The Journal: On Comma Use

In today’s Journal

* Quotes of the Day
* A writer friend in South Africa
* A great new information site
* Topic: On Comma Use
* The Numbers

Quotes of the Day

“B&N’s new CEO, James Daunt, is designing the company’s phoenix-like rise from its ashes on the direct involvement of on-the-ground booksellers in the decisions on what books individual stores should stock. You know, the way booksellers used to do it before the superstores ran them out of business.” John Gilstrap

“[A]s the [book] business fluctuates and expands and contracts, the one constant to all of it … is the public’s insatiable desire for good stories, well told.” John Gilstrap

“Optimist: Someone who figures that taking a step backward after taking a step forward is not a disaster, it’s more like a cha-cha.” Robert Brault (Thanks to The Passive Voice. There are several other good quotes there in today’s edition.)

A writer friend and Journal reader in South Africa, Aldred G., pointed out this quote from the Decembr 15 edition of the Journal:

“[I]f you’re a writer, WHAT you write is not important. [It’s only a few minutes’ or hours’ entertainment for the reader.] THAT you write is what matters.”

Yes, I added a little to the quote to put it in context.

I was glad Aldred found ot useful. Dean Wesley Smith tried for over a year to teach me that. As I wrote in my response to Aldred, the moment the truth of that thought finally struck me probably was the major epiphany of my life as a writer. It’s what actually made me a writer.

The other major truth that Dean tried to teach me and that finally sunk-in was that Every Word of a story should be filtered through the POV character’s physical and emotional senses and be delivered by the characters, not the writer. Anything the writer adds is excess.

Or, put another way, “Every Word in a story comes from one character or another. In a good story, nothing comes from the writer.” Ponder that thought in either form. Consider it, turn it over in your mind. When you get it, the quality of your stories will improve dramatically.

I stumbled across a great information site. American English is laden with expressions like so and so has an “axe to grind” or such and such “fits the bill.” If you’re ever uncertain whether an expression you want to use is correct, visit “Well-Known Expressions” at

While I was writing my current novel, one of my characters said another character might “fit the bill.” But I wondered whether that was correct or whether the real expression was “fill the bill.” Turns out both are correct. (grin)

This is a fun site to browse Just Because.

Topic: On Comma Use

If you’re a writer, and if you use punctuation when you write, and if you want to learn to use punctuation purposefully as a tool to direct the reading of your work, I really recommend you buy an ebook or paper copy of Punctuation for Writers (2nd edition) by yours truly. Unlike Strunk & White, PFW doesn’t regurgitate the rules. Instead it actually explains punctuation and why it works as it does. Okay, that’s enough soap-box time.

PFW started as a 16 page handout titled “The Rules as They Should Read” when I was teaching grunt English in college in regular, GED, and prep classes.

In those 16 pages, I covered everything you need to know about punctuation, and quite a bit about grammar on top of that. By contrast, the HarBrace College Handbook contained 19 pages of rules just for comma use.


As I used to tell my students, if you learn five simple rules. you’ll be right 99% of the time on any test. You’ll also be better understood and less confusing as a fiction writer.

Here are the five rules of comma use, straight out of Punctuation for Writers:

1. Never place a comma between a subject and its verb or between a verb and its object. (Realize that a subject may have more than one verb and that a verb may have more than one object.)

2. When a subordinate clause introduces an independent clause, separate the two with a comma. (If you aren’t sure about clauses, Rule 2 is an example of itself, as is this explanation.)

3. Do not use a comma to separate the clauses when a subordinate clause follows an independent clause. (In Rule 3, “Do not use a comma” is an independent clause and the remainder is a dependent clause. This rule, again, is an example of itself.)

4. Use a comma before the appropriate coordinating conjunction to join two related sentences. (The coordinating conjunctions are for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Remember the acronym FANBOYS.) By the way, you very seldom need a comma AFTER a coordinating conjunction.

As an aside, you can replace any correctly used comma-coordinating conjunction pair with a semicolon. In both cases, a medium-length pause is created, the former by the comma-coordinating conjunction pair, and the second by the semicolon. Much more on the semicolon in a future topic.

As another aside, tiny as the comma is, you cannot read-through one that’s misplaced. You have to go back mentally, remove the comma, and re-read the sentence without it. But what writer wants to interrupt an otherwise flowing storyline in that way?

5. Trite as it sounds, when you are in doubt about whether to use a comma, leave it out. Believe it or not, most comma problems arise from misuse of commas, not their omission.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “The Trouble with ‘Was'” at Use it when you need it. The only way to describe a state of being is with a state-of-being verb. That said, use SOB verbs only for that reason.

See “What A Difference A Quarter Century Makes” at

See “KDP Select All-Stars” at I do NOT recommend putting all your eggs in any one exclusive basket, including KDP Select. I include this link for those who disagree.

See “The Madness of Spies” at

The Numbers

The Journal…………………………………… 1010 words

Writing of The Journey Home: Part 3 (novel)

Day 1…… 1568 words. Total words to date…… 1568
Day 2…… 2963 words. Total words to date…… 4531
Day 3…… 4652 words. Total words to date…… 9183
Day 4…… 5506 words. Total words to date…… 14689

Total fiction words for December……… 64112
Total fiction words for the year………… 516643
Total nonfiction words for December… 12360
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 197570
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 714213

Calendar Year 2020 Novels to Date…………………… 8
Calendar Year 2020 Novellas to Date……………… X
Calendar Year 2020 Short Stories to Date… 13
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 53
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 214
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31