Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Commas, the Trickiest Punctuation Mark Ever, Part One—Lists and Setting Off

Welcome to our comma extravaganza! This is part one of a two-part series. This week, we'll be focusing on a few of the most common uses for commas and why some of the things you think you know about commas are probably wrong.


Perhaps you have heard these guidelines of when to use a comma:
"It's when you should take a breath when reading."
"It's to indicate a pause."
"A comma takes the place of 'and.'"
"Use it around someone's name."
These mantras, though popular, are incorrect. So what the heck is a comma for? Let's find out.

The truth

I like to think of commas as the support structure in a sentence. Grammar and punctuation is a lot like architecture. You can't just throw together a bunch of materials and hope it comes out right; you need the proper structure in order for it to stand up properly and be what it's supposed to be.

Let's start out with a few of the most common uses for commas.


Almost always, commas are used to separate elements in lists. For example, "Today I had eggs, toast, and bacon for breakfast." Wait. Or is it "Today I had eggs, toast and bacon for breakfast"?

Ah, the old debate. There are two ways of using commas in a list, and there are a lot of people who insist that one way is better than the other. For example, newspapers insist on one way (the latter in our previous example), and novels prefer another (the former).

Oxford comma
This is the form most advocated by publishing houses and academia. It includes a final comma before the "and," which, as its proponents argue, tends to eliminate unnecessary confusion.

Source unknown. If you know, tell us!
The other way
Journalism tends to be about concision above all. If there's anything in there that is deemed unnecessary, a newspaper editor is going to cut it. That's why you almost never see that final comma in lists in a newspaper or online article.

Setting off parts of your sentence



Appositives might sound scary, but they're actually pretty simple. They're just a technique for renaming something. For example, in the sentence "Barack Obama, the president of the United States, will be giving an address to the nation today," we've named Obama twice. Once with his given name, once with his title. There are many ways of doing this, like "Joe's sister, Anne, hates chickpeas."

That last sentence is an example of the confusing part about appositives. Sometimes appositives imply things about the person or thing being renamed. In this case, the fact that we used "Anne" as an appositive surrounded by commas implies that Anne is Joe's only sister. Those who know Joe would already know this, but the commas signal to the rest of us that Anne is the only sister. There is no other sister, so "Anne" and "sister" are the same thing. That puts Anne in a nonrestrictive position because she wouldn't need to be named for the sentence to mean the same thing. "Joe's (only) sister (Anne) hates chickpeas."

If Joe had more than one sister, we would leave out the commas and write "Joe's sister Anne hates chickpeas." Remember, this is because appositives are equal to the thing they're naming, but if Joe has more than one sister, then Anne only partly defines "Joe's sister." She no longer qualifies for the appositive comma escort because she's not the only sister. What if the other sisters love chickpeas? It's only fair to restrict that preference to Anne, so she takes the restrictive position next to chickpeas. "Anne is Joe's sister who hates chickpeas." But seriously, who even likes chickpeas?

Parentheticals, or Asides
Commas can also be used to set off parts of sentences that are deemed "extra information" that aren't necessary to understanding the sentence. You probably learned about them as "asides."

"The Oxford comma, despite all its detractors, is flourishing in print."
What's the aside in that sentence? An easy way to tell is to take out sections and see if the sentence still makes sense. Let's try it.

  • "Despite all its detractors, is flourishing in print." Well, that doesn't make sense.
  • "The Oxford comma is flourishing in print." That sounds right! Let's check the last one to be sure.
  • "The Oxford comma, despite all its detractors." Yep, looks like that second one is right. So that means "despite all its detractors" is the aside.

There are actually a lot of ways to set aside an aside, but commas are used most often. If you wanted to, you could set off an aside with em dashes or parentheses. These techniques are especially useful if the aside has punctuation inside it already, like in this sentence: "Greg packed up his three favorite things—his teddy bear, his microscope, and his toothbrush—and headed out for an adventure."

