Tag Archives: chicago manual of style

#amwriting: Commas: Morsels of madness or necessary evils?

commaNothing gets certain people jacked up more than misplaced commas. Why this rabid hysteria? Personally, I have no energy to waste, so I’m selective about my frenzies.

But commacentric grammarians do raise a few salient points. Commas and the rules for their use exist for a reason, and if we want the reading public to understand our work, we need to follow them.

I am a decent structural editor, but I don’t claim to have any special knowledge about commas.

However, I do know a couple of things:

  1. Never insert commas “where you take a breath” because everyone breathes differently.
  2. Do not insert commas where you think it should pause, because every reader sees the narrative differently.

Commas are the rules of the road for writing. They are the universally acknowledged pausing and joining symbol. Readers expect to find their pauses between clauses and commas are sometimes the signifiers of those pauses.

One rule I had to unlearn the first time I sent my work to a professional line editor:

  1. Do not place a comma before ‘because’ unless the information that follows is necessary to the sentence.

What? That’s not what I was taught in school!

The Chicago Manual Online gives this example (and I quote):

He didn’t run, because he was afraid.

He didn’t run because he was afraid.

Douglas Adams quote, split infinitivesIn the first sentence, “because he was afraid” isn’t necessary. The main thing is that he didn’t run, and the reason is incidental. The second sentence, which omits the comma, is unclear. It might mean that he ran, but fear was not the reason he did so.

Mignon Fogarty, the Grammar Girl, explains this well. “You don’t automatically put a comma before the word because, but sometimes you need a comma there to make sure your meaning is clear.”

We do use commas to set off introductory clauses:

  1. In the first sentence, “because he was afraid” isn’t necessary.

I italicized the introductory clause in the above sentence to show that it is not a stand-alone sentence. This clause introduces the clause that follows it, and its meaning is dependent on that following clause.

Another thing I had to unlearn:

  1. Do not automatically place a comma before the conjunction ‘and.’

Compound sentences combine two separate ideas (clauses) into one compact package. A comma should be placed before a conjunction only if it is at the beginning of an independent clause. So use the comma before the conjunction (and, but, or) if the clauses are actually standalone sentences. If one of them is not a standalone sentence, it is a dependent clause, and you do not add the comma.

Take these two sentences: She is a great basketball player. She prefers swimming.

  1. If we combine them this way we add a comma: She is a great basketball player, but she prefers swimming.
  2. If we combine them this way, we don’t: She is a great basketball player but prefers swimming.

I hear you saying, “Now wait a minute! Mrs. Downing very clearly taught us to use commas to join clauses, and she was right.”

I’m sorry, but Mrs. Downing probably  explained that. It just didn’t stick in your memory.

Two complete ideas can be joined with ‘and.’ Did I just contradict myself?

Sort of.

Think of it like a list: if there are only two things (or ideas) in a list, they do not need to be separated by a comma. If there are more than two ideas, the comma should be used to separate them, with a comma preceding the word ‘and’ before the final item/idea.

Dogs, cats, rabbits, and birds.

Oh YES, we DO use serial commas to prevent confusion! You’ve all seen the meme:

serial commas meme, martha stewartOn a personal level, I do love cooking, my pets, and my family. (But not in the same pot.) They’re happy that I use serial commas.

One of my favorite personal failings is the notorious comma splice. Apparently it’s bad form to join two independent clauses with a simple comma. This error is called a comma splice.

I have it on good authority that a comma splice will not cause a tear in the space-time continuum. But since this breach of humanity occasionally sends commacentrics into a frothing frenzy, we will use the conjunction and give these poor wretches a break.

From Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge: “A comma splice is the use of a comma to join two independent clauses. For example: It is nearly half past five, we cannot reach town before dark. Although acceptable in some languages and compulsory in others (e.g., Bulgarian or French), comma splices are usually considered style errors in English.”

chicago manual of styleCommas and their proper use can drive you crazy when you are trying to get your work in order. And quite frankly, the rules are a little confusing.

Consistency is critical. UK usage can vary from US usage in some ways. Find a style guide that you can understand and consult it. Once you have a guide you can work with, use those suggestions consistently in all your work.

I use the Chicago Manual of Style for my work because I am a US citizen, and for creative writing, this is the most comprehensive manual and is what publishers and editors use. If you are strapped for cash, you can often buy secondhand copies of this manual through Amazon.

