Ich wär' so gerne commillionär
February 11, 2010 6:02 PM   Subscribe

Writing help: How can I improve my natural writing style and minimize my use of commas?

I've decided that I suffer from comma creep (that's a thing, right?). I understand the general and proper usage of commas. However, I usually just go by my gut feeling from the running voice in my head (for example, if my inner monologue pauses in a place because it seems right, I will invariably insert a comma even if it's not correct. Needless to say, I pause a lot for effect).

Do you know of a good technique to get my inner monologue to lighten up on the comma usage?

This is more for off-the-cuff writing situations where I wont be going back and editing for mistakes. This question may be unanswerable, but I figure someone out there has the same problem that I do.
posted by Think_Long to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Break everything into separate sentences. Don't start sentences with however, but, although, etc. unless it really contributes to the narrative.

I'm not a writer, but I do end up reading and proof-reading a lot of technical papers. These papers invariably have very long compound sentences because it looks "intelligent"; the result is that they're much harder to read. Brevity!
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:08 PM on February 11, 2010

As a scientist as well as an avid reader, I find that fewer words are generally better than more. Take out descriptors unless they really get you somewhere. Try to find a way to rephrase using more concise language.

As an aside, teaching scientific writing to college freshman is an exercise in frustation like no other.
posted by vortex genie 2 at 6:13 PM on February 11, 2010

Best answer: Oh god, do I ever have the same problem.

To be honest, the only thing that works for me is going back through what I've written and basically taking out every comma except the ones that are "proper." I know you said you won't be going back through to edit, but that's really the only thing that has helped. I have noticed that I'm slightly more conscious of it now on the front end, though. So maybe doing it a few times will prevent you from having to do it forever.

I will, be watching, this thread!
posted by a.steele at 6:14 PM on February 11, 2010

Don't remove too many commas, there's nothing so annoying as trying to parse a sentence without them. Appreciate the fact that we (apparently) have one of the few languages that allow the writer to dictate pauses.
posted by you're a kitty! at 6:15 PM on February 11, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks friends. I just wanted to add that this does not give any of you permission to go through and edit my posting history - yes even you, you know you were thinking it!
posted by Think_Long at 6:17 PM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

One of the best writing lessons I ever got was from a history professor in college.

When you have something to say, say it. There's no point in worrying about what other people think. They're going to think it, no matter how much you try to water down your words with pauses for effect, "right?"s, howevers, and needless to says. Those dilutions are spoken and social cues. They don't belong in print most of the time, because the effects are different.

It's not an easy mental shift to make, and I still struggle with it years later.
posted by gnomeloaf at 6:27 PM on February 11, 2010

Best answer: When you have something to say, say it. There's no point in worrying about what other people think. They're going to think it, no matter how much you try to water down your words with pauses for effect, "right?"s, howevers, and needless to says. Those dilutions are spoken and social cues. They don't belong in print most of the time, because the effects are different.

Former composition teacher and current writer and proofreader here, with a graduate degree in English. And man, do I ever disagree!

'However," particularly, is often needed to properly transition between one thought and another contrasting thought. You can write effectively without transitions--and it's more appropriate in some venues and for some audiences, particularly scientific and technical audiences--but your writing won't sound as artful or, often, as clear.

If this post is any indication, you seem to be doing fine with commas; I haven't spotted any problematic or incorrect usage. As long as you genuinely know the proper rules for comma use and are generally adhering to them (rather than just inserting them mid-sentence for dramatic pause, a la a.steele), I'd agree with you're a kitty!. You're much better off inserting commas where they're correct, but perhaps unnecessary, than you are using two few commas. And those optional ones? Well--that's what even brief proofreading is for. Skimming this, I just took out two commas to clarify my meaning and improve the rhythm of my comment. If it can be done on metafilter, it can be done in most situations that matter.

(I will say that you should be sure that you're using the full contents of your writer's toolbox, including commas, semi-colons, dashes, and parenthesis. Each has a subtly different effect, and subsequently, a subtly different impact on reading.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:49 PM on February 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oh my, yes. a.steele is write, going back over it and giving it a quick polish is the only way to fix it.

I write for a living, although it's the trench warfare git-'er-done kind of writing, and not the lofty sipping-chardonnay-in-the-ivory-tower novelist kind. Quick and dirty is the order of the day in Erika Land.

What I do is, first I bang out everything I have to say. Blorp. Then I give it a quick comb-through, with a short list of my biggest known problems.

For example, I take out all the useless qualifying adverbs like "really" and "pretty" and "kind of." I break paragraphs down into three or four sentences each, since that's most palatable to the audience I'm writing for. Often I cut out the entire first paragraph (funny how often it turns out to be useless). If it's short (like a Metafilter comment) I take out half the words.

