Quit Trashing Your Writing Voice with This Rookie Mistake

Quit Trashing Your Writing Voice with This Rookie Mistake

It is the comma. Is it “country babies?” “Equality freedom?” I see only slightly less extreme versions of this in content every day. Sentences I need to re-read to figure out which words go together. Some writers feel that the rules of punctuation will make their writing stuffy. I think learning to write like you talk is a magnificent goal. Getting a really good grasp on punctuation allows you to write more like you talk, by giving the reader a simple way to understand the structure of each sentence. The best option is probably to hire a good proofreader (or possibly even an off-duty English teacher) to look over your work and find the errors. If this person is really wonderful, they can explain the errors to you, so you’re less likely to make them again. The new tools, like Grammarly, are smarter. You can check websites like Grammar Girl, or books like The Well-Tempered Sentence or The Elements of Style Illustrated.

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I’ve been thinking about writing this one for quite a while, but I’ve just had a lot of other stuff going on.

But I can’t stay silent anymore. We need to talk about a serious issue that’s impeding our ability to have the simplest of conversations.

No, I’m not talking about the fraying political discourse.

I’m talking about a tiny, useful piece of punctuation that two-thirds of the internet has apparently forgotten how to use.

It is the comma. The brave little toaster of the punctuation family. Stalwart, unassuming, and essential.

When did web writers decide the comma was just an annoying interruption? That they could just leave most of them out, because no one cares about that stuff now?

And then — as if regretting their previous poor choices — sprinkle a few commas randomly on top, perhaps to make it look more … punctuate-y.

Please, please my dear fellow writers, knock it off

When you leave out the commas, particularly if you then throw a couple of random ones in there, your content runs the risk of looking uninformed, silly … or just plain confusing.

“Do you love dogs the planet your flag and country babies justice equality freedom?”

That’s a quote from a recent post of mine, with the commas tragically ripped away.

That one’s a little extreme, since it’s a list of nouns. Notice, though, how you’re not sure which words belong together. Is it “country babies?” “Equality freedom?”

I see only slightly less extreme versions of this in content every day.

Sentences I need to re-read to figure out which words go together. Sentences that stop me in the middle, like that horrible person who brakes in the middle of the street to read a text. And sentences that just seem to be running out of breath.

I love what Ursula Le Guin had to say about punctuation in her book on narrative, Steering the Craft:

“… punctuation tells the reader ‘how to hear’ our writing. That’s what it’s for. Commas and periods bring out the grammatical structure of a sentence; they make it clear to the understanding, and the emotions, by showing what it sounds like — where the breaks come, where to pause.”

Take the last bit of that and strip away the punctuation. Notice how hard it gets to understand:

they make it clear to…

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