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.





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

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

5 Tips Your Written Work is “Done”

Today’s Guest Blogger: Abigail Hills

Am I done?

the endA lot of us writers are perfectionists. We want to make sure every single letter; every comma is flawless. When do you know you’re done working on a piece? When do you distinguish the time to put down the pen, or stop clicking away at that keyboard? “I’m finished.” Are you able to say that?

Many writers are not. One published novelist told me she only knows she’s done when her editor tells her she has written enough. Most writers believe they are never done. Even after something is published, a lot of writers still feel their work is unfinished, and that’s okay! Here are some helpful tips from me, another writer, to get you to a place where you can say “I’m done.”


  1. When you’re sick of working on a particular piece, you’re done. You started out with something you really loved, but now you dread going back and editing. That piece has reached its finale. Send it to someone else to edit. You’re done.
  2. Remember that you may never feel your piece is “done.” You might always think you could have done better. We all feel that way sometimes. That doesn’t mean you aren’t finished.
  3. As you mature as a writer, your tastes will also change. Spending too much time on one piece can often do you more harm than good. You could spend the rest of your life on one single piece of writing, and never feel it’s finished. This is sometimes called the “Black Hole of Revision.” If it’s been a long period of time, too long for the amount of pages you have, you’re done.
  4.  Ask yourself these four questions: Did I complete all the necessary story points? Have I taken out parts of the writing that I simply don’t like? Does everything make sense? Are my characters believable? If the answer is yes to all four of these questions, it’s likely you are done.
  5. Ask a friend. Ask someone whose opinion you trust to read your work. If they have some major things you need to change, you have work to do. If they only have small comments, it’s time to submit!


Remember, you don’t have to be 100% confident in your piece to submit it to an editor. Sometimes the pieces writers are the least sure about are the first ones to get published. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t revise. Revision can be your best friend! However, at some point, enough is enough. Carry on writers… but not for too long.

How do you decide you’re work is done?


Bio: Abigail Hills is a published writer and editor for Fine Lines. She is getting her bachelor’s degree in creative writing at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She is also a public speaker and advocate for those who suffer from anxiety and depression. Follow her at @AbigailHills on Twitter.


The Rabbit Hole of Naming Characters

*Today’s guest post is by author Chris Mandeville

How Do You Name Your Characters?

Some writers don’t worry much about naming.  They slap a label on a character and run with it.  Other writers dive down the rabbit hole and put excessive amounts of research, thought, planning and creativity into naming.  I’m in the latter camp, so thought I’d share with you some of the things I consider before attaching a moniker to a new character.  I don’t recommend you join me down in the rabbit warren—especially not during NaNo—because it’s far too easy to lose all sense of time and purpose while exploring the wonderland of names.  Instead I offer you a few categories, resources, and suggestions to help you quickly choose the names you need and get on with the business of the story.

WARNING:  once you go down the Rabbit Hole of Naming, it can be hard to climb back out.  For safe exploring, always attach a lifeline — a kitchen timer or a trusted friend to rescue you at an appointed time should do the trick.


As far as I’m concerned, the primary consideration when selecting a name is the connotations that come with it.  Unfortunately connotations are for the most part an individual thing.  Take the name Charlie, for example.  If that’s the name of your favorite grandpa, your best friend, or the family dog, you will have a much different feeling about that name than if Charlie was the bully who beat you up in the third grade.

So how do you get a handle on connotations if it’s such a personal thing?

Donald Trump

Try to weed out the truly personal associations and look at the more general, cultural connotations.  Take “Trump” for instance.  Because of “The Donald,” most American adults immediately think things like tycoon, businessman, wealthy, powerful, mogul.  The cultural connotations of Donald Trump are bolstered by the definition of the word trump:  a card of a suit that outranks the other suits; to excel, surpass, outdo.  Note that I didn’t put a “good” or “bad” value on it because not everyone likes Donald Trump.  The good/bad connotation will differ from person to person (along with various other associations, like crazy hair), but the impressions relating to Trump being a business tycoon are fairly consistent.

