would have said were necessary. The novels were of different genres, but both were written by many-times-published authors.
I wouldn’t have recommended much of the comma use for either book, but the writers and editors made their choices work because they were consistent over the length of the novels; the choices made for commas at the beginning of the book were the same choices made for comma use at the end of the story.
And while I noticed the use of extra commas in the one book and the absence of what I’d consider necessary commas in the second book, many readers might have noticed nothing “wrong” with either book. That is, because of internal consistency, the comma choices might not have bothered most readers.
And I’m not saying that I’m a super-discriminating reader. I am saying that since I deal with punctuation rules daily, I note an unusual use of commas. I especially notice them when they’re missing from where the rules say they should be and when they’re overused, found in places where the rules say they’re unnecessary. Still, once I got used to the style choices of both authors, I had no trouble accepting those choices. I admit I did keep noticing them, but since I knew they were deliberate choices, I wasn’t bothered by the unconventional comma use.
I mention these two stories because, while we try to follow suggestions for comma use, not following the established rules is not always a bad thing or a practice to be shunned. And perfect rule-keeping isn’t always necessary.
You don’t have to worry that ignorance of one punctuation rule will automatically bar you from publication or be the cause of a manuscript being turned down by agent or publisher. When you don’t know a rule, consistency can be a saving grace.
Don’t do what I did with a story many years ago. I didn’t know a particular rule (and didn’t bother looking up the rule). This was before the Internet, when research was a bit tougher. It was well before I knew what the Chicago Manual of Style was. I was familiar with APA formatting and didn’t know that there were other resources recommended for fiction writing. So what did I do when I didn’t know the rule? I was creative—I tried every option I could think of, a different one each time the particular punctuation requirement came up. Using every possibility, I figured I’d at least get the punctuation right a portion of the time. I was definitely hedging my bets.
You definitely don’t want to follow my decision in this. Instead, choose one option and be consistent throughout a manuscript. Who knows? By the time you add the punctuation from beginning to end, one or more sentences might help you determine what punctuation (or grammar rule) you should actually be using. That is, you might recognize a pattern or might realize what the correct option is simply by seeing a particular sentence.
Suggestions to help with unfamiliar or uncertain punctuation and grammar
Review rules of grammar and punctuation periodically. And go beyond Strunk and White. Read some detailed grammar books.
Try to find rules for odd situations you’re unsure of.
When you can’t find a rule and have to make a decision between options, make the decision and be consistent when the same situation comes up in other places in the manuscript. Be consistent even if you’re consistently wrong. Once you know the rule or when your manuscript is accepted by a publisher, making changes will be easier if an error has been treated the same way throughout the manuscript.
Decide not to stress over “wrong” grammar and punctuation in books you’ve already published. If you self-published and can make changes easily, do so. If you can’t, don’t stress over what can’t be changed. There are errors in every novel—and there are choices that some would call errors but are truly style choices—and you can’t let worry about possible errors eat away at you. Learn from the error and move on.
Try to create a clean, error-free manuscript, but don’t delay submissions indefinitely by trying to fix every stray jot and tittle. If you have one or two problem sentences, with grammar or punctuation questions that you can’t answer, that’s no reason not to submit, especially if the problem sentences are in the middle of the manuscript. Even if an agent or publisher asks to see your manuscript based on your submission packet, you’ll have time to research the grammar or punctuation issue more.
If you can’t find the answer to a punctuation or grammar problem after researching the issue and the problem is not a major one that affects too much of the story, don’t let the issue keep you from submitting. If you’re self-publishing, you owe it to your readers to check the rules again, of course. But you can’t put off submitting or publishing over a small issue.
In order to create understandable phrases and sentences, it’s to a writer’s advantage to know the rules and the reasons those rules work. It’s also to the writer’s advantage to know when rule breaking can create effects or unique phrases that make a piece of writing, that mark a writer’s style.
Not every writer will punctuate a sentence tor paragraph the same way. You want to write in a clear manner for the reader, but you don’t have to follow the same path that every other writer would follow. As there is more than one way to reach a destination by car, there is more than one way to reach a destination in a novel.
You can send the reader via the direct route or send him along the scenic route. You can have him stop at sights along the way. You can send him in daylight, when he can notice details of places and objects on the sides of the road or at night, when he would notice little or nothing.
The point is to get the reader somewhere and give him an entertaining ride. But you don’t have to follow an established path or someone else’s road. You could, but you don’t have to.
Whichever rules you follow, apply them consistently so that the reader doesn’t get lost unless you purposely want her lost. Never lose the reader because you didn’t understand how to use your tools properly. Delightfully lose readers in the emotion of a story, in the complexities of plot or character, but not in a labyrinth of confusing or confused grammar and punctuation.
Allow consistency to not only make a story clear to readers, but to help you as you write. Use consistency as a tool to make good writing even better and problem areas a little less problematic.