To Comma or Not To Comma. That is the question.
And to be honest, up until Penguin US sent back my first edited book draft—completely covered in tiny little commas—I had no idea the Oxford comma was such a big deal.
Turns out it is ... and it isn't.
Because of that lesson learned, I am now a huge Oxford comma freak, gleefully adding them wherever the situation calls for them. But the truth is, as you'll see in this HANDY DANDY INFOGRAPHIC (thank you, Online Schools), they're really only a big deal in the U.S. And only in some circumstances. Check the map at the bottom of the picture.I'm going to keep gleefully adding them, though. I like the way they clarify situations.
I would be happy to share with you the info about this, but, well, I already did! Yay! Here's the blog I wrote back in 2011 (trust me, nothing's changed). And *drum roll* here's the fabulous infographic. I wanted to just attach it here (so I did), but I couldn't make it any bigger, so here's another link to a larger version.* I cannot believe what a nerd I am. The idea of an Oxford Comma infographic is just so exciting to me.
Season of Giving
is upon us!
Sadly, while I wish I could wrap up a little something for each of you, my time and finances are somewhat limited, so I have decided to put together something a little different. As is suitable from someone like me, I present …
The 12 Editing Gifts of Christmas
... one at a time!
Between December 1-23 I’ll post twelve editing suggestions I hope you can use in the coming year when you’re working on your manuscript. You’ll just have to imagine there’s a bow tied around each one. Most of them I’ve covered in earlier blogs, but it’s always nice to get a kick in the butt reminder once in a while.
Punctuation In Dialogue.
I have to cover this one first, because it’s my pet peeve. One of them, anyway.
“I love writing dialogue,” I said. “It helps me see inside my characters’ thoughts.”
He frowned. “Really? I don’t. It’s too confusing, with all those periods and commas and stuff.”
“Ah,” I reply, smiling vaguely. “I think I understand your problem. Maybe I can help.”
When your characters make a statement, it is an actual sentence, right? That means it deserves proper punctuation, like any other sentence.
“I like to write dialogue.”
< Pretty basic. Statement ends with a period. But who said it?
“I like to write dialogue,” I said.
<Notice the comma. Since you are continuing the sentence by explaining who is speaking, there is no period until after I said. The comma comes BEFORE the quotation marks.
“I like to write dialogue,” I said. “It helps me understand my characters.”
<Two separate sentences. A comma before the first set of quotation marks, a period after I said, then a period before the last set of quotation marks.
“I like to write dialogue,” I said, holding up one finger to grab his attention, “but I can't stand seeing it written incorrectly.”
<Notice: this changes because the sentence is split in the middle. It’s still, however, one sentence. You need a comma before the first set of quotation marks closes, a comma after I said, a comma before the last set of quotation marks opens, and a period before the final set of quotation marks closes.
Like commas, apostrophes have a ton of rules, but I was reminded of a couple when I read a great blog
Here are those two rules:
Many moms are against it, too, but that's not my problem with this shirt.
Do NOT use an apostrophe as a replacement for a plural. Seriously. That's just silly.
Dad's Against Daughter's Dating. Really?
Normally I'd be all up in arms about capitalizing every letter, but the reason for this is they're trying to create that D.A.D.D. idea, so I'll let it go ... this time.
I suppose there are a few ways this could have been done, but neither includes an apostrophe replacing a plural.
1. Dads Against Daughters Dating.
2. Dads Against Daughter's Dating (meaning the dad is against the fact that his one daughter is dating)
3. Dads Against Daughters' Dating (meaning the dad is against the fact that his multiple daughters are dating)
Once again, I'm not a fan of capitalizing willy-nilly, but marketing takes advantage of these things sometimes, figuring a capital letter might give it more of an impact. Whatever. I'm not going to whine about that today.
But I do have a complaint, obviously. Loyal followers of this blog will pick up on the problem here right away, because I know I did an "its/it's" blog a while back.
What this sign says, in fact, is:
Building On It Is Heritage Shaping It Is Future.
Do not use It's as a possessive or a plural. Its only job is to replace the "i" in Is.
There should also be a period, comma, or semi-colon after Heritage, but I'm kind of skipping over that.
Building on its heritage; shaping its future.
There are so many different usages for commas that I thought I'd address one at a time. Today I'm talking about something called a "serial comma". A serial comma can also be called an "Oxford comma" or a "Harvard comma".
Serial commas, I have learned, are a STYLE ISSUE, which means not everyone agrees on their usage. They are standard in American English but are used less often in British English. Some countries don't use them at all. But I'm going to address serial commas anyway because when my first novel came back from the editor at Penguin, she had added - oh, I don't know - I'll say hundreds
of serial commas to my writing.
