Posted: September 6, 2014 in writing
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Commas are weird. Using them correctly is partly a matter of good grammar, but it’s also a stylistic thing. Laura’s been picking me up on my over-use of commas lately, playing the role of the good proofreader. But I used to be even worse, as I realised doing some final proofreading on From a Foreign Shore (out on Monday – very exciting!). The first story in that collection, ‘Holy Water’, is one of the oldest stories that I’m re-publishing and it shows. I kept finding excess commas scattered through the text, which I’m now hastily purging. It’s too late to stop a couple of reviewers and early readers seeing my grammatical faux pas, but electronic self-publishing means that I have enough control to stop it at that.

Of course this is also part of the iterative process that is learning to do an independent ebook release. This time I’ve left myself enough time for that extra re-read, and even contacted reviewers, neither of which happened with Riding the Mainspring. Hopefully next time around I’ll do those corrections before seeking reviews, and request the reviews far enough in advance to be ready for the release date.

Life is all about learning. What matters isn’t doing things perfectly, it’s doing them better than last time, and on that basis my book release process seems to be heading in the right direction.

Now excuse me, I have more commas to purge.


  1. 21stcenturyvictorian says:

    I feel your pain! Just keep red-penning. . . . Commas are probably the bane of my writing existence. I don’t like to think of them, and I will invariably use an em dash instead (which leads to the opposite problem when I have to go back and edit). Eesh!

  2. Sue Archer says:

    Oh, those troublesome commas. Who knew they could be so complicated? And like you pointed out, Andrew, commas are especially challenging when it comes to style vs. grammar. From my background in copyediting: In a “closed style,” a lot of commas are used, but in an “open style,” commas are removed from places where people often expect them to show up (like at the end of short intoductory prepositional phrases). So we have lots of options with commas – it’s not always about right or wrong. All we can do is go for consistency! Good luck with the purging. 🙂

    • Ooh, that’s interesting. Think I might have to look more into closed and open styles.

      • Sue Archer says:

        Open style is used more in business communications and when people are going for an informal style – it really depends on the philosophy of the company / publisher. I think we’ll see more open style as time goes along, but for now, a lot of publications are in closed style.

        • Sounds like open style is what I was trained to do in business writing, and what I tend to view as good practice for modern writing. But that may just show the biases of the people training me!

  3. Sheila Thomas says:

    I was ticked off by my editor once for not using enough commas, yet I thought I knew how to write. I imagine you already test as I do, by reading aloud and seeing where the pauses are needed?

  4. Liza Barrett says:

    I’ve been known for comma over-use as well—some of them I still argue that I should keep, but I have cut back on them over the years. One of my good friends from college is a copy-editor, and she is stringent on her beliefs of comma usage. I still argue that as a creative writer I’m allowed to be a little more lenient with my comma rules—sometimes you just need that breath mark in the sentence, even when grammar doesn’t exactly call for it.

    • Sounds like you face the exact same challenge as I do Liza – how often is a comma for that breath mark useful, and at what point is it cluttering up the writing. But like you say, in creative writing we should have a bit more leeway.

  5. W Lawrence says:

    I think first person novels can get away with a lack of commas. Your narrator may speak improperly (read: more realistically) and you can develop a style from removing commas or using commas in weird places that you couldn’t do with a 3rd person perspective.

    • That’s a good point. The voice you’re using – both for the character and the narrator – makes a huge difference to what works on all sorts of grammar issues. Though again there’s a fine line, because too idiosyncratic a voice can put readers off or confuse them – a little odd grammar goes a long way.

  6. jhmae says:

    The writing style of a a fellow reporter I worked with years ago was described thusly: He writes the story, then throws a handful of commas at it.

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