This is all about commas: what they are, what they do, what they’re for and why they are so crucial. But, just to be clear, this post isn’t going to be a how-to. In my opinion, using commas is an intuitive thing which cannot be taught — the basics can, of course, but to my mind, saying much more than that is like telling someone how to speak and when to pause, and I don’t believe in that (and besides, most people have a basic grasp of what a comma does and how it is used, even if they’re not sure why and sometimes make mistakes). What this post is about is pointing out the things I have noticed over the years. Some may seem obvious. Others are more complex. All of them are things which help me understand how writing benefits from them.
Number 1: commas aren’t essential, but understanding their effect is.
In life, when it comes to commas, I guess there are 4 main groups of people. You have those who can’t live without them and stick them in everywhere, knowingly, enjoying the process of dividing up their work, and then you have 2) those who avoid them at all times because they prefer simpler prose, and 3) those who fall somewhere in the middle, and can’t work out what the hell is best. Lastly, you have group 4) people who haven’t got a clue where to use a comma and just shove them in where it feels right. I often find myself in the 3rd category (and hope I have not recently been in the fourth!). I like experimenting with both commas and no commas, and how much/where I employ them — an apt word, I think, seeing as they’re doing a hell of a job — depends on the POV I’m using, the tone of the work, and the effect I want to convey. It’s all about effect. That’s why in thrillers you sometimes see long comma-less sentences dragging you through some hellish situation usually involving murder and mayhem, in an attempt to rack up the tension. Equally, punctuating a paragraph with lots of commas is great if you want to stall the reader slightly in certain places. Like a slight pause to take a breath. Think of it like walking down a corridor, and the comma is a wall which drops down out of the ceiling every few steps, making you stop before it slides back up to reveal some hideous monster, or a romantic moment. There are many different kinds of corridor so I’ll let you choose your own.
One thing which I think confuses people about commas is the fact that they’re not always there to provide a slight pause. Sometimes they’re there for purely technical reasons — rolling commas for creating a list — and s0metimes they’re there to separate words from one another so that sense can be mad and clarity can be had. Other times, still, commas dictate a critical rythm to a novel or book and changing this formula part-way through can be as worst disastrous, at best irritating. To make it even more confusing, occasionally, a skilled author might change the rate of comma usage deliberately to mess with your head, making you read faster or slower, depending on what is coming and what has been before. And the list goes on…
There is no comma school that I am aware of. You can’t go and stay at The Comma Academy and learn it all and then come home and feel content in the knowledge that you now fully understand and are as capable as the next person. The best thing you can do is read books and re-read books. Read your own work and re-read it, moving commas and mentally noting why it does or does not work; how things are different. The key is to know the effect commas have on your work, because without giving this due thought, you are writing blind. Worse, your confusing your reader, forcing them to go back over your last paragraph. Something you don’t ever want a reader to do — unless they enjoyed it so much they felt compelled to.
Number 2: if you want to write books which matter, understanding the comma is your all-time best-friend
Because writing is my job, this tends to have a knock-on effect with my friends and family. For example,when writing to me, some people seem to feel the need to be more articulate than they might be with someone who doesn’t write all the time — I have been told this by friends — and others write emails which seem unnaturally perfect. When I cross-check these emails with the person I know in real life, it’s easy to notice that this person has spent much longer formulating their email than they usually would do. This unnerves me and I always tell people this: I couldn’t give a monkey’s if friends write to me in that fast-paced, slightly incomprehensible way which is so common in the social-networking world. Actually, I’d welcome it! As long as I can understand what the hell they’re on about, that’s all that matters to me.
Writing a novel is completely different. If a subject matters to you — and it surely must, damn it, as you’re dedicating hundreds of hours to it which could be spent doing anything else — then your ultimate goal should be to create the most clear vision of your work that is possible. The ideas on that page shouldn’t just be good, they should, instead, be a direct representation of precisely what you mean and think. And it’s sentences like that which make me panic: this post is full of commas. Is it saying what I mean? Yeah, I think so. Although we all have to accept that just like a painting or a sculpture, a creation is never exactly what we set out to achieve at the start. There are always gaps where more thoughts should have been, and every book ever written is just one possible version of that work. Had each sentence been written in a different time, in a different place — even just a few seconds later — then the work would have been different. It all depends on so very many things: mood, blood pressure, what someone said to you at work the day before; the hopes and dreams which surprise us daily and the things which take place which are unexpected, lunging us into a different train of thought.
Number 3: putting a comma in the wrong place can alter the reader’s perception forever.
Commas are madness. They matter so much (and we haven’t even started on the full-stop/period). The fact that comma placement matters so much can be savage on the mind of a writer. Hear the comma roar! Savage, I tell you. It causes procrastinaton and makes us second-guess ourselves — something us writers are already notoriously bad for. To make matters even worse, commas can seem to be in the right place for months, and then later on you can re-read the draft of a novel and decide that actually…they’re all in the wrong fucking place. There’s no way to change this, of course — fucksticks! — and this is where we come back to accepting something is as good as it gets (or as good as time will allow us to get it).
I can’t speak for everyone in the world, but for me, personally, when I read anything and the commas don’t make sense, it completely throws me and gets me thinking. OK, so I’m analysing this more than a lot of people would ever do, but the difference between a writer and someone who doesn’t care for writing isn’t so severe, I don’t think. The only real difference is that a writer will be able to work out why a comma’s usage is wrong, whereas a reader will struggle with it, and this confusion may lead to their mood changing, and their opinion of the work/author being tainted. This is absolutely what nobody wants to happen — it could mean somebody putting down your book. Unless that’s your plan and you’re being smart and messing with the reader’s head. In which case, you had better be aware what you are doing!