editing, Writers Co-op, writing technique

Paws Here

This ia a comma.       This is Oscar Wilde

Hello all.

As many of you have no doubt noticed, the first Writer’s Co-op anthology, Down the Rabbit Hole, is finally complete and ready for release in a few short weeks. Ably midwifed by our own Curtis Bausse, it is a fascinating and engaging collection.  I think you’ll like it. As one of the editors, I was impressed with the quality of writing throughout and the diversity of voices.

Editing is fun. It really is. It’s also a tough job. It’s challenging enough when it’s your own manuscript. No matter how many times you go over it, there’s always another question, another uncertainty. Is that the best word? Is my dialogue believable? Can I get rid of that phrase? (Or paragraph? Or chapter?) Am I using that semicolon correctly?

When you’re editing someone else’s work, the responsibilities multiply. Not only are you trying to polish the writing to a high gloss, you have to do so without wrecking the original. You have to respect the author’s own voice, her own style. It can be a tricky balancing act. There are rules for good writing, of course, but much of it is still subjective. (I confess to having a heavy hand. My first impulse is to rewrite, and I apologize if anyone found my suggestions, eh, overbearing.)

On the subject of rules, I want to take a minute to discuss that smallest bit of stigmeological property: the comma. I know, I know – the comma is not the smallest punctuation mark in terms of ink. That honor would go to the period, natch. But the period is a weightier mark in terms of purpose and effect. It denotes, as writers of Commonwealth English know all too well, a full stop. End of the line. No more sentence beyond this point.

The comma is a more subtle and ambiguous creature. Sure, there are some hard and fast rules, but there are times when its use – or lack of same  – can be somewhat discretionary, a style choice. Hence the potential confusion.

The word comma comes from the Greek, komma, meaning “a bit that is cut off.” Originally, Aristophanes of Byzantium (no, not the bawdy Athenian comic playwright, the other Aristophanes) invented a system of dots that could be included in a written text to signify the amount of breath that a reader should take between phrases when reading aloud. This is, more or less, the original concept of the modern comma. (Which gives some idea how ephemeral the comma can be. It was originally nothing but a mouthful of air.) The modern comma derived directly from a little diagonal slash printers used to indicate a pause – the virgula suspensiva. I don’t know why you need to know that, but now you do.

In these oh-so-sophisticated times, the comma isn’t really used to indicate breaths (but then, we don’t do a whole lot of reading out loud anymore either) but it is still used to separate clauses – those “cut off” bits I spoke of.

First: A comma is used to separate dependent clauses from independent clauses when the dependent clause comes first, such as: “After cutting down all the the turpentine trees, I threw myself into a butt of malmsey wine.”  Turn it around (“I threw myself into etc after cutting down all the whatsis”) and you no longer need a comma. Also, use a comma when two independent clauses are stitched together with one of the seven coordinating conjunctions – so, and, yet, but, or, nor, for.  Consider the difference:  “I couldn’t get out of bed if I wanted to, and the phone was ringing off the hook”  as opposed to “I slaughtered all the innocents because they were getting on my nerves.”  Because is a subordinating conjunction here, so it doesn’t need a comma. There are many others – since, unless, although, after, whereas, whether, while, just to name a few. They don’t need a comma unless the clause they introduce comes before the subject clause of the sentence: “Although they continue to get on my nerves, I will not slaughter all the innocents.”

Okay? Okay.

Now we turn to relative clauses, which can be restrictive or nonrestrictive. Non-restrictive clauses take commas, restrictive clauses do not. Did you see what I did in the first sentence of this paragraph? The clause “which can be restrictive or nonrestrictive” is a nonrestrictive clause, so it needs a comma. If I had said:  “Now we turn to relative clauses which can be restrictive or nonrestrictive,” I would be restricting myself ONLY to relative clauses that can be either. Clear?

No, of course not. That’s a dumb example because the restriction is meaningless. Here’s a better one. “The king mandated the slaying of innocents who were mewling tediously.” This means the king ordered all the mewling innocents – and only the mewling innocents – be dispatched. The meaning is restricted. Presumably, placid innocents were allowed to live, this time anyway. If I’d said, “The king mandated the slaying of innocents, who were mewling tediously,” that suggests that all the little tykes are making an annoying noise and all needed dispatching. No restriction. Any peaceable tykes who were caught up in the fray were just out of luck. 

Plain as rain, no?

On to adverbs. Certain adverbs get commas every time, such as: therefore, however, nevertheless, moreover, furthermore.  Put a comma after it if it begins a sentence: “Nevertheless, it moves.”  If it occurs mid-sentence: “In this competition, however, the loser takes it all,” put commas on both sides.