Commas can easily get out of control for me because I have a tendency to hit the comma key whenever I pause in my thinking when I am in the first draft phase. At that point, I am more concerned with just getting the words down than I am form and style.

However, proper form and style must come into play when we get into the later drafts. Using established protocols for punctuation is important if you want your readers to understand what you meant when you wrote that amazing piece of literature.


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Hyphens, style guides, and writing conventions

adult-footie-pjsYou need a good style guide. No, I am not suggesting that you need help with your wardrobe–those footie pajamas are awesome, and are the perfect uniform for the dedicated author. What I am suggesting is that you develop consistency in your writing, and there are guides to help you with that.

English is a completely wonky language, even for those of us who grow up speaking some form of it. My dialect is that of the western United States, specifically the Pacific Northwest, near the Canadian border. As in every other part of the world, we speak informally in our homes and with friends, but in writing, we should conform to certain standardized rules, or those who speak OTHER versions of English will not be able to follow us, despite the many similarities in our dialects.

Kathleen Cali, in an article at Learn NC, says: “Conventions are the surface features of writing — mechanics, usage, and sentence formation. Conventions are a courtesy to the reader, making writing easier to read by putting it in a form that the reader expects and is comfortable with.”

Since I am a US citizen, I use American writing conventions. In the United States, many non-journalistic professional writers use The Chicago Manual of Style, and this is the manual I use.

elements of styleA classic style guide for new authors and the general public is Strunk and White’The Elements of Style. This is a popular reference among writers just beginning in the craft. I sometimes use this guide, but as I have advanced as an editor, I find myself referring to the more in-depth Chicago Manual of Style. However, either one is excellent for the US author, and for any Europeans editing for a US author in this era of the internet and the global market for editing services.

Any author or editor who tries to tell you that one particular style guide is “the only” style guide is simply voicing an opinion, and if they are obnoxious and defensive about it, ignore them. Each style guide is an excellent reference tool, and each one plays to different requirements. But all of them are for the benefit of the reader.

chicago manual of styleThe Chicago Manual of Style is one of the oldest and most comprehensive style guides available, and for me in my role as an editor, it’s an indispensable tool because it contains information that I can’t find anywhere else. While I could easily access it all via the online version, I do like having my large book at my fingertips.

As a writer I rely on a style guide because  it often feels  like every rule has an exception, and knowing what those are makes huge difference in a manuscript’s consistency and readability.

For example, sometimes we don’t know if we should hyphenate or not. Or, we are unsure when to capitalize a direction or an honorific. When this occurs, our work becomes uneven and hard to read, because it’s rife with  inconsistency, hyphenating words in one place but not another. This happens because not every set of words needs to be hyphenated, and how do you know which to decorate with that dear little dash?

There are answers to these questions, in the handy-dandy style guides we have available to us.

So how DO we employ those little morsels of madness that work their way into every corner of my manuscripts? I love them!

Unfortunately, hyphens are not toys. As I discovered when creating my world of Neveyah for the Tower of Bones series, they are the gate-way drug to writer’s hell. Take my advice and do not use a hyphen unless it serves a purpose. If a compound adjective cannot be misread or its meaning is established, a hyphen is not necessary.

  • An English-speaking country
  • A time-saving device
  • A thirty-floor building
Some compounds are created on the spot to fulfill a specific need (on-the-spot creations). Permanent compounds start out as improvised compounds, but become so widely accepted that they are included in the dictionary as permanent compounds. Examples of temporary compounds that have made the transition to permanent compounds are words like  know-it-all, heart-stopping, free-for-all, and down-at-the-heels.
shark memeContext determines whether or not to hyphenate.  Ask yourself, “How will the words be interpreted by the reader if I don’t hyphenate?” Wikipedia offers the following examples:
  • Man-eating shark (as opposed to man eating shark, which could be interpreted as a man eating the meat of a shark)
  • Wild-goose chase (as opposed to wild goose chase, which could be interpreted as a goose chase that is wild)
  • Long-term contract (as opposed to long term contract, which could be interpreted as a long contract about a term)
  • Zero-liability protection (as opposed to zero liability protection, which could be interpreted as there being no liability protection).

And finally, especially if you are writing in a fantasy genre, as you are writing your tale down and creating your world, also make a style sheet that pertains to your manuscript noting what words must be capitalized and what the proper spellings for invented places are.

Refer back to it frequently, updating it as needed. I learned this the hard way. Whether it is handwritten or a WORD document, a simple directory of compound words and phrases that are unique to the world you have created will be as invaluable to you as your copy of The Elements of Style.


