Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Self-Editing: Part 5

(This series begins with Part 1.)

V. Commas


You've used your computer's Find feature to search for "ly" adverbs and "-ing" words. Now search for commas.

This is tedious. The sheer monotony of it should encourage you to eliminate every comma that isn't absolutely necessary for clarity or grammatical correctness.

As far as the grammar goes, be aware that the "rules," such as they are, can vary with the style. Contemporary writing tends toward a more open style, with commas omitted that might be expected in a formal or literary style. The Chicago Manual, the stylebook most in use in the publishing world, says of the comma:

"There are a few rules governing its use that have become almost obligatory. Aside from these, the use of the comma is mainly a matter of good judgment, with ease of reading the end in view."

So look at all of your commas and remove as many of them as you can without creating ambiguities. Use commas to make meanings clear, but remember that a comma makes a reader pause, if only briefly. The headlong, superheated pace that many editors want to see in today's commercial fiction argues against overusing commas. Any place in your writing where you find commas clustering thickly, weed several of them out.

Using your computer to search for commas has an added benefit: it will find strings of adjectives and adverbs -- those desperate attempts by the writer to convey to the reader exactly what the writer is thinking or seeing.

The "hot, dry, bright and dusty day."
The "big, heavy, metal gun."
The "pale, confused, startled face."
The door opening "slowly, cautiously, squeaking, rattling and shaking."

I didn't make these up. They are examples of overdone writing from Noah Lukeman's book, The First Five Pages. If you're serious about your writing, you must read Lukeman's book. Heeding his advice will put you far down the road toward getting published or getting better published.

The section on commas in the Chicago Manual of Style runs for 16 pages. We don't have time to cover everything. There is one mistake, though, that I see quite often. People tend to put a comma before a verb -- thinking, I suppose, that it contributes to clarity. But it's wrong to write something like:

"Seven kayakers on the Zigzag River
, drowned during yesterday's thunderstorm."

You don't need that comma. Take it out.

But notice: "Seven kayakers, from a party of twelve, drowned in the Zigzag during yesterday's thunderstorm."

The commas in that sentence are setting off a phrase that's located between the subject and the verb. Take out that phrase and it's still a complete sentence: "Seven kayakers drowned in the Zigzag during yesterday's thunderstorm."

In your searching for commas, if you find one before a verb, make sure it's supposed to be there.

Here's a variation on the same theme: A comma should not be used after an introductory phrase that immediately precedes the verb it modifies:

Correct: Out of the automobile stepped a short man in a blue suit.
Correct: In the doorway stood a man with a summons.

You would not put a comma before "stepped" or "stood."

For a good review of when and where to use commas, try "seven easy steps to becoming a comma superhero" from The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Next post: Part 6



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