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Friday, October 24, 2008

It's not uncommon in my profession to become frustrated with . . .

I just spent the day taking commas out of where they don't belong in people's sentences and putting them in where they do. I'd much rather be reading and writing poetry. That's my true passion. It's been over four years since my first book of poems was published, and I'm not very close to having a second collection ready to go. Of course, I make more money editing and writing non creative pieces for my clients. That's the first frustration.

Work, as we all know, expands to fill the available time. That's the second frustration. It shouldn't have taken me all day to push commas around. I should have had plenty of time to do something creative. Unfortunately, I always do my best creative work when I have the least time to do it.

And now for the third frustration--it's the way some writers I work with use the language. Consider this sentence I came across yesterday while I was editing an article about chemotherapy:

"It’s not uncommon to lose hair over your whole body, not just on your head."

Why did the writer need so many layers in that sentence? The reader has to peel away two layers of negatives at the head of the sentence to get to the meaning. And the "not" in the beginning sets up a head on collision with the not at the end. Because the phrase at the end seems as if it could be parallel with the opening of the sentence (which it really isn't), the reader has a hard time knowing what's being negated at the end. The fact that what's being negated is an unspoken assumption -- that chemotherapy only causes the hair on top the head to fall out -- only compounds the confusion. Making the sentence work isn't that hard. All the writer needed to do was be direct:

It’s common to lose hair over your whole body, not just on your head.

But it isn't all frustration for me today. I just got an email from a colleague who does the same kind of work I do, only she does it in an office with other people around. In the email she said: "The fog here on the 24th floor is pretty impressive right now." That created all kinds of wonderful images. I knew she meant outside the windows of the 24th floor (it's been raining in Atlanta -- wonder of wonders). But I like what went through my mind when I took her sentence at face value.


  1. Funny and interesting post. You will have to devote a certain period of time each day to writing poetry.

    Editing is a great profession. You can do it any time and any place. Besides, with the way our education systems are, you will always have a job!

    I always have trouble with commas. I guess the rule of thumb is that 'less is more' and when in doubt just do not do it - and everytime I end in an 'it' I know I shouldn't - oh its all too hard....ignorance is bliss.

  2. Lilly, you make me smile and laugh. Thank you.

  3. I must admit, comma placement is my biggest downfall.

    I think if there were a charge for each comma used I would be sure I was using them correctly!

    Peace - Rene

  4. Your edited sentence is clear, simple, and elegant. I'm jealous.

    Like Lilly, I suffer from comma anxiety.

    Great post.

  5. Maybe I should think about creating a franchise in the comma placing market. Thanks guys. You make my day. :-)

  6. You make grammar so interesting. I have to admit, though, that I'm a little nervous about writing comments on your blog! :)

  7. Thanks, Rebecca.

    I'll tell you a secret. I'm nervous about writing comments on my blog. :) But the bottom line is I don't see any reason for anybody to be nervous. I like seeing what others have to say about my posts. Thanks.

  8. Ah so we now have a newly diagnosed problem, or maybe it's just newly defined. "Comma Anxiety". I wonder what the treatment for this plight will be. Lilly has done it again, LOL.

    I struggle with comma's all the time. I also struggle with sentence structure. I have to admit though your blog has helped quit a bit. I've started saying my sentences out loud when I'm conflicted with them. It helps to hear what the reader is going to see.

    The fog on the 24th floor paints an interesting picture indeed.

  9. Nice one, Rebecca.

    Eric, I always say mt sentences out loud when I'm struggling. It does help, and sometimes it makes me laugh to hear what I almost committed to.

  10. Oh, yes! I, too, like that "fog" is both a physical description of the windows . . . and a more metaphorical reading of the mental condition of the inhabitants inside the building.

    Words themselves are so complicated -- so no wonder that getting them into a proper order can be a complex business.

    re: commas
    I always think of them as "the breath" in the sentence -- the necessary pauses.

  11. Thanks, Bee for coming by. I really enjoyed reading your blog this morning. The "necessary pauses" is a good way to describe commas.

  12. I had a stickler of a comp teacher in my freshman year -- Joe Dewey was his name, I should google him. He made me fear writing because he had strict rules for what is good composition. A few of his rules:

    The phrase "in order to" is never needed.

