Saturday, October 15, 2011

Tips for Writers: The Comma

There aren’t a lot of rules in writing fiction, but here’s one that’s too often ignored: punctuation matters. It is somewhat shocking to me to see poorly punctuated work by writers who are seeking publication in professional journals. Grammar mistakes are one thing; in fiction, many writers take liberties with grammar. But creative punctuation? I don’t think so.

Periods and question marks are pretty easy, although some writers aren’t sure what to do with them if there’s a quotation mark in the mix. Most writers stay away from exclamation points, either because they aren’t very emphatic to begin with or they’ve heard the maxim that writers are permitted only three exclamation points in a career and they don’t want to use theirs too soon. Semi-colons are harder, but lots of writers avoid them because they either don’t like them or know that they don’t know how to use them. Fair enough.

The real problem is the comma. I confess that I wasn’t confident in my comma usage until I started teaching Freshman Composition in a community college. I realized that in order to teach kids whose grasp of grammar and punctuation was weak, I was going to need to learn it myself. And with the help of Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference, a book I still refer to occasionally, I did just that.

Now, contrary to what I said above, in fiction, especially, one can be somewhat creative with commas. Although there are rules, and a misplaced comma will draw an editor’s attention (not necessarily a good thing), sometimes a writer wants to slow the reader down or to otherwise alter the rhythm of a sentence. A comma is good for that, although a wise writer would be sparing with such usages. But in order to break the comma rules for effect, you first have to know what the rules are.

Here’s the tip: find a grammar guide and learn how to use commas. Your editors will thank you.

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