Helping Your Reader One Comma at a Time

Burns, Stu
Stu Burns

Stu Burns is a fixture at the once-a-month Fine Lines reading/editing meetings.  The following essay he penned is all about the importance of solid, smart punctuation.  With that in mind read (and write) on.

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By Stu Burns, prose editor for Fine Lines

Punctuation, especially using commas, isn’t the exciting, sexy part of writing. It doesn’t usually inspire carpe diem moments with rebellious, creative souls rushing to build barricades or give eulogies to technicians of the nonrestrictive clause. Comma use is more like personal hygiene. People notice, even if they are too polite to mention it. Some people really don’t care, especially if their own hygiene or comma use isn’t that great. As a rule, though, it is probably a good idea to get this sort of thing right. That is why this blog entry came to be. I am going to share some rules out of the MLA Handbook and boldface some examples as I go.

Commas divide sentences, making them easier to read. When a writer leaves out a comma that rightfully belongs, the words mush together and become hard to understand. When a writer puts commas in the wrong places, they create divisions where there should be a flow of language. For example, commas go between adjectives that modify the same noun, like when you are describing a big, fat, fearsome, hairy raccoon. You would not use a comma describing an intelligent history teacher, though. In this case, the words “history teacher” make a noun, and putting a comma in there would break up the language when it should flow.

Commas also guide a reader by adding structure. If your sentence begins with an introductory phrase, use a comma to set it apart. This is especially important when you begin a sentence with a conjunction (like I just did) or a preposition. Joining two independent clauses with a conjunction also calls for structure, so use a comma when you do this. You do need the conjunction when you do this, though. If you try to use a comma by itself to join two short sentences, you get a run-on sentence. These are bad; structure is good. (And, yes, you can use a semicolon to join independent clauses. Some people do not like that, though.)

As anyone with a bottle of sriracha in the cupboard knows, it is important to know when not to do something. This applies to commas. Structure is good, but not when it breaks up words that should go together. The subject of a sentence and the verb that shows what the subject is doing should never be separated by a comma. Take this sentence:

“A transport ship full of brave soldiers, charged onto Omaha Beach.”

The comma in that sentence throws up a wall between the soldiers and what they are doing. Get rid of it.

Along the same lines, commas should not separate a verb and its object. This is a little harder to recognize. Take this example:

“The grizzled author sat and wrote, a long dissertation about an obscure topic that concerned no one but himself.”

The comma above breaks up the writing (the verb) from what is being written (the object). This is confusing. That comma needs to go.

Difficult as it may be for some people to believe, there has been a nasty war of words in the past few years about one way to use commas. Like the example with the adjectives above, commas separate a series of nouns, phrases, or clauses. See that comma I just used before the conjunction “or”? The comma before the conjunction that ends a list is called the “Oxford comma,” and there are some people who feel that it is unnecessary. Author James Thurber once had a fight with his editor over the phrase “red, white, and blue.” In Thurber’s own words, “All those commas make the flag seem rained on.” While less cluttered writing is usually a good thing, leaving the Oxford comma out can cause problems. Take this example:

“The sheriff spoke with two prisoners, his wife, and his mother.”

Without the Oxford comma and the structure it gives to the sentence, we get this:

“The sheriff spoke with two prisoners, his wife and his mother.”

Now it sounds like the beleaguered constable has his beloved spouse and parent in the pokey. There are a number of memes floating around the internet that demonstrate the Oxford comma in less polite ways, but kids read this blog, so you will have to find them yourself. I am sure there are fine, honest, hardworking people who don’t use the Oxford comma, but the problems you face leaving it out probably outweigh the gains. My advice is that you use it.

There are several other rules about using commas that are a little more technical. Some “inserted” phrases, such as parenthetical comments or nonrestrictive modifiers, should be set apart with commas. The same applies to alternative or contrasting phrases, even short ones. On the other hand, do not use commas between parts of compound subjects, compound verbs, compound objects, or between two parallel subordinate elements. These are a little more perilous; even experienced writers stumble around these rules occasionally. My personal least-favorite punctuation trouble is using commas in quotations. Maybe someday I’ll figure it out.

Good punctuation is essential for good writing, but hammering home rules is never fun, and spending valuable writing time consulting grammar references may not be the best idea. In that spirit, I will leave you with a piece of advice that did not come out of any style sheet. If it is difficult to figure out how you should use commas in a sentence, do yourself a favor and rephrase what you are saying. If you have a rough time writing, your audience will have a hard time reading, and no one wants to struggle when they read. It might be a challenge for you to let go of some beautiful phrase that blossomed from your mind like a lotus from the navel of a primordial creator, but the simpler language that you find to replace it may prove to be even more charming. In other words, if you find yourself fighting with anyone about how to use commas, stop what you are doing and rewrite. Some things are worth fighting over; comma usage isn’t one of them.