(Note: I tend to put my commas inside my quotes, an Americanism. The British English practice of putting the comma outside the quotes  – or, if you prefer, the “inverted commas” – is perfectly fine. Even if it’s weird.)

Some adverbs aren’t so fussy, and context and mood can determine usage. “Tonight we dance” has a different feel from “Tonight, we dance.”  Just a bit of dramatic pause. But if that’s really what you’re going for, you might want to sell it a little harder, “Tonight – we dance”  or “But tonight, Esmeralda, we dance!”  It all depends on whether you’re writing a bleak nihilistic novel in a minimalist style, or a florid romance novel  about tango dancers and gypsies. 

But back to commas.

A common comma elision occurs with “too” when it is the ultimate word in a sentence. It’s perfectly valid to use a comma, but it isn’t really needed and looks a little fussy, and – here’s the key point – no one is going to be confused. On the other hand, if you say, “The tubas came in late after the alla breve section too” there is some ambiguity. Do you mean those damned tubas are always missing their cues? Or are you piling on because the pesky piccolos were tardy as well? Fortunately, context will usually make the distinction clear. If not, a comma before the “too” might be enough to suggest the former.

Or consider the following example: “Clang realized too late his airlock was open.” You could enclose “too late” in commas, but you don’t need to. However, if you want to add emphasis for ironic or dramatic or humorous purposes, commas might be the way to go: “Clang realized, too late, his airlock was open.” You could also use em dashes in the same manner: “Clang realized – too late – his airlock was open” emphasizing even more the irony or drama or humor of poor Clang’s plight. Increasing the distance between Clang’s moment of realization and what he actually realizes heightens the tension of the construction: “Clang realized – too late, as it turned out, because his dials were all in the red zone, and the canary alarm was chirping in a manner that, at long last, explained its nomenclature – his airlock was open.”  Here, of course, em dashes are needed to organize this absurd parade of clauses into some semblance of sense.

There are plenty of other uses for commas, like after introductory phrases and around appositives and to separate items on a list and between parts of place names. But when you really get down to the nitty gritty, commas have the same purpose as all punctuation: they make meaning clearer. When it comes to clarifying syntax, the humble comma does a lot of the heavy lifting. But unless the sentence is particularly long or highly complex or especially convoluted, you might be just fine omitting our little friend.  

Consider this nearly random sentence from The Great Gatsby:  

“In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another.”

First off, the barb about the age of his female guests is nicely delivered. But if we wanted to call foul on the comma usage, we could. Technically, a comma should be used after “In the main hall.” It is an introductory phrase, after all. Does he need it? Not really. The meaning is clear. There’s no confusion. So no problem. But let’s look at where he does use a comma: “a brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins…” No comma is wanted here. The “and” might appear to call for it, but both clauses have the same subject: the bar – the bar was set up; the bar was stocked. What follows is not an independent clause. If the sentence had ended with the word gins, the comma would be glaringly wrong (and I’m sure Fitzgerald would’ve omitted it). BUT the clause that follows is long and complicated. This comma is more for pacing, I think. Fitz’s comma gives us a little breath before tackling the rest of the sentence. It is also an organizational tool. We know, without even having to think about it, that everything that follows is one long, breathless phrase. Could he have placed a comma after liquors?  Maybe. Again, there’s no technical need. The rest of the sentence is not an independent clause. The choice would be one of pacing and grouping, and clearly ol’ Scott wanted us to read it all in one gush. Possibly, he wanted us to assume that it was not only the cordials which were were forgotten but also the gins and liquors. And, possibly, I have gone way too deep into the weeds over this. At any rate, I’ll stop now.

Gertrude Stein said, A comma by helping you along and holding your coat for you and putting on your shoes keeps you from living your life as actively as you should lead it”  – which is so smart-aleckishly convoluted, it’s hard to say for sure whether she was for them or against them (she was against them). But the point is made. If you can get away without it, and you really don’t want it cluttering up or slowing down your sentence, hey, try leaving that comma out. You have my permission, which is worth almost nothing. But make conscious choices. Every sentence is different. (Note: It’s easy to find humorous examples of how misused punctuation can change the meaning of a sentence, like: “Let’s go home and eat kids!” – but that kind of thing doesn’t really happen all that often.)

I’m going to leave it there. I certainly haven’t covered everything, and there are some briar patches out there (serial adjectives? Don’t get me started), so maybe next time.

Or maybe I’ll tackle hyphens.

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editing, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

A Word About Editing

By Curtis Bausse

Not my own work, other people’s. I could write reams about my own – the various drafts, the juggling with voice, the search for the right rhythm in each sentence. But that would be like telling you my dreams – only a matter of time before you’re asleep yourself. So this is about how I edit other people’s.