Well, that's it for today. Next time we'll be discussing dependent, independent, and other types of clauses and what commas do for each of them. (Don't worry; we'll explain what clauses are.)

Is there something we missed that you want covered? Comment below and we'll add it to part two. Got any questions about this post or our polishing service? Feel free to comment or email us at

Link to part two.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

4 Contemporary Young-Adult Novels That Give YA Lit a Good Name

Young-adult literature gets a bad rap. It’s easy to see shelves of paranormal fiction stuffed with vapid female protagonists and obsessive love interests—or worse, the dreaded love triangle—all brought to dozy half-life in barely passable purpose prose, and run the opposite direction, maybe to a nice, safe biography of Abraham Lincoln. But more and more of this genre is making a name for itself, such that “young adult” describes not the quality of writing, but the age of the protagonist. YA lit published in the last few years is chock-full of big themes packaged in spellbindingly inventive plots. And, let’s face it, we’re always learning how to grow up, making these coming-of-age stories delicious literature for readers of all ages, everyone from twelve to one hundred twelve.

1. Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

It was a Michael L. Printz Honor book—the coveted prize for young adult literature—for good reason. When a British spy plane crashes in Germany during WWII, its lone passenger, a secret agent, is captured by the Gestapo. Forced to reveal her mission or face a grisly execution, the agent scribbles her intricate confession onto scraps of paper supplied by her Nazi interrogators, weaving her confession with reminisces of her past and the iron-clad friendship she developed with the pilot of the plane that crashed. Called a “fiendishly plotted mind-game of a novel,” its twists and turns will propel you to an astounding conclusion.

And if you still aren’t convinced: It breaks from YA’s tired tradition of love triangles entirely because it’s about two best friends instead of hormone-ridden puppy lovers. And a more charismatic, fallible, and honest pair of friends you could not find. If you find you adore this one as much as we did, check out its companion novel, Rose Under Fire.

2. Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman

This is not a story of ordinary dragons. The country of Goredd is preparing to celebrate the 40-year anniversary of an uneasy peace between dragons and humans, when the Crown Prince is murdered—and all signs point to dragons at work. Seraphina Dombedgh, the court musician, is thrust into the turmoil of politics surrounding the treaty with intelligent, unemotional dragons that humans find so threatening.

And if you still aren’t convinced: Hartman’s lyric style is complemented by the music chiming through the story. Her experience with medieval culture and its music sings throughout the novel, blending an enchanting setting with bewitching melody, everything from sackbuts (the trombone’s early predecessor) to megaharmonium (a fictional instrument that’s based on a real one, the organ-like harmonium).

3. Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor

The first of a trilogy, Daughter of Smoke and Bone tells the story of Karou, an enigmatic art student with an unusual day job. With a necklace of wish-granting beads and a sketchbook of fantastic monsters and demons, Karou’s story unravels with the elegance of smoke as she learns the true story of the only family she’s ever known and of the war that tore her world apart.

And if you still aren’t convinced: This kind of book will prove it—YA lit is where the epic story went. While adult literature is invested in home stories and realism, YA lit like this is where Homeric stories of gods and heroes. A lovely and ambitious, if not perfectly executed, tale of angels and demons.

4. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

It’s not been 44 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list for nothing. Hazel Lancaster and Augustus Waters are two normal Indianapolis teenagers—oh, except they met at a Cancer Kid Support Group. Hazel is ultimately terminal, though experimental treatment has delayed her inevitable end for a while. But when she meets Gus, her ending suddenly seems much less certain. Theirs is a love unlikely and unmatched.

And if you still aren’t convinced: Wary of reading another book about cancer kids? Fear not. This is the funniest book about cancer we’ve ever read. Which is not to say that it’s insensitive and inhumane. Its irreverent, laugh-out-loud humor belies its warm heart and serious contemplation of fate, death, and fates worth than death.

Friday, December 6, 2013

NaNoWriMo: It's Over. Now What?

