Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
I debated over this article for the last couple of weeks. I really didn’t want to play the curmudgeon, coming across as more worried about grammar and punctuation rules than good story, but sometimes you simply gotta point out that writers and editors need to learn some rules.
The prompt for this article was a paperback that I borrowed from my sister. I was looking for a quick read a few weeks ago, and she generously handed over a book.
It took me three weeks to read the thing and not because it was deep and meaningful; I couldn’t get over the grammar and punctuation problems. At one point I laughed aloud, wondering if every comma rule had been turned inside out—I’d have sworn that every place that needed a comma lacked one and every place that didn’t need one had one. Yes, it was that bad. I put the book down after reading the first 50 or 60 pages and only picked it back up again more than two weeks later.
There are always allowances for style choices and effects, so I’m not getting on the author for that. But what I found again and again were not style choices but ignorance of the rules. Yet I don’t know if the writer was the one who didn’t know the rules or if an editor was to blame for the lapses—the book was traditionally published with a publishing house that’s been around for more than 60 years. Either the writer didn’t know some of the rules and trusted the publisher to know them and correct for them, or the editor at the publishing house was responsible for the repeated errors getting through. Maybe copyediting is a thing of that past at that publishing house. Maybe someone just wasn’t on the ball.
Whatever the cause, the many errors interfered with my enjoyment of the story. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one bothered.
Such an issue can be a real problem for writers and for publishers. If quality isn’t good, readers could always go somewhere else. And if a writer gets a reputation for poor writing, that reputation might be difficult to overcome.
If you’re a writer, don’t rely on others to know the rules; learn them for yourself. No, a fiction writer doesn’t have to know grammar and punctuation at the expert level, but writers should know more than the basics. Comma issues are covered in style and grammar books and in hundreds of articles online. A few minutes of study or research here and there may be the difference between a decent story and one that fights the reader on every page.
Now, lest you imagine that I pounce on errors because I’m an editor, I will say that I can easily read books without searching for errors. I like to read fiction, to get lost in story. But like any other reader, I’m annoyed by repeated errors.
Many writers admit that they have more trouble with commas than with any other piece of punctuation. One problem is that commas have so many uses that misusing them is easy. Yet learning a few rules is not hard.
In the book I’m referring to, comma use wasn’t inconsistent, but it was almost always wrong.
Writers: Don’t trust that someone at a publishing house will be cleaning up after you; do your best to make your punctuation clear and correct.
Editors: Don’t assume that writers—even writers publishing their tenth book—know all the rules; if one of your duties is to check punctuation, check it.
Here are a few comma rules that are easy to learn. There are always exceptions, however, so if one of these rules is new to you, do a little research so you can get all the details.
• Put a comma between a dependent clause and an independent clause when the dependent comes first.
• There is usually no comma between an independent clause and a dependent clause when the independent clause comes first. (A link to an article that covers both conditions)
• Don’t use a comma to separate two subjects, two actions, two objects. (I’m oversimplifying on this one, but we typically don’t separate two of the same item with a comma. Exceptions for some adjectives and repeated adverbs.) Do use commas for three or more like items.
Tom, and Lana went bowling. X
Kylie sang, and danced her way into our hearts. X
Tony picked up burgers, and pizza on his way home. X
We were happy to be nominated, and to win. X
• Don’t use a comma between the subject and the predicate.
• Use commas before and after nonessential clauses midsentence.
• Use commas before and/or after names used in direct address.
• Use commas between independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction (the comma goes before the conjunction).
• We don’t need commas after every so, and, or, yet, and but, no matter where in the sentence they fall or what comes before or after them. If coordinating conjunctions are followed by a name in direct address or by a nonessential phrase or parenthetical, then you do want a comma after the conjunction.
But, it doesn’t matter. X
Or, you could call his mother. X
He didn’t look good in blue, so I told him that.
He ate the hot dog so I could have the burger.
But, and this is very important, don’t drink the potion.
But Mom told me to lie.
“But, Mom, I didn’t do it.”
• Don’t fall into the thinking that says that some words must always be followed by a comma. This book included commas after words such as now, then, tonight no matter how they were used or where they fell in the sentence. Words can be used in multiple ways, and sometimes they may need a comma while at other times they may not.
• Sentence adverbs are usually separated from the rest of the sentence, but not all adverbs used as the first word of a sentence are sentence adverbs.
Sentence Fragments. Commas weren’t the only problem in this book. Some paragraphs were solely sentence fragments. Many paragraphs held three and four fragments and no complete sentences. Sentence fragments can be a style choice, and we use them in fiction without problems. Yet fragment after fragment without any full sentences containing verbs is more than a little unusual. And annoying. It was almost as if the writer had simply strung words together.
Sentence fragments are great for creating a dramatic effect or for setting up a particular rhythm, but fragments lose their punch—and paragraphs and scenes lose meaning—when too many sentences are incomplete. Sentence fragments should be an exception, not the rule. You’ve actually got to make some declarations. Readers need to know who is doing what to whom as well as how and when the doing is being done.
Absolute Phrases. Absolute phrases separated from the sentence that they modified were another problem. Absolute phrases are ways of expanding on a sentence, a way to provide more information or to focus on one element of the sentence. But if you separate the absolute phrase into a sentence fragment of its own, readers can lose the connection; does the absolute phrase belong to the sentence before it or to the one after? And if the absolute phrase is sitting as a sentence of its own, why would the reader even know it was supposed to modify something else?
The little girl smiled. Happy to be at the party. She couldn’t stop twirling.
Happy to be at the party is an absolute phrase that’s meant to modify one sentence or the other, but punctuated this way, how would the reader know which? Keep your absolute phrases inside the sentence they modify.
You do have options with absolute phrases, even within a single sentence:
The little girl smiled, happy to be at the party.
The little girl, happy to be at the party, smiled.
Happy to be at the party, the little girl smiled.
Paragraphs. There were also many paragraphs that should have been combined rather than split. So rather than keep sentences on the same topic in the same paragraph, the author split them into two or three paragraphs. Again, doing this every so often for effect can work; a sentence on its own can be dramatic. But readers will quickly tire of such a technique when it’s used repeatedly and when the effect isn’t needed. Not every sentence needs to be dramatic.
Any one of these “errors” could be used as a style choice or to create an effect. But used again and again, these choices point to a lack of knowledge.
To strengthen your skills and to please your readers, learn the rules. Take the time over the coming holidays or during the first month of the new year to go over some grammar and/or punctuation rules. Read a chapter in CMOS or Hart’s that you’ve never read. Read a dozen articles on commas. Learn about dangling modifiers or absolute phrases.
I linked to a handful of articles here at the Editor’s Blog, but there are many more. Print out a few and read them with a cup of hot chocolate.
There are always exceptions to writing rules (that’s the blog’s unofficial tagline), yet sometimes an exception is just poor writing. Errors will always find their way into books, but you can reduce the number of errors in your books by learning the rules.
Help readers enjoy the stories you work so hard to write. Make your presentation at least as strong as your plot and characters.