Monday, August 25, 2014


By Andrea Merrell

Today’s lesson is how to conquer the comma conundrum in three easy steps.


Unfortunately, there are no easy steps in mastering the use of this tiny punctuation mark. We can simply learn the rules, follow them the best we can, and hope for success. Sound strange coming from an editor? To be perfectly honest, all professional editors have areas that cause headaches and proper use of the comma is one of the biggest.

Lets look at a few examples that will help you in your writing.

Serial Comma
Use a comma to separate words/phrases in groups of three or more.
Incorrect: Maggie went to the circus with her sister, her mother and her best friend.
Correct: Maggie went to the circus with her sister, her mother, and her best friend.

The first sentence is incorrect because it can be misread, causing the reader to think Maggie’s mother is her best friend. Not all sentences will be misleading without the serial comma, but the best rule of thumb is to always use it in your writing to avoid confusion.

Exception: Many online venues use the AP Stylebook which does not use the serial comma, even when the sentence may be misleading.

Comma Splice
Joining two clauses together with only a comma instead of a conjunction or semicolon causes a comma splice or spliced comma.
Incorrect: Phillip loves attending conferences, he attends one every year.
Correct:  Phillip loves attending conferences; he attends one every year.
Correct: Phillip loves attending conferences, and he attends one every year.
Correct: Phillip loves attending conferences. He attends one every year.

Sometimes a comma splice is appropriate, as in: He came, he saw, he conquered. They can be used, especially in dialogue, but use them wisely and sparingly.

Commas with Independent Clauses
Use a comma to separate two independent clauses that are connected by a conjunction.
Incorrect: Susie went to the closest grocery store and she picked up items for the party.
Correct: Susie went to the closest grocery store, and she picked up items for the party.

Exception: If the sentence is short enough, the comma before the conjunction is not necessary. This is where you have to make a judgment call.
Example: Susie went shopping and she picked up party items.

Commas with Dependent Clauses
A comma is not necessary with two dependent clauses.
Incorrect: Susie went to the grocery store, and picked up items for the party,
Correct: Susie went to the grocery store and picked up items for the party,

The comma is not necessary because “picked up items for the party” is not a complete sentence.

Comma Before Too
A comma is not necessary when the word too is used at the end of a sentence. It is only used when you need to emphasize an abrupt change in thought.
Incorrect: Stan wanted to be part of the faculty this year, too.
Correct: Stan wanted to be part of the faculty this year too.

There are a number of rules for commas that pertain to:
·       Numbers
·       Dates
·       Cities and states
·       Other punctuation
·       Exclamations
·       Interjections
·       Introductory phrases
·       Multiple adjectives

As an editor, these are some of the common mistakes I see writers make. I would love to hear your thoughts about how you conquer the comma.


(Photos courtesy of and the 

Monday, August 18, 2014

10 Things to Do Before You Hire an Editor

There comes a time when every writer needs to hire an editor. If I told you that you could save yourself a certain amount of cash and time if you followed my advice, would you do it?

The following 10 things may sound trivial to you, but doing them could mean the difference between additional hours of work and the cost of a substantive edit vs. the cost of a copy edit (the latter being cheaper). Doing these things will also increase your skill as a writer, and you will look more like a pro than an amateur in the eyes of your editor and the agent/acquisitions editor. If you're a writer limited in budget or time, or you just like to appear intelligent, here are 10 things to do to your manuscript before you hire an editor:

1. Look for your pet words. These are words you love to use, but you may not realize it. Some examples of pet words are: just, instead, very, beautiful, cool, and starting sentences with and or but. Read your descriptions to find pet adjectives. Are your characters always smiling or sighing? These are all types of pet words.

2. Look for inactive verbs. Have you used was and were a lot? If she "was going to the store" she "went." If he "was laughing out loud" he "laughed out loud." If they "were partying until the break of dawn" they "partied until the break of dawn." You can search was and were to find these, but beware. You won't want to delete every was and were you find. Some are necessary. Use them with discretion.

3.  Look for ellipses. There is a time and place to use these, and it's rare. They are not a replacement for the common comma, but a lot of writers (especially beginners) tend to use them as such. An ellipses is used when someone trails off their conversation (not for an interruption--that's an em dash). They can also be used to show hesitation in speech. "Honey, I ... I need to confess something. Some days I feel like a ... monster." These are the only two times I would like to see an ellipses in a manuscript.