You may be wondering what gives me the right in any case. Well, more than a right it’s a duty, an obligation. I have two anthologies on the go, Second Taste, the third (and final) Book a Break anthology, and (with the invaluable help of Atthys Gage and GD Deckard) The Rabbit Hole, the first volume (of what we hope will be a long and successful series) of weird stories produced by The Writers’ Co-op. As all writers know, a text can only benefit from the critical regard of a reader intent on helping it reach its full potential. To launch an anthology without editing the submissions would be remiss at the least. Closer, in fact, to irresponsible.

I’m not a professional editor, but I do have some credentials in the world of academia, where I peer-reviewed submissions to a number of journals in Applied Linguistics and Cognitive Psychology. I also submitted articles to similar journals myself. It’s not something I recommend if your ego is fragile. The articles are regularly savaged like a ferret set upon by a Staffordshire bull terrier. That’s when they’re accepted. Otherwise it’s a summary ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’

I eventually got used to it. But I took away a couple of lessons for use when reviewing myself. The first, more obvious one was to be meticulous, hunt down the slightest weakness of logic, unsupported argument or methodological flaw. The second was to be respectful, less bull terrier than Labrador. (I’m not an expert on the cognitive psychology of dogs, but I see Labradors as firm and rigorous, yet positive and constructive.)

Clearly, a research paper is not the same as a short story. But when I edit, I try to bring those two qualities to the task. Regarding the first, every editor has their own prism, a particular way they like to see things expressed. It’s a fine line between respecting a writer’s voice (which is essential) and accepting an awkward wording or a clumsiness. My own fixation is concision, by which I mean the elimination of any unnecessary word. When I read my own writing I ask myself if every word in the sentence contributes something to the overall effect or purpose. Redundancies get deleted without mercy.

So when they received my comments, a number of contributors to the anthologies may have thought, ‘Wow, this guy’s a nutter!’ My apologies if that’s the case. But faithful to my second principle of constructiveness, I always strive to keep in view what the writer is trying to achieve, and make suggestions to that end. Perhaps I’ve been lucky to deal with writers who are understanding and courteous, but so far the replies I’ve received have been almost all appreciative.

There may on occasion be tension between the two principles of rigour and respect. What happens if the story needs a radical overhaul? You might think that in that case it wouldn’t be accepted, but often I see potential in a storyline which could be brought out if the writing was stronger. On those occasions I won’t hesitate to send back a text that I have in places rewritten, with a comment explaining why. The writer can of course refuse the alterations, but again, the replies I get have so far always been positive.

At the end of the day, it’s like many other types of negotiation: sensitivity, subjectivity, attitudes and egos are involved. When writers defend their position with cogent arguments, it means they’ve thought about what they’re doing and come up with what they see as the best way of doing it. In that case I’ll generally defer, even if my own point of view is different. In fiction, voice and intention count for more than in scientific research, meaning there’s more room for flexibility. In both cases, though, editor and writer have a common purpose: the publication of a piece that’s as good as it can get. Which is why, on the whole, agreement is easily reached.

Perhaps, if anything, I err on the side of respect. Certainly that was the case when I started out. To overcome that, I have a simple expedient: when firmness is called for, I think of Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish, whose fruitful but fractious relationship led to the publication of stories widely hailed as among the best ever written.

Carver’s initial ending of One More Thing:

L.D. put the shaving bag under his arm again and once more picked up the suitcase. “I just want to say one more thing, Maxine. Listen to me. Remember this,” he said. “I love you. I love you no matter what happens. I love you too, Bea. I love you both.” He stood there at the door and felt his lips begin to tingle as he looked at them for what, he believed, might be the last time. “Good-bye,” he said.

“You call this love, L.D.?” Maxine said. She let go of Bea’s hand. She made a fist. Then she shook her head and jammed her hands into her coat pockets. She stared at him and then dropped her eyes to something on the floor near his shoes.

It came to him with a shock that he would remember this night and her like this. He was terrified to think that in the years ahead she might come to resemble a woman he couldn’t place, a mute figure in a long coat, standing in the middle of a lighted room with lowered eyes.

“Maxine!” he cried. “Maxine!”

“Is this what love is, L.D.?” she said, fixing her eyes on him. Her eyes were terrible and deep, and he held them as long as he could.

Lish’s ending:

L.D. put the shaving bag under his arm and picked up the suitcase.

He said, “I just want to say one more thing.”

But then he could not think what it could possibly be.

It takes a brave editor to do that. I think I have a long way to go.

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