National Novel Writing Month has come and gone. So, all you NaNo-ers, how did it go? Did you meet your goals? Honestly, I fell short at the end there. I thought NaNo would be so easy, with my very attainable 2,000-words-a-day goal! But it ended up being much harder than I expected. When I went to bed on November 30th, I had a dream that I wrote my brains out and found myself miraculously at 52,000 words! I felt so accomplished . . . until I woke up. But there's no need to feel bad if you didn't finish. Whether you wrote 50,000 or 2,000 words, you should feel great! You finally got going on your novel. Now you either need to start revising or, like me, finish writing the rest of it.

What's Next?

Yes, NaNo is over, but your writing isn't confined to one autumn month a year. And your book still has a ways to go, regardless of how many words you were able to type. So what is the next step in the process?

Make a Goal and Keep Writing

If you weren't able to finish your novel, never fear! Now's the time to set a new goal. Perhaps you didn't hit the fifty thousand you were shooting for. Can you get there by the end of the year? Can you get there by mid January? Maybe you did hit the 50K, but the story isn't over. Can you estimate how much is left to be written? If you can't, that's okay. Instead of making a word-count goal, make a goal for how much time you'll spend writing during the week. It could be a daily goal of three hours or a weekly goal of five. Whatever your goal is, try to make it attainable as well as useful. A weekly goal of one hour isn't going to be that helpful, but it is better than not writing anything at all.

photo credit here


Revise, Revise, Revise

If you were able to finish your novel, that's great! I suggest taking a day or two to relax and let the text just sit. The next step in publishing your novel is not to send it off to a publisher right away (as editor Lisa Mangum mentioned in our recent interview). You've been writing as much and as quickly as possible, so there are bound to be a few typos, errors, plot-holes, or even missing scenes. Now is the time to go back through your novel and figure out where the problems are. First, save a new copy of your manuscript. Title it something like, "Book Revision 1." That way, if you delete an entire chapter one day during revisions and then decide you want it back on another day, you still have an original file with everything you once wrote.

After you've saved your previous work, you are ready to start revising. One way to do this is to just read the story. Fix any typos you come across immediately. For bigger things you want to change or fix, highlight the text, bold it, and insert a query to yourself. You may even want to make a master list of all the changes you want to make. If you are inspired to include a new scene or chapter, add that to the list. Once you've gotten through the entirety of the manuscript, go through your master list and begin making the changes. Go through the manuscript a couple of times in this fashion, making notes to yourself and adding or subtracting different elements. It may also help to read the text aloud.

Once you feel like your revisions are where you want them to be, take your manuscript to a reader. This can be your writing buddy, your writing group, or even your sister-in-law who loves to read. Ask them to make comments and suggestions as they read. Their comments can be invaluable in the revision process. You may be too close to the manuscript to see errors like, "Wait, I thought Carly had brown hair," or "Is there a word missing here? The sentence is confusing." So the fresh eyes of your reader(s) can help find these problems.

Revisions can take some time, so try not to get frustrated. If you do, take a break from the manuscript and let it sit for a day or two. But remember, you're almost ready to submit your manuscript for publication, so don't give up!

photo credit here


Until Next NaNo . . .

I still have quite a ways to go with my NaNo novel, but it was such a blast to give the whole "write a book in a month" thing a shot. I hope all of you had as much fun as I did! Feel free to return to these NaNo posts if you ever find yourself stuck in a writing rut. And hey, if you're missing NaNo, here's one last suggestion that my writing buddy, Katherine, and I came up with: Make your own mini NaNoWriMo. Call it My Novel Writing Week (MyNoWriWee? MyNo for short!), and make a word goal. Can you write 10K this MyNo? Or maybe *gulp* 25K? You can do it!

Have a great year. Keep writing—don't stop—and I'll see you next November when we take on NaNoWriMo all over again!

Farewell, fellow NaNo-ers!
Current Word Count: (sigh) 32,685