Continue reading “The Rabbit Hole of Naming Characters”

What Do You Write?

As a writer, the subject of writing tends to find its way into introductory conversations. Even if not your full time profession, even if you consider writing a hobby, or an uneconomical passion, you are still a writer and when the subject comes up, as it often does, the inevitable question that follows is: “What do you write?”

Uh, oh. If you’re like me, suddenly every genre I’ve touched on dances around in my head waiting to be mentioned, my current projects and old projects clamor for status and then, worst of all, suddenly nothing feels worthy to mention. The impulses to justify and yet downplay my passion begin duking it out while the innocent inquisitor stares politely at me waiting for an answer.

mwt square

Market-Write Tip –

When asked, “What do you write?” Have your answer ready.

Perhaps you’ve heard the term elevator speech. This is the idea that a short 3 minute “pitch” is ready and prepared for any occasion, but especially for the opportunity to sell to a new prospect. In publishing there is also the logline. A logline is a one or two sentence summary of your written work primarily used to sell to an agent or publisher. Both of these examples are important for when you’re selling your work.


Today we’re not talking about selling, we’re talking about answering a question in a conversation. Why is this important if you’re not selling? Because, as writers, we should always be connecting: connecting to readers, connecting to writers and connecting to community. This question is the most commonly asked and the best starting point for making connections.


Also, it’s a hard question to answer. That is why the answer is important to think about ahead of time and even practice. To make it easier, put your answer into 3 short parts.

Continue reading “What Do You Write?”

Five Tips to Jump Start Your Writing

Today’s tips come from UNO student and Fine Lines special editor and intern, David Waller


Sometimes life throws you incredible opportunities as a writer: calls for submissions to literary journals, writing contests, or the discovery of new magazines featuring material you love. You see these golden chances and think, “Yeah, I could write something for that.” You get out your pencil and notebook, word processor, or whatever medium you use to capture the visions the muses have granted you, only to discover one small problem.

keyboard workThere are no visions. You stare at a blank page and realize that you have nothing. There are few things worse to authors than writer’s block. No matter how desperate you are to get something out, ideas will not come. You cannot force yourself to be creative; you have to coax your brain and stoke some mental fires if you want to get anywhere. But how? Well, first of all, counterintuitive as it may seem, you are going to want to step away from your writing for just a little bit. If you keep thinking about it, you are just going to wind up grinding your gears. Once you have put some space between yourself and your work, here are some strategies to help the creative process along:

                #1 Pay Attention to Your Conversations.

Be an active listener in what you say when you talk to your friends, family, co-workers, etc. What stories are you telling them? What topics do you bring up? What words do you use? Chances are, if you are willingly offering the topic for discussion, it is something that comes to you naturally, something you enjoy telling people about. Your brain has already shifted out of park, so take the wheel, drive, and see where it takes you.

                #2 Look into Other Cultures.

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Five Questions to Consider Before Writing a Horror Story

Halloween writer It’s October, the month of Scary.

Let’s talk horror.

Today’s Guest Post is by Friend of Fine Lines Larry Leeds
and comes with the caution:
The following may contain gruesome examples of horror
that has been known to offend
the faint of heart, small children, and/or spiritually persuaded.


Why Horror Stories?

In his book The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart, Noël Carroll offers two Paradoxes of the Heart: “…this is the question of how we can be frightened by that which we know does not exist.” and his second. “It is the question of why. . . anyone would subject themselves to it.” I would like to add my own question: Why would anyone want to tell such stories?

Some say we read horror stories for the adrenaline rush; to satisfy the “fight or flight” situations we rarely have in these modern times. Perhaps it’s for the visceral reaction that others get jumping out of a plane, usually with a parachute. Familiarity, maybe, like the way dad used to turn you upside down and toss you in the air, scaring the wits out of you the whole time you were laughing. I approach a horror story as a controlled nightmare from which I can awaken anytime I want. Others read horror for the reasons some like watching road accidents – so they can say, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”


What Is Horror?

Continue reading “Five Questions to Consider Before Writing a Horror Story”