Commas and what makes good writing

To me, ‘good writing’ is something that interests me – either because of the style of writing, and/or because of what is being said. Good writing translates as easy reading that beckons you to continue reading paragraph after paragraph and page after page. For this to happen the reading needs to be fluent. When it is we become absorbed and think only about what is being communicated through the words in front of us.

I like writing that hides itself like a good chef (out the back in the kitchen): it serves its purpose well, but inconspicuously. By this I mean I like writing that does not draw attention to itself but allows us to become absorbed in its content.

THE ROLE OF COMMAS IN WRITING

  • Commas are very necessary.
  • Commas can get in the way.
  • Commas can really, really get in the way like a nagging dog wanting a pat while you’re in the middle of a good book.
  • Commas can confuse.
  • Commas can change or create the intended meaning.
  • Commas really are very necessary.

So imagine sitting down by yourself in a warm room, snuggled onto the couch under a lamp. Soft music is playing but you don’t notice it anymore – you’ve just read the back cover of a book you picked up at the library and it looks good. So you turn the first few pages, skipping the Introduction, and the beginning of the first chapter now stares back at you as you start reading.

What’s this, you think, and you read over it again. Half way down the page again you stop – whew, that was a long sentence – and you decide to read over that again also. And then – what on Earth does that mean? – again you read over a line for a second time before crying out loud, ‘Why on Earth did he put that comma there? There’s just too many commas and they just don’t work.’

In my writing and editing I have come to conclude that we have many reasons for placing commas where we do. Often it is because we think we are using them as they are ‘supposed to’ be used.

My point of view is that the best rule to follow is that commas are to be used by a writer to tell the reader when to pause. (They are best viewed as a tool, not a rule.) If we are good at telling a story to a group of friends, then this is what we do when we speak. We stop, we pause, we wait for a response … When we are instead writing, then if it’s not a full stop that we use to indicate a pause for the reader, then it’s a comma.

This is how we sustain interest. It is the means we use to help our audience to take in what we say, to clarify our meaning, and to create emphasis and interest: this is how a comma is best used.

Forget the ‘proper’ way to place a comma – but place them to suit your purpose. And when in doubt, read the sentence out loud, pausing where the commas are. Did you pause where you want your reader to pause?

Remember – see commas as a tool, not a rule. Only place them where you want your reader to pause, and always in the interests of good communication.

4 Comments

  • Regina Lane Reply

    “I like writing that does not draw attention to itself”. Interesting, because so much literary discussion is about the prose, about the literary flair, the risks writers take…as if its not enough just to tell a good story anymore…or maybe all the good stories have already been told…and so the ‘writing’ is where the attention now rests…I tend to agree with you though, I have to say.

    As to the comma’s…well I’m a comma junkie, so probably not well placed to comment! I clearly pause alot when I speak, because when I write they simply appear on the page in front of me. I sure make the editors work for their money?! 🙂

    • Greg Hill Reply

      I like your comments Regina, thanks. I once had a writing teacher who I respected immensely. He said that when we revise a story we have written, we should look for the best, most eloquent pieces of our writing – and delete them! He was of the opinion that there was something else to a good story, and that ‘fancy writing’ only got in the way. I suppose I agree, and that I think there is something else, like a rhythm, to a good piece of writing, and that ‘good’ writing does not draw attention to itself, but only to what it is trying to say (or do) to the reader.

  • Robert Blain Reply

    Yep, I agree. One of the signs of good writing is that the write doesn't get in the way. One of the things that definitely gets in the way is the overuse or misuse of commas. Master editor Sol Stein (author of On Writing) said that commas can interrupt the reading process and should be used sparingly. As a rule of thumb, whenever there is a natural pause in the text or dialogue, insert a comma. Otherwise, leave 'em out.

  • Rod Casey Reply

    I agree Greg….commas should be used sparingly and simulate the pauses as in spoken speech.

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