Sunday, November 1, 2015

#11 Revision is a Process

 November 2015 --- Punctuation Pitfalls 
                                 & Grammar Glitches
 This is Part 11 of a 12-part series on Revision is a Process @ 2015 - Catherine E. McLean - All Rights Reserved
Voice won't matter if the reader can't get past grammatical errors flaring brighter than fireworks on the 4th of July. — Flo Fitzpatrick

You don't have to be a grammar guru or an English major to be a good writer. However, what you need to become, and strive for, is the awareness of the sound of silence or the pause of emphasis that punctuation adds to the narrative and how they make the words flow.

To put it another way, you have to develop an inner ear that hears the pause and a mind that knows whether that's you mentally taking a breath or it's a legitimate pause that requires a piece of punctuation.

Punctuation provides the road signs for the reader so they can grasp the sound and flow of the words. So, let's look at—


Period = Halt/Stop, then go on

Comma = a "brief-breath pause" to separate or set off words, clauses, or phrases

Ellipses = RED FLAG - DANGER: When writing genre fiction, an ellipses means TO TRIAL OFF (nothing else). If your text or dialogue isn't trailing off to nothingness, don't use ellipses. Likely you need a period or a dash or the sentence restructured.

Italics = emphasis, telepathic conversation, answering oneself, foreign names, unfamiliar terms, etc. Resist using italics for one word or words with three or fewer letters. Why? Because they go unseen. You might hear the emphasis, but chances are your reader won't. And, do not pepper a page with italics or fill pages with italics. (Yes, there exceptions, there are always exceptions.)

Underlining = on hard copy it indicates italics (see italics above)

ALL CAPS = shouting (to be used rarely). When combined with an exclamation point, it is yelling, rage, or extreme excitement.

Exclamation Point = emphasis, surprise, excitement (sounds two to four octaves higher when read) RED FLAG DANGER: it's overused to the point of peppering pages and dialogue. Limit yourself to one exclamation point per chapter.

= an abrupt truncation of dialogue or thought— or an interruption to add in a new thought, explanation or information. (Like I just did.)

A pair of dashes usually sets off inserted material—like this—but again, don't pepper pages with dashes. PLEASE NOTE: Dashes dash along so the reader keeps reading. Dashes take the place of semicolons and colons in informal writing and genre fiction.

Question Mark = a question has been asked

SYMBOLS –RED FLAG DANGER: Do not use symbols when storytelling, it stops the reader in their tracks and takes them out of the story.

= same general use as for dashes but usually used for irony, a first-person, or stream-of-consciousness narrative, etc.

Asterisk = one asterisk could be placed at the start and stop of telepathic conversations that are italicized. Three asterisks with a space between on a line is a mechanical device that indicates a major scene break in a story, however, for the reader's sake, use words of transition whenever possible.

—UNSUITABLE FOR GENRE FICTION: Colons, semicolons, brackets, bolding, and a change of font or text size

Now for a closer look at the piece of punctuation that gives writers headaches and drives editors nuts—the comma.


Although the comma is the workhorse of fiction and most writing venues, writers often suffer "comma trauma." As mentioned earlier, in the heat of drafting a writer hears a pause, but in actuality, that pause was the writer taking a breath.

That's why it's important to do one revision pass and look at every comma used. Verify that each is necessary. If in doubt, remove the comma. Does the passage or sentence still make sense and how does the rhythm of the sentence change as a result?

Another pitfall of comma usage is the "comma conjunction."
There are two basic problems with comma-conjunctions: 1) the comma is necessary but it's missing, and 2) a comma has been inserted but it doesn't join two sentences.

When revising, do two separate passes for the comma conjunction.  One will be for "and" and the other will be for "but."  You see, those two words link most compound sentences. When you find "and" or "but," triple check that you have two separate sentences. If you have two, insert the comma. If you don't, continue searching and verifying.

But wait a minute. If you joined two sentences, how long is that combined sentence? Long sentences tend to be convoluted and awkward, which forces a reader to stop and go back to reread.  And as has been said many times in this year's posts, you don't want the reader stopping. You want them to stay immersed in your story.

Now, the average sentence is twenty words, or so the experts claim. It's okay to have long sentences but if in doubt, here's a simple test: read that combined sentence out loud. Did you run out of breath? If so, it's too long. Break the sentences apart. And when you read such combined sentences out loud, do listen carefully for how the words flow. Does anything sound awkward? Maybe you need to not only break the sentences part but restructure them for better flow.

However, the more common problem with conjunction commas is that they are missing. Again, to locate where those commas should be added in, find "and" and "but" and see if you have two sentences that need to be joined.

Moving on, we come to the pitfall of the introductory clause comma-trauma. An introductory clause needs a comma to separate the clause from the main sentence. Seems easy enough, but in the heat of drafting, those commas often go missing. Again, do a separate pass through your work to check the beginning of your sentences. Do you have clauses that need commas? If you are not sure of what an introductory clause is, maybe it's time you brushed up on comma usage with a grammar manual.


As to grammar glitches, the main one is the use of passive verbs and passive sentence constructions. Not all are bad, but a high percentage weakens the vividness of the storytelling. Examples of passiveness are:

The man was bitten by the dog.
The mailman was going down the sidewalk.
The children were happily playing hopscotch.
The flowers looked pretty in the sunlight.
The tree shaded the riverbank.
She wore a hat.

Passiveness is also a hallmark of telling. It's better to show:

The Doberman bit Mike. (Better is: The Doberman sank its teeth into Mike's ankle.)

The mailman strode up the sidewalk toward Mrs. Black's cottage.

As they played hopscotch, the four sisters laughed so hard none could complete their turns.

Sunlight glossed the ruby-red tulips and gilded their yellow centers.

The oak's ancient branches, newly leafed, offered a mottled shade along the river's bank.

A pink pillbox hat perched on top of Mrs. Brown's head of curly gray hair.
Here are the red-flag words that often indicate passiveness:

                LY ending words
                ING ending words

Then look for abstract words like:

generic descriptions of colors (you want to be specific and give a visual of the shade or hue of the color— it's not red but crimson)

generic flora and fauna (not a flower but a rose, not a tree but a hemlock)

not small but as small as an ant
not tall but as tall as a skyscraper
not big but as big as a bus
not short but knee-high

Let me repeat— to tell a story well is to cultivate an inner ear that "hears" the way words flow as well as the imagery specific words that help the reader see a vivid movie in their mind of the story you envisioned. Reading a manuscript's text out loud can help uncover problems.  Reading great storyteller's books out loud can help you better hear good writing.

*** This blog is updated the 1st of each month and the next topic is December 2015 — Read It Again

----MARK YOUR CALENDARS FOR these workshop—both are open to all writers:

 JANUARY 10-24, 2016 "HOOKS"–an online workshop I'm doing for Northeast Ohio Romance Writers


FEBRUARY 1-29, 2016 CAUSE AND EFFECT SEQUENCES sponsored by Pennwriters.

 More workshop listings are available at

*** Questions and comments are welcomed and are always answered.

*** If you'd like recommendations on how-to books about devices and techniques of fiction, contact me.

*** Permission is granted to forward a link to this blog or mention it on any social media.

*** IN 2016, these posts will be put into one file for downloading. To be notified when this is available, Connect With Catherine

*** "Terrific Titles—an all inclusive guide to creating story titles."  Other Writers Cheat Sheets are available HERE.

# # #