Commas in Lists of Items
According to The Elements of Style and The Chicago Manuel of Style, when listing three items, a comma is placed after the first and second items (Paper, pen, and writer). Some publishers omit the second comma, but they won't fault you for not knowing their style. The important thing is to be consistent, so the editor can match the style sheet to your manuscript. Plus, if the list contains multiple words, it can be confusing if you don’t add the second comma. (His pets consisted of a long-haired cat, a short-haired dog, and a very noisy parrot.)
The exception to this rule concerns the name of businesses such as law firms which usually omit the last comma (Dewey, Sokum and Howe).
To further complicate things, if the list of items includes commas, they should be set off by semi-colons (The blank, white sheet of paper; the black, fine-line pen; and the ready, spirit-filled writer).
Next week we will discuss other uses for the comma.
Commas in Adverbial Phrases and Clauses
When the main clause of a sentence is preceded by a phrase or a subordinate clause, you may use a comma to separate the phrase. (Sitting in the back, the group cheered wildly.) or (During the performance, the group cheered wildly.)
If the interruption to the flow of the sentence is slight, however, the comma may be omitted. The comma is usually omitted after short, introductory, adverbial phrases. (On Tuesday Bill was absent from class.)
An adverbial phrase or clause located between the subject and the verb should usually be set off by commas. (Bill, after picking up his assignment, went home.)
Commas should be used to set off interjections, transitional adverbs, and similar elements that affect a distinct break in the continuity of thought. (On the other hand, Bill may be right.) (Yes, Bill was right after all.)
Commas in Lists of Items will be the topic of next week’s blog.
Using Commas in Dialogue
There seems to be some confusion when using commas in dialogue. The
commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks, whether single
or double. Example: “I want to go with you,” he said. Or: He
said, “I want to go with you.” I constantly see errors regarding this
rule in print. The Chicago Manual of Style says this is the traditional style, and was used well before the first edition of the manual in 1906.
Question marks and exclamation points go inside if they are part of
the dialogue and outside if they are part of the entire sentence.
Example: Why did I keep hearing over and over in my head the words,
“I’ll never forget you”? Before he said good-bye, he asked, “Will I
ever forget you?”
“Commas in Adverbial Phrases and Clauses” will be the topic of next week’s blog.
Now let’s look at some basic rules regarding commas:
Always place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent
clause. In other words, place a comma between two independent clauses
separated by a conjunction. Independent clauses have a subject and a
verb, and they can stand alone. (The situation looked hopeless, but
there was one remaining chance for success.) or (The situation looked
hopeless, but I didn’t believe it.)
However, do not join independent clauses with a comma if they are
lacking a conjunction. They need to be joined with a semi-colon, or they
can be cut into two separate sentences. (The situation looked hopeless;
there was one remaining chance for success.) or (The situation looked
hopeless. There was one remaining chance for success.)
A common mistake made with the comma is to separate a dependent
clause from an independent clause when they are joined with a
conjunction. (I was told the situation looked hopeless but didn’t
believe it.) Each clause must have a subject in order to need a
comma before the conjunction.
Misuse of the comma in this way is one of the most common errors made in writing.
We are beginning a seven-part series on “The Elusive Comma.”
“The comma, which seems to cup the sense of the preceding phrase and
hold it out to us, timidly and respectfully, is one of our greatest
breakthroughs. The civilizing influence of this punctuation aid derives
partly from its odd shape, the shape of mosquito larvae and sea horses:
close inspection reveals the implied high culture of its asymmetrical
tapering swerve, so distinctly an advantage over the more rustic
period.” –Nicholson Baker
The punctuation error that seems to occur most often in the hundreds
of manuscripts crossing my desk each year is misuse of the comma. It is
important to learn when to use and when not to use commas. To make
matters worse, The Chicago Manual of Style, The Associated Press Handbook, and most grammar books list different rules. Most Christian publishers have their own style sheets, but they basically follow The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the standard in the book publishing industry. Since it is costly, I suggest you buy Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style to
help you with grammar, punctuation, and word usage. First copyrighted
in 1935, this little 92-page book is packed with all the basics. It can
be purchased inexpensively on Amazon.com.
