As some of you may have guessed, I’ve been super busy during the last couple of weeks. Much of my time has been devoted to editing jobs of various lengths and genres. I thought that this week I would discuss some of the recurring problems I find in many manuscripts. To be clear, this is not taken from any one or two works I’ve edited, but is rather a synopsis of items I’ve found in multiple manuscripts form multiple authors. I hope that you will find it helpful in self-editing your work.
The bane of many writers seems to be the lowly comma. Maybe this is because most works will have a lot of them. This is in no way meant to be a representation of all or even most cases where a comma is required, but rather a few of the places where they are most commonly missing.
Commas in Direct Address:
“A comma is used to set off names or words used in direct address and informal
correspondence…” CMOS 6.38
Most of us, when we write a letter, are pretty good at remembering the comma after the salutation. “Dear Milly(comma)” comes naturally, but this is not the only time this rule comes into play. Let me give a few examples of where it might appear in dialog:
“Yes, sir.” In this case “sir” is direct address and needs the comma.
“I’ll be right there, John.” John is being directly addressed, so we need a comma.
“If you will follow me, gentlemen, I’ll see you right in.” Even though it is in the middle of the sentence, we still need the comma, but we need one on each side of the direct address to completely set it apart.
“Darlene, do you have those reports ready?”
“Why do the elves dislike us so, Grandfather?”
In formal correspondence, the comma after the salutation is usually replaced with a colon. “Dear Mister Secretary:” or simply “Secretary Mattis:”
Commas with Appositives
“A word, abbreviation, phrase, or clause that is in apposition to a noun (i.e., provides an explanatory equivalent) is normally set off by commas if it is nonrestrictive—that is, if it can be omitted without obscuring the identity of the noun to which is refers.” CMOS 6.23
Wow! What a mouthful! Obviously, we need some examples to understand this one.
“Your editor, Mr. Menefee, did a wonderful job with this manuscript.” Mr. Menefee could be omitted from this sentence and it would still make perfect sense and retain its meaning. Therefore, we need to surround him with commas. Think of it like this. If Mr. Menefee wandered off and got lost, this sentence would still be complete and we probably wouldn’t miss him. So we put a corral around him with our commas to keep him where he belongs.
“My prize pig, Mister Ziggy, won a blue ribbon at the fair.” Again, we need to put a corral around Mister Ziggy so he doesn’t become someone else’s bacon.
“Debbie’s husband, Mike, is a writer.” Do I even need to explain that no one wants their husband wandering off?
“Our president, Donald Trump, is…” I’ll let you fill in the rest, but we still want him to stay where we put him.
Now for the tricky part. If “the word or phrase is restrictive—that is, provides essential information about the noun (or nouns) to which it refers—no commas should appear.” CMOS 6.23. Here are some examples:
Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls is a literary classic. In this example, Hemingway’s novel could refer to any of his works, so the title provides essential information to understanding the sentence.
Zayat Stables’ horse American Pharoah is the most recent Triple Crown winner. Again, Ahmed Zayat owns a lot of horses so the name is essential and gets no commas.
Comma After an Introductory Word or Phrase
This is where there is an introductory word or phrase beginning a sentence. Common examples would be Yes, No, Well, However, Well then, By the way, and Nevertheless.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Well, you might say that he’s all hat and no cattle.”
“However, we will not take responsibility for any injuries resulting from misuse.”
“Well then, why should we care?”
“By the way, what did you say your name was?” Helpful hint: Never use this at the end of a date.
“Nevertheless, we shall expect payment promptly.”
Yes, your editor should and will catch these common mistakes. However, he or she will charge you either by the hour or an equivalent amount by the word. Do you really want to pay for work that you could have easily done yourself?
Even the best editor will miss something occasionally. The more cluttered your manuscript is with these simple corrections, the more likely they will be to miss something else. Every correction they make, makes it harder to spot the ones they haven’t made.
Every editor I know, adjusts their rates depending on how difficult or easy the edit is expected to be, so having your manuscript in the best possible shape beforehand, makes it more likely that you will benefit on the rate and that your editor will want to work with you again.
#writing, #fictionwriting, #editing