I’m on week four of the new job. It’s pay day on Friday, woohoo. I’m still not in much of a routine with writing in the evenings and weekends but I am pleased that I have done something in the last few weeks. At the end of last week I was noticeably less tired so I remain positive about my ability to continue to write.
What I have been doing is posting blogs and I’ve noticed that the time pressure is not good for my writing. Reviewing Electric Spec last week felt rushed and as if I hadn’t given enough thought to what I was saying. As it was, it took me several days to read the whole magazine.
That led me to thoughts about commas. Most of the stories I read seemed to have an overabundance of commas and there was only really one in which it contributed to building the atmosphere. So, what’s the problem with commas? I think it stems from the gap between written and spoken english.
When people speak they rarely form good sentences; they hesitate, they use fillers, they repeat themselves and they go off on tangents. Accurately transcribed speech might appear to require the use of a lot of commas because of all the pauses. It’s a common myth that the comma is used to show where a person should breathe if they were reading out loud.
There are three separate issues here. One, how accurately should prose in fiction recreate the spoken word? Two, what are commas for? And three, what effect does overusing commas have on prose?
Personally, I think prose in fiction should not attempt to recreate how people speak. Even in dialogue you’re really aiming for an idealisation of speech. Written english benefits from being much more thought through than everyday speech. We can be more eloquent and more effective. I have found that working on my skills in terms of using punctuation and grammar has increased my power and control over my writing. I am better able to say exactly what I mean to say and better able to identify what feels instinctively wrong.
Commas have four purposes; listing, joining, gapping and bracketing. One of the most useful online resources I’ve found for punctuation is Larry Trask’s Guide. I don’t think I can say anything about the uses of commas more clearly than this.
Which brings me to my third point, what does the overuse of commas do to prose? There are two types of overuse: liberally sprinkled commas where the writer would pause if speaking and correctly used bracketing commas in sentences overloaded with weak interruptions or parenthetical clauses. Both have the same effect. The prose is choppy, especially if the clauses are short, and has a feeling of breathlessness. This can be used to great effect where the writer wants to create an atmosphere of tension. The sense of breathlessness is reminiscent of the fight/flight response and the accompanying hyper-alertness. Coupled with a first person POV, it it is a useful technique for establishing empathy with a character. Or it can convey dislocation and disorientation if the commas are used to create convoluted, disjointed sentences. The reader shares the overload of input without the reassurance of structure.
The comma is not an everyday, throwaway piece of punctuation. Using it with care and thought has dramatically improved my writing.