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Being a part of the Village

DR 3 Prism Ross M KitsonAs some of you know, besides being an author, I am also a structural editor. One of the books I recently worked on is “Darkness Rising Book 3- Secrets” by UK author Ross M. Kitson.

This is a part of my life that came about accidentally, in the course of beta-reading kajillion manuscripts for an organization called Critters.Org.

I read and review books, often two or more a week, and having been through the editing experience several times myself, it just happened naturally. I found myself helping other authors make their manuscripts submission ready. One day I looked at my calendar and realized my day was completely divided in half—I worked on the manuscripts of other authors, helping them see their work with clarity in the evenings, and I wrote my own work in the mornings.

I am not a ‘grammar queen,’ although I do use the Chicago Manual of Style, and also some AP style. Strunk and White figure largely in my work. Grammar and such is the line-editor’s job, and I work closely with three very fine line-editors. I am charged with helping an author get their manuscript ready to go to the line-editor.

What I actually do is this: I examine the story over all, and point out the rough spots along with the strengths. At this point, I am looking at the narrative, asking questions such as:

  1. How does the story flow?
  2. Do I care about the characters?
  3.  Does the story make sense?
  4. What are the story elements
  5. What is the theme?
  6. What impedes the flow?
  7. Does the tense and voice remain consistent? Where does it change?

I look at individual elements of the story, such as plot, characterization, dialogue, and setting. I look at the interaction between them.

These are the questions I ask myself and in turn will comment on, and ask the author:

  1. Would this sequence of events really happen?
  2. Would this character really react the way the author has portrayed?
  3. How else might the character behave?
  4. Why is this character making this decision?
  5. Does this feel authentic? Is it plausible?
  6. Would this character talk like this?
  7. Is each character a good fit for his/her role in this situation?
  8. Is this the most logical sequence of events?
  9. What is missing that might make it believable or logical?

MSClipArt MP900390083.JPG RF PDIs there too much dialogue and no action?  Not enough dialogue and too much walking in circles?  Is dialogue being used to tell the story? Do they even need to be talking?

Did the back-story accidentally take over? Back-story happens, but it is important not to be married to it. Back-story can be shown in small strokes, without allowing it to take over and bog the story down. I learned this the hard way with my own first book, which is currently undergoing a full rewrite to remove that very problem. I think back-story begins to take over when an author is developing the story, and as the story grows in the mind of the author so does all the fluff. I now write my back-story as a completely separate document, and then use it to build my story, the same way I do my character bios.

How is this story being told? There are places where a small amount of telling is necessary and doesn’t ruin the experience, but is there too much telling rather than showing? I might make suggestions for alternate, indirect ways of getting the point across.

These are just the beginning—there is also the experience of the environment. Is too much emphasis placed on auditory and visual descriptions? Maybe not enough? What is the emotional experience for the reader? Does the author show the hurt, the anger, the joy in a way the reader immediately identifies with? Do they overwhelm you with heavy descriptions of emotional angst? Maybe not enough description?

In my own work I have committed every one of these ‘sins’.

It is essential that you have more than one set of eyes on your work, and that those eyes are attuned to you as an author. The first editor gets your work as ready as it can be for the second editor, who gets it ready for the beta-readers, who find all the typos, incidents and accidents.

I see the raw manuscript as it fell out of the author’s head, and I help him take that diamond-in-the-rough to the next level.

It takes a village to help an author get a book ready for consumption. Indies don’t have the resources the big publishers have. Helping an indie author realize his dream is an awesome perk of being in this business. Yes I do like to be paid, but no amount of money can compensate for hours and hours spent poring over a manuscript that is a worthless mess and dealing with an author who simply wants his ego stroked. This is why we indie editors don’t accept every manuscript that comes across our desk.

BIF Blog Print ScreenI love being a part of the process because I love to read. Reading is my passion and my life. When I read a published novel to review for my Best in Fantasy blog, I am looking at that novel as a starry-eyed consumer, not as an editor or an author. If I don’t get that feeling of amazement, I feel cheated. Like a child sampling sweets at the Easter buffet, I move on to the next book, hoping to discover the next “Memory Sorrow and Thorn” or “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”.

When I edit, my goal is to help that author find the magic that lies within himself and to help him have faith in his craft and in his ability to tell a damned good story.

I wouldn’t trade this job for anything!

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