Kind of funny. I understand the reason for the term, since one the meanings of the word "serial" is: "of, relating to, or resembling a series" (www.dictionary.reference.com),
and a "series" is "a group or a number of related or similar things, events, etc., arranged or occurring in temporal, spatial, or other order or succession; sequence." (www.dictionary.reference.com)
. The funny thing to me is that I can't help thinking "serial killer
" every time I see that term.
I guess serial commas are kind of like serial killers in that they just can't stop.
When you are writing a sentence which includes a list of more than three items, you might be tempted to leave out the final one. It might feel redundant. But it's usually not, and it's often necessary to use one in order to avoid ambiguities.
Here are a few examples of when the serial comma.I'm going to a movie with Cathy, a teacher and a librarian.
hmm. Is Cathy a teacher AND a librarian?
or ...I'm going to a movie with Cathy, a teacher, and a librarian.
Ah. So you're going with three people, not just one. Or if it's two people, you could say "I'm going to a movie with Cathy, who is a teacher, and also with a librarian."
For dinner we had roast beef, salad, potatoes and ice cream.
Ew. Imagine eating potatoes and ice cream together?
or ...For dinner we had roast beef, salad, potatoes, and ice cream. Yum. Now I'm hungry.I love to ski, play tennis, ride my bike and juggle.
Wow. You can bike and juggle simultaneously? You should join the circus.or ...I love to ski, play tennis, ride my bike, and juggle.That makes more sense.And one more just because it makes me laugh:“With gratitude to my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope.” (from the Chicago Manual of Style)
Just a quick note today touching on dialogue tags ... or, for my American friends, dialog tags ... because I believe it is the #1 thing on my most-fixed list.
On to punctuation. I'm only going to address ONE simple point. If you want to know more, just ask.Don't
do this: "Hello there." she said.
this: "Hello there," she said.
this: "Hello there." She smiled and waved.
And another thing:Don't
be afraid of the word "said";
try other good words you can use, in addition to "said" ... have you tried "replied", "asked", "shouted", "whispered", "muttered", etc
There are times in literature, indeed in life, when a situation demands more than the usual amount of enthusiasm. When something incredible happens in real life, we jump up and down, we yell, we hoot and holler, and our expressions are usually full of emotion. When we write, authors often indicate this excitement by using an Exclamation Point (also known as an Exclamation Mark).
Let’s say we have a scenario wherein a man is meeting his long lost brother after twenty years of separation. He might say something like,
“It’s so good to see you!”
Perfectly acceptable, in my humble opinion; however, this is where some authors tend to go astray. Let’s continue this conversation, shall we?
“It’s so good to see you!”
“How are you?!”
“Wonderful! You look great!”
“I can’t believe this! I can’t wait to tell everyone!”
“I know! So amazing! How is everything?!”
Ow. My head is now officially pounding.
In effect, what is going on in this conversation is that the two men are yelling at each other. Personally, I am not a fan of a room full of yelling people. In fact, I tend to leave the room in that particular situation. It’s even worse in this case, because it’s just the two characters yelling at each other.
An exclamation point should be used for one reason only: to emphasize a point. To “exclaim” about a “point”, if you will. The overuse of exclamation points makes everything look exactly the same. Instead of the natural rise and fall of a story, it becomes one long yell. How is the reader supposed to differentiate between regular moments and more exciting ones when everything looks identical?
YA novels are often (not always!) salted liberally with exclamation points, presumedly representing teenage enthusiasm, energy, angst ...; however, using exclamation points too often makes a book looks even more ... um ... juvenile. And not in a good way. Oh, and even if your YA novel begs for an exclamation point, please, please promise me you’ll limit yourself to only using one at a time. Save multiples for texting, if you must.
Children’s books usually contain even more. I understand why, but just because kids get excited and yell a lot that doesn’t make it right. The reader shouldn’t have to believe each sentence is as important as every other one.
Of course there are exceptions. Here’s a scenario in which multiple exclamation points work because the characters are yelling.
“Look! It’s a U.F.O.!”
“Over there! Look!”
“Where - Hey, I see it! Cool!”
“Wow. It looks like it’s coming this way,” Jim said, squinting toward the ship.
Pete nodded slowly. “Yeah, pretty quickly, too.”
After a moment of staring at the rapidly approaching lights, the men exchanged a glance of concern, then Jim spoke up. “How fast can you run?”
Pete took off. “All that matters is that I can run faster than you!” he yelled back over his shoulder.
I read a rule somewhere advising authors to limit their use of exclamation points to one per page. I’m not a great believer in writing rules, per se, but I do agree with the idea behind this one.
