mabfan (Michael A. Burstein) (mabfan) wrote,
mabfan (Michael A. Burstein)
mabfan

What My Overuse of Commas Reveals About Me

I've been reading the book A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation by Noah Lukeman (W.W. Norton & Company, 2006) and finding it fascinating. Lukeman is a literary agent and a writer, and this is his third book on writing. Although sometimes I found his first two books tough sledding, they were both filled with good advice, as is his latest. If you think that Strunk & White or Truss has said all there is to say about punctuation, you haven't read Lukeman.

As a writer myself, I'm reading the book in order to see what I can do to improve my work. And there's one paragraph I read that I thought might interest others as well.

In the chapter on the comma, Lukeman has a section titled "What Your Use of the Comma Reveals About You." I was particularly intrigued by this section because I tend to overuse commas in my first drafts. Or at least, that's what Nomi says when she edits my stories. She's often joked that I must have a "comma shaker," similar to a salt shaker, which I use to sprinkle commas liberally throughout my work. (If you've read my stories and are now scratching your head because you don't recall an overabundance of commas, remember that you've read my edited, final drafts, not my raw work. A writer is revealed much more in his first draft tendencies than in his published work. But I digress.)

Anyway, I took a careful look at the first paragraph, which describes, diagnoses, and analyzes the writer who overuses commas. For reference, here it is:

The writer who overuses commas tends to also overuse adjectives and adverbs. He tends to be repetitive, won't be subtle, and often gives too much information. He grasps for multiple word choices instead of one strong choice, and thus the choices he makes won't be strong. His language won't be unique. Commas are also used to qualify, offset, or pause, and the writer who frequently resorts to this tends to be reluctant to take a definitive stance. He will be hesitant. His characters, too, might not take a stand; his plot might be ambiguous. It will be harder for him to deliver dramatic punches when need be, and indeed he is less likely to be dramatic. He is interested in fine distinctions, more so than pacing, and is likely to write an overly long book. He writes with critics in mind, with the fear of being criticized for omission, and is more likely to have a scholarly background (or at least be well read) and to consider too many angles. This writer will need to simplify, to take a stronger stance, and to understand that less is more. [Lukeman, pages 65-66]


Do I see myself in it? In some places. I don't overuse adjectives, but I do have to be careful to avoid adverbs. I'm not sure if I'm repetitive, but I do like to give lots of information and I am often more explicit than subtle. I'm not sure about some of the rest, but I will definitely admit that I write with critics in mind as much as I try not to. And yes, I do have a scholarly background (or at least I would call it such) and I consider myself well read. (I also think a hyphen belongs between the words "well" and "read," but perhaps I am in error.)

Even though I haven't finished the book yet, I recommend it quite highly. Lukeman ends each chapter with writing exercises that revolve around punctuation, and I've already found them useful. As for the rest of the book, I'm eager to see what he says about the semicolon, and then about my favorite punctuation mark of them all — the dash. My only criticism? He seems to have ignored the interrobang.

Copyright © Michael Burstein
Tags: personal, writing, writing-advice
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