After you reach the climax in your story, be brief and be gone.
Wrap it up as quickly as possible, being careful not to leave any loose
ends. Once you have reached the climax, your readers won’t have any
reason to keep reading.
Set your story aside for a week, then go back and rewrite and rewrite
more. Ask yourself, “Will it hurt the story if I leave out this word,
this paragraph, this entire scene?” If not, take it out. Whittle
away all the dead wood. Make sure your characters are well developed,
and the main character solves his or her problem, averts disaster, or
overcomes his opponent himself? Your scenes should move along
smoothly and transition well from one to another. And also make sure you
have not left any loose ends?
It doesn’t matter if you are writing fiction or nonfiction, you must
use good fiction techniques. People love stories. They want to escape
from real life into an imaginary adventure, but they need help with
their problems too. You can meet their real needs by meeting their felt
needs through the vehicle of fiction or nonfiction stories. And God can
teach spiritual truths through your fictional or real characters. If you
are writing about real people, you may want to change their names
and/or possibly write the story under a pseudonym. We don’t want friends
and family hurt by what we write.
This ends the blog series on “Writing the Short Story.”
It may help to think through your story in scenes. (See previous
blog for more information on scenes.) Each scene must move the story
forward. If an event is unnecessary, leave it out. Even in a book, your
writing must be tight.
Scenes include five things:
- Somebody wins
Build suspense as you go along. Keep your readers guessing. Before a
conflict is solved, put a barrier in your main character’s path. Don’t
give the story away. Once you get into novel writing, you can confront
the main character with conflict upon conflict, but in short stories
stick to one conflict. Keep your readers hanging on a cliff. In novels,
try to end each chapter on a cliffhanger. If you don’t, the readers
might put your book down and never pick it up again. Don’t you have
half-read books on your shelf?
Stories need to be filled with action. Stay out of your character’s
mind, and keep the story focused on his or her activities. Once in a
while, you can tell us what the main character thinks, but not all the
time. Help your readers identify with the main character and the
problems he or she is experiencing.
Short stories and novels have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Write the beginning and the end before you go back and fill in the
middle. You may change some things as you go along, but you must have a
Another way to phrase this is the three O’s:
Objective – Beginning
Obstacle – Middle
Outcome – End
In the first paragraph of your story, you must hook your readers.
Open with an exciting beginning that makes them want to read on. Also
open with the viewpoint character. Write your story as seen from one
person’s viewpoint, either first or third person; third person is
usually easier to write. Paint a brief picture of your main character,
showing their personality, so the reader can see that person and
identify with them.
Example taken from The Hair Pulling Bear Dog by Lee Roddy:
At first, D.J. Dillon thought the terrible nightmare had returned. In
his sleep, he again heard the squeal of brakes, the crash, and then the
awful silence. The 13-year-old boy’s blue eyes blinked open. He stared
into the soft moonlit darkness of the kitchen where he slept on a
His blond head turned automatically toward his parents’ bedroom wall
beside him. He started to call softly, “Mom?” Then he remembered.
She was dead six months now, killed in that auto accident. The
mountain’s silence had carried the sound for miles. D.J. had heard it up
the canyon without knowing who was in the collision.
Memories flashed over him again. The hurt swallowed him like a
silent, ugly monster. D.J. started to turn over and bury his face in the
dusty pillow when he heard the crash again-but now he was wide awake!
Now write a synopsis of your story (whether it is true or
fictional). Eventually this will form the body of your story. On the
first draft, let it flow down on paper. Don’t worry about grammar,
punctuation, or phraseology. Just get your story down. If you think of
small details as you go, include them. But don’t worry about your
construction in this first rough draft. Leave yourself free from
constraints so your creative juices can flow. After it is written, lay
it aside and let it cool.
Now go on to work on another project. Have a file folder or a folder
on your computer labeled with the name of each project you are working
on. Keeping organized records is imperative. Every time you find
something pertaining to that idea, place it in the file. You may prefer
to keep your files and research material electronically on your
computer, but I would always suggest you have a hard copy backup.
