Saturday, February 24, 2007

Commas and Such

by Florence Cardinal
You have chosen an exciting topic and spent weeks at the library and on the Internet doing research. You have interviewed dozens of sources, asked pertinent questions and obtained quotes from eminent people. Now you've written the article and it's ready to
submit.

Or is it? Are you sure every word is spelled correctly? Do the words say what you want them to say? A misplaced modifier or transposed letters can produce a giggle where none was intended. For example: "He bought a puppy for his girlfriend with a cold wet nose." "The couple lived in martial bliss."

At the very least, such errors are distracting and can break a reader's concentration. Passive sentences with weak verbs take the "glow" from your story. Compare: "Space was conquered by men in silver rocket ships." " Men in silver rocket ships conquered space." " The snow by the gate was trampled by the elk." " The elk trampled the snow by the gate."

Weed out unnecessary words to tighten the writing. "The store stayed open until 11 p.m. at night." (Omit either pm or at night.) Instead of: "The unsuccessful business was a failure" write: "The business failed."

Punctuation is also important. Commas, dashes and periods tell the reader where to pause and can alter the meaning of a sentence. For instance, the sentence: "Woman without her man is nothing" is complete without any commas. But, try a bit of
punctuation: "Woman. Without her, man is nothing" or "Woman, without her man, is nothing." What a difference a bit of punctuation made in the meaning!

Quotation marks alert readers that the enclosed words come from a source other than the writer. "No comment!" the senator replied.

If time allows, put your article away for a week or more. At the very least, let it rest for a few hours or overnight. Then reread it, not as the proud author, but as a copywriter. Look at every word with a critical eye. Check for spelling and meaning.

If your word processor has a spell checker, go ahead and use it, but don't depend on the spell checker completely. Go over the story yourself. Spell checkers can miss some pretty basic errors. "Their isn't a clean dish in there kitchen." "I road my
brown pony down the rode." There's a difference between: "I considered the man a friend" and "I considered the man a fiend."

Another error to watch for is the error of possession. It's and its, for instance. "It's cold outside today. The squirrel is hiding in its nest." " I own two dogs. They sleep together in The dogs' basket. I sometimes forget my one dog's name

Are the quotes enclosed in quotation marks? Commas and dashes should indicate short pauses. Periods mean a longer pause.

It often helps to read your story aloud, perhaps using a tape recorder. Listen to your voice, either as you read or as it is played back. Listen for ultra long sentences that leave you breathless or several consecutive short sentences that make the story sound choppy.

Once all this is done, its time for a rewrite incorporating any changes or corrections. Now, read it one final time. If you're satisfied with the spelling and punctuation, if every word, sentence and paragraph blend into a smooth whole, then, and only then, will your article be ready to submit to the editor of your choice.

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