This process only takes a few minutes. I find you get diminishing returns with this kind of thing. The first pass through is the most useful, so don't get too wound up about it. Just go through and delete half the commas, and you'll be golden.
posted by ErikaB at 6:50 PM on February 11, 2010

(Gah, "too" few commas. I was so busy skimming for commas there that typos marched right by me!)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:52 PM on February 11, 2010

But of course, PhoBWanKenobi is totally write about everything she's said, so I don't mean to contradict the actual, you know, rules of grammar. My take on the subject is admittedly a mercenary one.
posted by ErikaB at 6:52 PM on February 11, 2010

I've now made myself completely self-conscious about anything writing-related, despite the fact that it's my sole source of income so I must be pretty good at it, right? OH GOD DON'T LOOK AT IT [covers monitor with hands].
posted by ErikaB at 6:54 PM on February 11, 2010 [4 favorites]

I have the same problem. (Plus, I use too many parentheses.)
And, once I use a word it is very likely to be re-used in the next sentence. It is very hard for me to write a single clause sentence.
You have to edit, which I am not doing tonight.
posted by SLC Mom at 7:35 PM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm with SLC Mom. I'm a habitual compound sentence and parenthetical abuser in my first drafts. I take the time to edit for that, rewriting clauses as complete sentences, when my writing quality is important. Random comments on the Internet, meh. I try to catch the spelling and gross grammar mistakes.

You've already beaten it, since awareness is 90% of it. Put a sticky on your monitor that reminds you to edit for that after the first draft.
posted by ctmf at 7:43 PM on February 11, 2010

Best answer: I understand the general and proper usage of commas.

I may be taking that part of your question too literally. Maybe you're confused about how to use commas. But if you really understand proper usage, then what's the problem? Is it that you're not proofreading? Or that you're not proofreading carefully?

I don't know if it's because people think dashing off quick notes on the web is conductive to good writing, but I'm meeting more and more people who seem to think they can write well without proofing. There isn't.

I proof everything I write -- even Facebook updates. My rule is that I don't press SUBMIT until I've read over what I've written, preferably out loud (or sub-vocalized if I'm at work). I read punctuation out loud, too. (I say "comma" when I come to a comma.)

Okay, I'm anal. You don't don't have to proof tweets and text messages, but your expectation should be that the stuff you don't proof will be riddled with errors. I'm always amazed at how many errors I find when I proof my stuff: at least one per sentence. So I assume that when I send stuff out without proofing, there's an error in every sentence.
posted by grumblebee at 8:02 PM on February 11, 2010

This is a classic read made for just this purpose.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 9:37 PM on February 11, 2010

Response by poster: But if you really understand proper usage, then what's the problem? Is it that you're not proofreading? Or that you're not proofreading carefully?

If I'm writing formally I always proofread. What I'm looking for is to see if anyone has any tips to train my inner ear to intuitively know where and where not to put commas - as it stands I put in too many when I'm casually writing.

I'm sure there's no real "trick" to it, but I thought I'd at least poll the audience and see.
posted by Think_Long at 9:57 PM on February 11, 2010

I understand what you're saying. You put commas wherever they are facultative. I have the same issue. For example:

We played outside even though it was raining.

We played outside, even though it was raining.

As far as I'm aware, both of these are accepted as valid. However, I will always go with the second due to some weird aesthetic preference. Unfortunately, when too many of these sentences pile up, the lot ends up as a mess of commas. I feel your pain.
posted by threeants at 4:10 AM on February 12, 2010

Best answer: I'm sure there's no real "trick" to it, but I thought I'd at least poll the audience and see.

Yeah, what grumblebee said. This is an aesthetic preference, and one best treated with a prescription of proofreading. Get good at doing a quick read-through and vocalizing the words in your head (including pauses). It's also a matter of balance--sometimes you'll need one or two, but not a ton.

But, like I said--and I was an English teacher--it sounds like you're getting worked up about nothing if this post is any indication. There's not really such a thing as too many commas so long as they're not erroneously placed; this is like when my students would assume any long sentence was a run-on. If it's any comfort, I've been editing a long manuscript, and it's a mess of excised commas. Not because my usage was wrong, but because I wanted the reader to read more quickly. Depending on audience and intent, it happens to all of us. It's why proofreading exists!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:07 AM on February 12, 2010

Best answer: You can learn to proof very quickly if you speak (or sub-vocalize) what you've written at a rapid pace. I can proof my MeFi posts this way in about 30 seconds (for a post as long as this one.) It's not expert-level proofing, but it's better than sending my remarks out with warts and pimples all over them.

If you force yourself to proof everything you write for (say) a month, your un-proofed writing will get better. I'm so used to proofing that my brain now spots a lot of errors as I'm making them.

But if you're totally averse to proofing your casual writing, try this: forbid yourself from using commas to indicate pauses. When you feel a pause, DON'T place a comma. ONLY place them for grammatical purposes.

This is not a good long-term solution. Commas are good for pauses. But maybe doing it for a while will train your brain to be less generous with commas.

By the way, I feel your pain. When I was in elementary school, the only advice my teachers gave me about comma placement was "put a comma where you would naturally pause." That totally confused me, because it seemed to me that one could legitimately (naturally) pause almost anywhere in a sentence. Put. The Coffee Cup. Down.