Can you use better nouns or verbs instead of having to resort to exclamation points?
How about using dialogue tags to indicate excitement? For example, instead of “It’s so great to see you!”, try something like: “It’s so great to see you,” he said, beaming with joy. That simple difference imparts so much more emotion for the reader, as well as getting rid of exclamation points.
Some people use excessive semi-colons; some find joy in dotting their pages with exclamation points. Both tools should be used in moderation, if at all. Their ultimate function is to provide an editor with one more thing to delete or replace.
Okay, everyone. Back to work!
I wrote the most beautiful book ever written. I did. The plot, the characters, and the words ... oh, I have always loved words. And here was the perfect opportunity to demonstrate just how many I knew. After almost a year of writing, it was complete, and made up of approximately 165,000 gorgeous words. Publishers were going to bid for the opportunity to represent it. For sure.
But I decided maybe I'd show it to someone else first. Maybe someone who had a little experience in that realm. Through a “Writer In Residence” programme, I met author Rona Altrows. She accepted, I think, fifty manuscripts, then sat down with those writers and gave them her opinion. When I showed up for my appointment I felt ... what, nervous? Nah. My book was beyond question, wasn't it?
Rona was wonderful. She told me up front that I had a gift for writing, and that my book had great potential. *ugh* Potential. What a scary word. The first pangs of fear clutched my gut. That was when she introduced me to the Incredible World of Editing.
She started by going through a brutal battle scene at the beginning of my book. She said, “This character is amazing. How did he ever survive all these adjectives?”
And so I embarked on an amazing voyage, learning about adjectives and adverbs (and the need to avoid most of them), Point of View (which was impossible to understand, until all at once I could see it, and I'll never be able to ignore it again), tense ... there were so many aspects to writing I had never considered. Fortunately, I didn't have to worry too much about spelling and grammar. I have always had a natural propensity for those, which I believe stems from both the vats and vats of books I ingested as a child, and from natural genetics. Both my mother and her mother taught high school English and nary an early sentence went by that wasn't quickly corrected (“Me and Brian went out” “That's Brian and I, sweetheart.”).
All right. Done. All those things fixed, I cast my net a little further and joined Scribophile.com, along with thousands of other writers. These folks were less gentle. Their hi-liters and strikeouts were everywhere. More lines than words, I thought.
But they were right. I took a little time and looked at my favourite books, then compared them to mine, trying to find just what separated the two. Then I went through every single word of my novel and ran through it on my laptop three times. I read it out loud twice – once to myself and once to my ever-patient husband. I printed it out and scribbled all over it. About six months later, it was 75,000 words shorter. I felt cautiously optimistic. I posted the first half of the book on Authonomy.com – and it shot to the top.
So what is editing, exactly? We're all writers here, so let's look at some metaphors. Editing is like sandpaper on rough wood, revealing the shining oak within. Editing is cutting back on too much salt so that the meal is delicious (and healthier). Editing is folding clothes neatly instead of dumping them on the floor.
Writing is not editing, but writing cannot happen without at least a modicum of editing. Some of it is natural, obviously. For instance, your brain automatically changes
“Riting storeez iz the thing I luv to do” to “I love writing stories.”
But when you write something a little more complicated, how do you know what goes where? That is the editing experience.
The first step is to write your story as well as you can. Read it over just one more time so you see any glaring error, like killing off a character then having him reappear in the next chapter. Fix those. Now put your story away. Seriously. Find a cabinet with a lock on it and do not look at it for three months.
Pshaw, I hear. But it's true. Distance may make the heart grow fonder, but it also sharpens perspective. You are too close to your story. I know, I know. You are finally done. Let's get it out there! But really, what's the rush? The world has existed without your story, as have you. Take the time to do it right. Put it away. Write something new, or read a different book. Take up macramé. Anything but that book.
*Ding! * (That's the sound of your calendar alarm saying three months is up.)
Take a deep breath and start to read. If you are fortunate, you will find yourself sinking into your chair, wondering where all these words came from. Did I actually write these? Wow! I don't remember doing that. It's not half bad!
Roll up your sleeves. Here we go. We will now edit. Here are the main aspects of editing, as I see them:
1) Please tell me you have spell-check on your computer. Please. Being Canadian, I have the added chore of deciding between British and American spelling, but that's easily fixable by Search/Replace. I just have to ensure I'm being consistent.
2) Read out loud – preferably in a monotone. Do your sentences sound like sentences? Or are they just words? Do they go on forever, winding poetically through infinite descriptive, albeit beautiful words? Stop right there.