God inspires us to write; I’m convinced of that. But God doesn’t tell
us the words will flow down on paper and settle in concrete. He is not
going to do our work for us—He will only guide us along the way. Writing
the first draft is the creative part. For me, this is the easiest part.
The hard part is rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting.
Remember that I told you to write a theme sentence and to make an
outline before you began the actual writing. Then get as much down on
paper as you can without worrying about the structure. Now let’s go back
and put in the actual structure in the next blog.
Currently, one of the fastest growing markets in all of Christian
writing is fiction. However, if you are a beginning writer, I do not
suggest you start with a novel. Instead, write a short story for a
church school take-home paper or an online website. See The Christian Writers Market Guide for a list of markets.
The tips I give will work for fictional techniques in nonfiction
pieces, such as personal experience stories, as well as for short
anecdotal stories written within nonfiction articles and books.
An excellent definition of fiction is given by author Lee Roddy.
“Creating characters in conflict culminating in crisis and change with
commentary.” The four key words are character, conflict, crisis,
and change, called the “4 C’s of Fiction.”
A story is comprised of three elements: theme, plot, and character.
Normally you can think of theme as the foundation on which the story
sits. Your focus sentence will be based on the theme or main point you
are trying to achieve. The story is either character-driven or
plot-driven, depending on whether the main character is the most
important element or whether the storyline is more important. These
three qualities are always integral parts of your story, regardless of
your emphasis. Think of them as forming a triangle with the theme as the
As in other writing, whether books, articles, or stories, form a
focus sentence before you begin. This is the glue that holds the entire
story together. The structure will be different for fiction than for
nonfiction. Also, write a rough outline or a short running synopsis of
the story. This may change as the story unfolds, but you need to have a
plan in mind even though this may end differently.
Last week you were given Tips 7-9 for Time Management. Here are
Tips 10-12 to help you manage your time, so you will be able to find
more time for your writing.
- Keep Accurate Financial Records
Keep a ledger of expenses and income for your writing. Excel is an
excellent computer program for keeping financial records. If you are
making a serious attempt to run a business, you can write off the
expenses on your tax return. Get receipts for your postage, office
supplies, telephone calls, and dinners with editors. Also, if you drive
to an interview or other job-related function, mileage can be deducted.
Keep track of your submissions—what is out in circulation, where you sent it, and when you e-mailed it.
- Avoid Procrastination
Have you heard people say, “I’ve always wanted to be an author. I’m
going to write when the children grow up, when I retire, when my husband
retires, etc. Someday, when I have the time, I’m going to…” If you are
going to become a writer, you need to start right now.
- Touch the Lives of Others
Writing is 99 percent perspiration and one percent inspiration. It
takes a little talent, a strong desire, and a lot of hard work. If you
manage your time properly, you will find time to write. Remember what I
said at the beginning: God gives us enough hours to do all that He wants
us to do. We have 86,400 seconds every day. Let’s use this time to
glorify God in all we do.
This concludes the series on Time Management Tips for Writers.
Here are tips 7-9 to help you manage your time, so you will be able to find more time for your writing.
- Find a Quiet Place to Concentrate
When you write to glorify God, He deserves all of your attention. You
can’t concentrate if the TV is blaring, the phone is ringing, or
children are screaming. You need to find a place that is free from
- Keep Your Body as Well as Your Mind in Shape
If you eat properly, get enough sleep, and exercise regularly, your
mind will be sharper and more creative. Also, go out and participate in
activities. In order to pull information out of your mind, there has to
be a storehouse from which to withdraw it. Have you ever experienced a
time when you were pulling more out than you were putting in? Didn’t you
feel drained? Read. Read for pleasure as well as things related to what
you are writing. You should spend as many hours reading as you do
- Organize Your Work
Keep your home-office looking professional. Organize each writing
project in a file folder as well as on your computer and on and
electronic backup. Label each folder as you obtain ideas for articles or
books. What may start out as an article file on “Dealing with Stress”
may turn into a book five years down the road. Place everything you find
regarding that subject in your file folder and/or computer file.
Tips 10-12 will be given in next week’s blog.