I think I would have understood the comma=pause rule better if my teachers had told me that, in general, I should put commas where I would pause if I was saying the sentence in a neutral, un-inflected way, without overly stressing any word or phrase.

I was also confused about verse meter. I was told that Hamlet's famous speech went like this:

to BE or NOT to BE that IS the QUESTion


Why not this?

to be OR not to be THAT is the question

The answer is that while the latter is a totally legitimate way of saying the line -- even an interesting, pointed, dramatic way of saying it -- it's not how one naturally stresses the words if one is speaking in a neutral, relaxed manner. In fact, the latter version is powerful BECAUSE it goes against the grain of natural stress. Just like put. the coffee cup. down.

You can punctuate that way to great effect, but you should know what you're doing. It will be more powerful if it's a conscious choice.
posted by grumblebee at 6:46 AM on February 12, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks all. The everlasting struggle of self-improvement goes on. and on. and on.
posted by Think_Long at 7:02 AM on February 12, 2010

I love commas, even years after being trained out of my worse excesses. (Who gives a fuck about an oxford comma? I do, Vampire Weekend. I do.) I was finally able to make cutting down my comma usage feel natural by focusing on whether it's necessary to my purpose to have a grammatically optional comma in a particular place? In other words, do I consider it essential to force a particular reading of a sentence on my audience?

For casual writing that's meant to sound as much like my conversational voice as possible, I use commas liberally because conveying my voice is as important as communicating the content of what I'm writing. As that personality-to-content calculation shifts moving up the formality scale, I question optional commas more rigorously. This works for me because it keeps the audience and what I'm trying to convey centered in the act of writing, and has helped me be more aware of what and how I'm writing without triggering the "YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG!!!!" judgmental inner editor who makes my writing all stilted and self-conscious and weird.
posted by EvaDestruction at 12:12 PM on February 12, 2010

Think_Long, I was bad did what you told us not to do: I searched through your posting history for unnecessary commas. I read a huge number of your posts. I'm sure there are some in gratuitous commas in there somewhere, but in general I don't know what you're talking about.

What makes you think you abuse commas? Has someone told you that you do? I would say most of your commas aren't even optional. You mostly use them to set off salutations, as in

Sir, could I have a word with you?

And in lists like this:

black, white, and yellow.

And to mark parenthetical information, as in

She, a girl of 19, was my first love.

If you omitted any of those commas, your prose would be confusing. And I see almost no commas that just convey random pause effects.

So what are you talking about? Can you find an example? Can you write something here that shows off the problem?

I'm concerned that some writing teacher set you down a dead-end or wild-goose-chase path.

Now that I think about it, most of the comma abuse I see comes in one of two forms. Some people use commas when they should use full-stops. But that's rare. Other people use them to set off many, many, many parenthetical phrases and asides, but that's not a comma problem; that's a cluttered-writing problem:

George, a man in his middle, or middle-to-late, years, years that I'm sure we'd all rather forget, if we can forget anything, lived in New York City, a place where rudeness was the new, or, rather, the permanent, substitute for simple, common, human politeness.

The problem with the above is not too-many-commas. In fact, without the commas, it would be harder to understand than it already is. The problem is clutter.

One thing I've noticed is that some writers "break the rules" when phrases that are usually separated by commas are really short. For instance, most people would agree with the comma placement here:

George lives in a wealthy area of New York, and he drives a new green Mercedes.

The comma separates two independent clauses. But what if one of the clauses is really short?

George drinks, and he drives and new green Mercedes.


George drinks and he drives a new green Mercedes.

I think that's a matter of personal preference. Also, some people would write "a new, green Mercedes," because "new" describes "Mercedes," not "green." Again, I think it's a personal-choice matter. It's not as if it's confusing either way.
posted by grumblebee at 1:55 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've been thinking a lot about your question. Particularly about the "rule" given early in our education, that "you should put a comma where you would normally pause." It's not a helpful rule, and I'm not even sure if it's accurate.

I think of a comma as representing a very small pivot in the direction of my sentence. Just as if you were walking along and made a slight turn, the comma gives an indication that there's a brief slow-down and then a course change. Periods are more like stopping at the corner and waiting for the light to change before crossing the street.

If that makes any fucking sense.

Anyway, I would encourage you to branch out. Experiment by replacing some of your commas with... the ellipsis... which can be really... annoying. (Shatner was... the master... of the ellipsis.)

Or with actual parentheses (which can also be annoying [but I think it's funny to nest them {but for the love of all that's holy don't forget to close everything properly}]).

And - it goes without saying - the dash*.

* I'm sure everyone else here can explain the difference between a double and a single and an em-dash. I am not that well educated in the ways of grammar. I'm like Charlie Parker, bebeh, it's jazzzzz twiddly-twiddly-deee-squonk!
posted by ErikaB at 5:32 PM on February 12, 2010

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