Picture your character pulling up to a stop sign. Here are two ways for that character to see it:
Option 1: The sign emerging from the distant horizon is a thin sheet of metal, approximately 75cm across, with a matte background painted a bright, highly visible cherry red broken only by a 20cm white border and clear, easily distinguishable white lettering sending its message from atop a sturdy pole intended to reach the most unaware, recalcitrant, ignorant, distracted of drivers.
Option 2: The stop sign is red and octagonal, on a post, with white print.
Read those two contrasting sentences again. The first gives you terrific information. Were you bored? Amazed at the detail (unless of course you are researching stop signs, in which case it would be fabulous information, and I recommend Wikipedia)? Did you have to look up any of the words? Did you skip ahead? Of course you did. No one would ever realistically spend so much time describing something simple. Not even your character. If you did, your reader would probably have to put the book down just so they could grab something to treat their impending headache.
Here's the trick: Go through your first page. Remove every adjective/adverb until the remaining words are “naked”. Can you improve any of those “naked” words with something better, something that negates the use of adjectives/adverbs? Do that wherever possible. Then add the necessary descriptive words and no more. Keep it simple.
3) Sentence Length: While it is good to vary sentence length, anything written non-stop is just plain annoying and amateur. It may seem beautiful to describe a sunset as:
The inevitable rays of the setting sun cast awe-inspiring parting glories in an amalgamation of pure and omnipotent expressions of the gods who have chosen to enliven their palette with the glorious scatterings of aureate golds and bittersweet oranges silhouetted against an endless heliotrope sky.
Too much? I'd say. How about:
The sunset's stunning array of golds and oranges faded into the purple sky. Or:
Evening was heralded by the majestic golds of the sunset.
Well, those aren't the best examples, but I hope you understand my meaning.
4) Paragraph length: Same as sentences. The reader's eye is automatically drawn to white space – more particularly to dialogue. Keep paragraphs relatively short.
5) Point Of View: If you're writing third person from Mary's perspective throughout most of the novel, then you can't say what John is thinking. That's like: Mary had been wondering how John was feeling. “How are you feeling, John?” she asked. John was happy she asked. No no no. Maybe John appeared pleased that she had asked, but it's impossible for Mary to know if John was really happy or not. See? Complicated, but that's Point of View. Trust me. Once you get it, you'll never go back.
6) Tense: You don't want unnecessary words, and you don't want the story to stall.Keep verbs as up to date as possible, so the book moves forward. Instead of Mary was forgetting to tie her shoes, use Mary forgot to tie her shoes. Be consistent.
7) Redundancies: John stood on his feet. Where else would he stand? Mary saw the smile on his face. Where else would his smile be?
8) Dialogue/Dialog: This is a sticky point for me because I have yet to edit a book in which all aspects are done correctly.
In the time I took to take my book apart and sew it back up again (then take away any evidence of seams), I read a lot of other books. And I have been humbled. There is some amazing writing going on out there, published or not.
- “Hello,” said Mary. (See how the comma is inside the quotations?)
- “Hello,” said Mary. (See how I used the word “said”? Though they have their place, it's not necessary to always use “exclaimed” “responded” “declared” “replied”. “Said” is just fine.)
- “Hello.” (Sometimes you don't need to tag who is saying what. Especially if the dialogue only goes on for about four or five lines. Too many episodes of “she said/he said” sounds robotic.)
- “Hello,” Mary said with a grin. (See how I didn't say “Hello,” Mary grinned. That's because she can't “grin” a word. She can't “sigh” it or “frown it” or “attempt” it.)
I no longer believe my story will change any aspect of the world, but at least I know it's something worthy of a reader's time. At last, a amazing agent decided my book was what he had been seeking. He wasn't through with me, though. He had me re-write the ending three times. When he finally emailed back and said “Yes, I think we'll go with that,” I felt dizzy with relief. In very little time he called to say Berkley Publishing (a division of PenguinUSA) wanted not only to publish my book, but wanted a companion novel to go with it. That was one of the greatest moments of my life. But then came another one. He said, “The editor said there was virtually no editing to be done.” So those years of writing, re-writing, nit-picking, agonizing, deleting ... it was all worthwhile.
It took a long time to get that right. It took a ton of practice. My subsequent novels started to emerge with less need for re-writes. Editing had become a natural process for me (though nothing is perfect the first / second / third time round!). I started editing for other authors and found it was easy for me to sink into the “voice” of the author. They loved my work, and I loved doing it.
So now, along with my writing, editing is my business. If you have done all you can for your beloved manuscript and are ready for a professional touch, please check out my website: www.WritingWildly.com. I look forward to reading your work someday!