 

 

 

 

Need some writing help? The OWL from Purdue can help

Explanations of MLA, APA, the basics of writing a business letter, résumé writing and much more is available at the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) website.  The information available to writers of all types and abilities at OWL is both broad and deep.  This is quoted directly from the website —

“We offer over 200 free resources including:

  • Writing and Teaching Writing
  • Research
  • Grammar and Mechanics
  • Style Guides
  • ESL (English as a Second Language)
  • Job Search and Professional Writing”

OWL even has a set of podcasts available that cover rhetoric, logos, pathos, and ethos.  It’s worth the time to check out and explore.Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 10.18.32 PM

Keep a blog and keep writing: Tessa Adams ‘writes on’ at Family Footnote

Tessa Adams is another proud member of Fine Lines.  She keeps “writing on” by blogging.  She’s one of the co-authors of Family Footnote (familyfootnote.com), a site that is dedicated to “discussing being women, moms, and wives in this fun world of ours.”  The month-old blog is one to check out.  Recent topics have focused on time for self, lying to your kids, and being a parent who needs to say no.  Here’s a nice line as a kind of teaser — “I’d like to pretend my family is the one you never notice in Target.”  Read the whole blog entry by clicking this link.

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Write On Wed – Practical Tips

A favorite professor of mine provided a wealth of practical writing and editing advice to his graduate students about preparing papers to be submitted for consideration of publication years ago that I continue to use. It’s applicable to all kinds of works—fiction, non-fiction research, personal essays—and incredibly practical. The overarching thought is a final draft isn’t truly final until you run your piece of writing though several steps to make it stronger. A boiled down set of ideas and active voice sentences make for shorter, sturdier submissions.

write world

Dr. John McKenna (who has been a friend of Fine Lines for years) is the source of what follows below, and he’s a man who knows what editors and readers are looking for. His writing career has stretched out over more than 40 years, and his poetry has been has been included in journals like Ariel IV, Chaminade Literary Review, The Cape Rock, The Climbing Art, English Quarterly, Eureka Literary Magazine, Hawaii Review, Ideals Magazine, Journal of Kentucky Studies, The Louisville Review, Midwest Quarterly, Nebraska Presence: The State of Poetry, and many, many more.

The short version of Dr. McKenna’s practical tips:

  • Use Word’s spelling and grammar check. This is a basic, given point. The higher-level approach is that you can go into the program’s preferences and turn on grammar readability analytics, which provide great information on a document’s percent of passive voice sentences and reading grade level. It’s powerful stuff and free. Decreasing an article’s passive voice percentage to below 20 (below 15 or ten is better) and keeping to a reasonable grade level (like eight to 11) helps.
  • Read your text out loud. If something sounds odd to your ear it’s worth looking at.
  • If you have time, enlist a copy editor. Another set of eyes will spot problems more effectively than a writer working alone. My wife is a nitpicky English teacher, and that helps.
  • Look for words like “very,” “really,” “almost always,” in your work and eliminate them. Sentences are stronger without these weasel words that sap the strength of statements.
  • If you are writing for yourself, settle on style points you like and stick with them. I like the Oxford comma. I double space after periods. Times Roman is the best font for papers. For citations, it’s MLA all the way. No one can tell me different.
  • If you are writing for a publication you want to be in, find out what that publication’s preferred submission standards are and follow them to the letter. Making a written work adhere to someone else’s preferences isn’t selling out how you do things. Instead, it’s showing respect in an attempt to get your ideas to a wider audience.  

 

Finally, once you have a written piece where you want it, go back through and look for opportunities to shorten. People can and do overwrite, and editing out the fat of a paper makes the writing stronger and more memorable. Cutting copy is not a sign of weakness. It’s smart and a sign of writing confidence. Like Dr. McKenna said to a class I was in years ago, “(t)hat 15-page paper that is good is likely even better at 12. It might be excellent at ten.”

Writing takes thought and effort. Taking that written piece and building it for speed takes thought and effort . . . and a willingness to keep working a few steps further.

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Guest Blogger Tim Kaldahl is student teaching during the fall semester of 2015. After a 20-year career in public relations, he hopes to become an English teacher. His nonfiction writing has included news articles, press releases, magazine features, and speech writing. He also has written several 10-minute one act plays and a full-length play.