    Never say "very dark." It's just dark.

    Don't starta sentence with "it."

    And he has a particular hatred of sentences in passive voice. It took me years to realize that passive voice is *sometimes* appropriate.

    He said to never start a sentence with "However." I don't know why.

    I'm not much of a rule follower when it comes to commas. I try to do it by feel. But that's because I'm not an editor by profession. I have such respect for those who know the why's and how's of grammar, they write so elegantly!

  13. Hi, Stacey. Thanks for the comment. It's really a shame that so many people had the same kind of experience with a comp teacher or high school English teacher that you describe. When I taught college and ran the campus writing center I used to point out to colleagues that it's no wonder that kids coming in couldn't write. They'd been told all their life by "teachers" that they couldn't write and had nothing interesting to say. They had heard it so often that they believed it. The amazing thing about the blogosphere is how many people there are out there who are writing and understand what I always tried to help students understand (and sometimes succeeded) It's not about rules, it's all about getting your message across.

  14. Hello,
    I enjoyed reading your post. But it made me feel intimidated leaving a comment here. Since I consider myself adventurous and a risk taker, I'm commenting nonetheless. Commas, semi colons, and sentence structures are definitely problematic to me. On second thought, the whole grammar subject is problematic to me. I was taught never to start a sentence with "But". Still, I've seen it used many times in publications. Is it still a "nono"? Also, I was taught never end a sentence with "with, at, are, is, and of". Are these acceptable in anyway? I like employing them in my novel or just in writing informmal commentaries.

    Thanks for the links. I'm going to link you now also. I'll be sure to come back again to learn more about grammar. Now I know who to approach when I do the final editing of my novel. Hehe.


  15. No no it's not a nono. And yes, those things are okay to end up with. Thanks for coming by and thanks for the comment. Also, thank you for the link.

    My own personal feeling is grammar's only intimidating if you let yourself be intimidated by teachers who didn't know how to teach. The only rule that counts is think of your audience and how your audience is going to respond to what you've written. (Which, yeah, okay, means that sometimes if you really want those people to listen to you, you do have to follow some conventions.)

  16. You call yourself an ink monkey, and I can see why. The foggy building is so funny! Grammar serves its function for clarification, but a well written sentence also has a beauty in itself. I confess that as a self-trained novelist, I’m not always sure where comma’s are needed. The punctuation rules also differ between England and the USA. Do you have a style book that you recommend to writers? I already have Strunk and White.

  17. Hi, Sarah. Thanks for coming by. I enjoyed reading your blog this morning and will definitely be going back. I think your comment about the beauty of the well written sentence is the only actual style guide we need. What I always told students and writers who asked me was there's just two things you have to do to write well:
    1) Read the work of others who write well.
    2) Write with a purpose in mind.

    Then I'd trow in a third thing:
    3) talk with people who write about your writing.

    I only use a style book for consistency and to make sure I follow conventions of certain groups. For instance the copy editor and I use the New York Times Manual of Styke and Usage, primarily because the magazine is published by a subsidiary of the New York Times. And when I work for other clients, I may use The Associated Press Style Book. Also, a lot of publications have their own style guide.

    I know there are differences in punctuation between England and the U.S. So for those kind of nit picky details that only become important when you are about to give what you wrote to someone else who cares about those nit picky details (and there are reaons to care) the best tool is a good English Handbook. I used to use Edward Corbett's Little English Handbook (which is now in its 8th edition). It's well organized and relatively easy to use. And Muriel Harris, who founded and still runs the Writing Center at Purdue University has the Prentice Hall Rference Guide to Grammar & Usage whicjh is also excellent. But again, I always told students that writers can't write with a grammar book in their hand. They need their mind free to think about their message and their hands free to type. But once the message has gotten down on paper or in some virtual space, then it's a good idea to become an editor.

  18. Thanks for the tips! I do enjoy the editing phase and use readers before sending a MS to my agent. I agree that in the creative stage, it’s best not to get bogged down with style. Sometimes breaking rules conveys voice, but sloppy writing is distracting. I'm looking forward to reading more of your blog too.