Friday, December 13, 2013

The Oxford Comma Can Kiss My Arse (But Details Matter)

I am not Oscar Wilde. I do not deliberate for hours over comma placement. Nor do I stress over whether I need more or fewer commas. I know that I tend to under-use the comma, but it's not something I lose sleep over.

Before BRASS STARS was released there was a round of copy edits. Not really an arduous task, but one thing was immediately clear. The copy-editor knew the proper use of the Oxford comma and he wielded it mightily.

Changes were made with only minor grumbling on my part. (Mostly to the tune of "Maybe I should have done this when I wrote it." and a small chorus of "Fucking hell I do hate commas.")

But (and this is the important thing) it made the book better.

Currently, I'm revising a longer novel. Not a novella of a mere 90 someodd pages, but a full on novel that pushes 500+ pages. And by revising, I mean retyping from a paper copy while making notated changes and adding content where necessary. It's... tedious. But I'm more aware of the commas left out of the last pass. Commas I would normally not stress over. But, having just done this sort of tweak for publication, it's on my mind. So, as I see them (and certainly there are still some that I miss) I have been fixing them and, in future, I will likely try and put them where they belong in the first place.

Sometimes I see young writers (and by this I mean folks new to the craft, not young people) referring with some disdain to "the rules" of writing. Not "Don't start with a prologue rules" but things like "Pick a tense and stick with it". Story, I've heard it said, is more important than clean writing.

There is a smidgen of truth to that assessment. Clean writing will not save a dull story. But messy writing will kill even the most interesting tale.

So. Why do I say the Oxford comma can kiss my butt? Because when I start a story, I don't worry about the minutiae of the writing. I use fragments and drop in semicolons where they plain don't belong because I'm writing a draft and the only thing I'm worried about is the story.

BUT, once I start revisions, the details matter. Not just the details of the story or the characters, but also the details of the writing. The basic mechanics of the sentences and paragraphs and chapters. Do not make the mistake of thinking that the bigger picture of a story can survive a death of a thousand little errors. It cannot.

Write your story however you feel necessary. And then polish that baby 'til every little comma shines. 


M.C. Hana said...

Good post. I tend to overuse commas and then have to strip them out, so I understand your annoyance.

A.G. Carpenter said...

I tend toward a minimalist approach, so making sure there are enough commas to be clear and readable is the challenge. (Which I tend to fail, in part, because I know how each sentence I write should read and don't require punctuation to help guide me.)