4. Look at your comma usage. If you're unsure of how to properly use commas, research the rules. I see a lot of sentences like this: Alycia went to the zoo, but didn't see the monkeys. (I wish I could make a buzzer sound here.) Wrong! "Didn't see the monkeys" is not a full sentence. It's missing a subject. Alycia went to the zoo, but she didn't see the monkeys. Do you have a list in your sentence? If so, you need a serial comma. Hannah loves horses, anime, and singing. Only AP style and web writing leaves out the serial comma. (And I find those sentences to be confusing at times. I guess I'm just old-school when it comes to serial commas.)

5. Look over your descriptions. Are you describing every last minute detail of every person, setting, or prop? If so, you're boring your reader. Leave some room for their imaginations to play. That's what makes reading so much fun. Don't tell them everything. Hint at some things, describe others. Give one or two details at a time. And again, try to use different adjectives. Which leads to my next point...

6. Look for repetition. How many times have you told us his eyes are blue? We only need to know that once or twice. And the second time should be as a reminder because we're halfway through the novel and forgot. Readers don't want to hear that your character suffers from depression in every paragraph of every chapter. That depresses us. We put your book down. Give us something else to focus on in the character's life. Bring up the depression on occasion, but spread it thin.

7. Look for adequate conflict and tension. If your character is walking through his or her daily schedule and nothing out of the ordinary is happening, there isn't enough tension in your book. First, we shouldn't be getting the play-by-play of their daily routine. Great reads contain constant interruptions in the character's daily routine. Exciting or traumatic interruptions. Not just a phone call. A phone call from the drunk who just hit Ann's husband on their way home from the club and wanted to apologize. A phone call from the daughter who ran away with her lover ten weeks ago and has discovered he's got a split personality and she wants you to pick her up and bring her home. By the way, she's in Brazil.

8. Make sure you're showing your reader your story. There's a time to tell us some things, but we don't want you to tell us all the details of your story. "She had beautiful eyes." That's nice. What did they look like? Give a detail or two, but don't overdo it. "Her blue eyes sparkled like a lake in the morning sun." Much better. "The forest was dark and scary." How does that affect your character? "Tom's hands shook as he drew his sweatshirt tight around his chest. He stood still, unable to put one foot in front of the other as he faced the towering pines, shadows against the blackening sky." I want to experience your story, not just hear it.

9. Make sure you aren't head hopping. Pretend your character is wearing a video camera on their forehead. They will only be able to see what the camera would see. Unlike your mother, they don't have eyes in the back of their head. They will only be able to hear what is within the range of their hearing. If the door is closed and the walls are insulated, they won't hear what's going on in the room next door. Or on the next floor. Or out in the barn. Or down the road. Or on the other side of the tracks when a train is coming. And, unless you're writing sci-fi, your character probably doesn't have the ability to know what someone else is thinking or feeling, and they probably don't have x-ray vision to know what's in someone's pocket or purse. If you need to switch to someone else's point of view, use a hard break and pass the camera.

10. Make sure your manuscript is formatted properly. Whether you're writing fiction or nonfiction, use Times New Roman 12-point font, double space lines (but don't put two spaces after the period at the end of your sentence), and indent all paragraphs except for the first one in a chapter or after a subheading or hard break. Don't put an extra space after paragraphs, either. Use one-inch margins all around your page. I see a lot of manuscripts that have more than one font, lines after paragraphs, and double spaces after periods. Formatting is as important as writing if you want to appear professional.


Readers want to experience your story, not just hear it. 10 Tips from editor @AlyciaMorales

#10Things you can do to save money on edits. #amwriting with @AlyciaMorales

What about you? Is there anything you do before you turn a manuscript over to an editor, agent, or acquisitions editor? Tell us about it in the comments below.

    Wednesday, August 13, 2014

    Wordless Wednesday - At the Beach

    Let's get a little more wordy on this Wordless Wednesday.
    What is your favorite memory of the beach?
    Haven't been to the beach? Write your idea of what it would be like to go.

    photo by Alycia Morales / God's Glory Photography

    Monday, August 11, 2014

    Save the Semicolon

    By Denise Loock

    The semicolon awaits trial in global court. The indictment? Uselessness. If convicted, it will be exiled from the Land of the Written Word.