Tim’s Twitter handle is @oldnewteacher; his blog (The Third Degree . . . this time education) is at omahatim.wordpress.com.

Writing as Healing

I hope you agree, it’s better late than never to share my notes and lessons from last year’s “Writing as Healing” panel sponsored by Fine Lines.

We had a panel of authors who rocked my world.

First came Abigail, who requested to not have to go first, but did anyway. She bravely shared her truths, how the truth feels, and how she faces it. Then, Kathy shared her heartbreak, her honesty, and how writing helped her. How writing keeps her son’s name in the conversation. Suzanne gave us beautiful words among hard lessons. Her storytelling wove around the room and embraced us. She reminded us of the rewards after the pain. She asked us to be truthful, see the joyful bits, and inspired random acts of storytelling to share with the universe. Start that unknown conversation. Share and be shared.

words help kgAll of our panelists emphasized that everyone has the chance to show purpose with words and live through the tough bits. By sharing her journey, each person has come to help others, others who have grieved, and those who need to remember. Life is fragile and precious.

When and What to Share?

When it comes to trauma and grief or whatever you’re working through, time does not equal readiness to share your work. Write for yourself first. Then, when you’re ready, polish. Be sure there is a message. Perhaps a resolution. When you hit send or publish, you have a responsibility to the reader, what is your gift to them?

Not a me-moir, (As memoirs are often described by agents and publishers.) too centric and full of unmanaged bits. You have to tame your story. Give this portion of your life an arc, a relatable beginning, middle and end. Fill it with language that moves. These things will make it a gift to the reader.

It’s Your Story

Your grief, stress, trauma or any life difficulty is real and yours and it is not to be compared. Write to release. Drink water. Breathe. Take breaks. Empower yourself with empathy and fill your soul with the stories of humanity.

Submission and Rejection

Don’t be crushed by rejection. No one is rejecting your truth or your experience. What is most commonly being rejected is form, style, and fit. Your story must fit into where you send it, and there are reasons you should know (by reading writer guidelines and copies of published materials) and reasons you can’t know, like there is already a similar piece set-up in publication or similar editorial factors that aren’t public, yet.

Letting Go

The most important lesson is to let go. For many of us, we let go by letting the words go. Giving them the freedom to surge from pen to paper or from fingers to keys, the words’ life is new but the pain’s energy dissipates, maybe never to disappear, but to release the power it once held. Writing is healing.

– Mardra Sikora

The Importance of Writing – Noni Williams

I prefer to write poetry, but I hardly ever shy away from a literary challenge. My interest in writing began when I was three years old. This is one of the main milestones in my life, because I started to read at this age. By the time I reached the fourth grade, I was reading on a college level and had started writing my own short stories and poetry. The summer after fourth grade ended, I turned nine.

FL - Blue skyThat summer, like many other summers, I got into trouble for fighting with one of my brothers.

My punishment was to write a two page paper on why what I did was wrong and why I would not do it again. In the midst of my nine-year-old anger, I wrote an entire page about how I was mad at my mother for giving me an assignment as a punishment and how unfair the entire situation was. On the back of that piece of paper, I simply wrote what I was really feeling, and as I wrote, the anger and the sadness fell away and I realized not only had I finished the assignment, but I created something meaningful.

I showed the sheet of paper to my mom, and she said, “Noni, this is good.”

I thought, “Sweet. I’m done. That means I’m not in trouble,” but she insisted that it was more than just a completed assignment.

Near the end of the summer, at the North Omaha Boys & Girls Club, a poetry contest was held. I apprehensively entered my writing into the competition. When it was my turn to present my piece, I stood in front of all of the other kids in the summer program, shaking and scared, and began to read. As I read, I noticed no one was talking like they did during other people’s turns. Every person in the room was watching me, and they were listening.

Once you realize that you have the power to command attention in a room, things change. Confidence is a powerful thing. I ended up winning that poetry contest and other contests in the future. When I was eleven, I won the If I Lived in a White House contest and was published in the book that followed.

To make a long story short, since I began writing in earnest about a decade ago, I have written countless songs, stories, and poems. My senior quote was one of my own poems.

I write often, but not at the behest of another. I write when I become overwhelmed with emotion and when I need to share what I am going through but lack the wherewithal to approach a friend to discuss it with me.

Writing is a tool I use to center myself, and I have been told that it aids those who read it. It is something I have always done, and I have never had to question whether or not it was something that I was good at. I write because I need to, and I believe others might need some of it, too.

– Noni Williams

*This is a #TBT – this essay was originally published in November of 2013. Write On!

 

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