    This grieves my heart.

    Worldwide, writers and editors have denounced the semicolon. In its place they have sanctioned unthinkable replacements: Phrases and clauses masquerading as sentences.
    Groups of words divorced from both subject and verb. The horror, the horror.  And what about the twenty-first century writer’s infatuation with the single-word pseudo-sentence? Inexplicable.

    I, on the other hand, come to praise the semicolon, not to condemn it.

    No other punctuation mark has the semicolon’s ability to connect independent clauses without compromising their individuality, to highlight the value of conjunctive adverbs, or to unsnarl a tangle of phrases and commas, then align them in readable lists.

    What makes the semicolon a remarkable invention, however, is the nuances of meaning its presence heralds. The semicolon suggests a kinship between two independent clauses that distinguishes them from the crowd of sentences congregated in a paragraph. Without the semicolon’s assistance, the meaning of both thoughts would be diminished; therefore, it enables writers who appreciate its subtlety to craft more memorable sentences.

    Example: Joy is not about praying for the sunshine; it’s about playing in the rain.

    Semicolons also provide an air of expectancy at the end of an independent clause. They conduct a fluidity of thought that is blocked by a period and too forceful to be controlled by a comma. When savvy readers encounter a semicolon, they pause to examine the relationship between two thoughts. In this role, a semicolon acts as a grammatical selah.

    Example: I waited in silence as he read; I knew better than to leave before I had been dismissed.

    I close with three advisements:

    • Don’t disrespect a semicolon by assuming it’s a pretentious comma or a period’s poor relation. 
    • Don’t use one between two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, yet, so). That’s the comma’s job.
    • Don’t use one in dialogue. That’s the period’s job. 

    Save the semicolon, fellow writers. It deserves both our protection and our patronage.

    Abraham Lincoln: “With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say I have a great respect for the semicolon; it’s a useful little chap.”

    Lewis Thomas: “Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines further on, and it is like climbing a steep path through the woods and seeing a bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.”


    Denise Loock is a writer, editor, and speaker. She is the editor for The Journey Christian Newspaper, which reaches over 60,000 online and print readers. As an assistant editor, she helps Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas produce high quality, engaging inspirational books. She accepts freelance editing projects too. Contact her at or

    Wednesday, August 6, 2014

    Wordless Wednesday - Conversations with a Giraffe

    Trips to the zoo are always fun.
    If giraffes could talk, what would this one say?

    photo by Alycia Morales / God's Glory Photography

    Monday, August 4, 2014


    By Andrea Merrell

    When I attended my first critique group, I had never heard of an en dash or em dash. The good old hyphen had always worked well for me. As I soon learned, that is not the case in the writing and publishing industry.

    It was time to learn to use them properly.

    En Dash
    • En dash: Used mainly for connecting inclusive numbers, such as dates and time.
    Example: 1995 – 1997
    Example:  Pages 22 – 28

    Em Dash
    • Em dash: A break in thought or interruption in dialogue. Also used to set off a word or phrase that explains or amplifies.
    Example: Show—don’t tell.
    Example: “Susie, I don’t agree with—“
                    “What do you mean you don’t agree?”

    When dialogue is broken by narrative, the em dashes go outside the quotation marks.
    Example: “The publisher turned down my proposal, but”—she said tearfully—“he gave me some very constructive advice.”

    Another term introduced to me by my critique group was ellipses. I had been using it without knowing what it was—or how to use it properly. Sometimes I would get carried away and use six or eight for emphasis. A bad habit, just like exclamation points and quotation marks.

    • Ellipses: Used when omitting a word, phrase, or line from a quoted passage. Used when a line of dialogue trails off. Also indicates faltering or fragmented speech.
    Example: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth … a new nation.”
    Example:  “I’m so busy there’s no time to …”
    Example: “But Sally, I won’t … I mean ... I can’t go with you.”
    • Use only three.
    • Spacing can vary according to style sheets and guidelines for various venues. While some use space, dot, dot, dot, space ( … ), others typically use space, dot, space, dot, space, dot, space ( . . . ). Whatever you use, be consistent throughout your manuscript.
    Learn to use these dashes and dots correctly and don't overuse them. 

    How about you? What are your most common punctuation problems? We would love to hear from you. Be sure to join us next Monday when Denise Loock shares her views on the semicolon.


    (Photos courtesy of and 
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