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The Real Secret of Commas: Know Thy Reader

Sounds crazy, huh? What do commas have to do with you readers? A lot.

Recently the Indie Romance Ink online discussion group for self-publishing romance authors (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/IndieRomanceInk/) had an intense discussion about commas.

Don’t laugh. This is important stuff!

Rousing discussions are common in that group, but they’re usually about more technical issues, such as uploading to Kobo, has Amazon paid anyone else yet, where do you find good editors or cover artists, is there any kind of publicity that’s guaranteed effective, can anyone recommend a good iTunes formatter … that kind of thing.

Besides learning everything I could possibly want to know about various reader/writers’ pet punctuation peeves, I learned one important thing from that discussion.

Authors, especially those of us who write fiction, no longer have the comfort of falling back on hard and fast rules about commas, semicolons and prepositional phrases. There’s even disagreement about passive voice and adverbs. And complete sentences? Well … it really depends.

Written communication is rapidly evolving. Rules, written and assumed, can be startlingly different, depending on what medium you’re using, or what genre you’re writing.

If you’re writing for a publisher, of course you’ll be given a detailed style guide which includes their punctuation preferences. Otherwise, you’re on your own. And yet you still have to worry about getting dinged in reviews by picky readers.

Confusing, right? Not if you follow this rule:

Don’t distract your readers with mechanics.

At a minimum, you need read enough other authors in your chosen niche or genre to stay current with the norms and conventions, understand the tropes and cliches, and be aware of reader expectations. For example, there are marked stylistic differences which separate urban fantasy, paranormal, steampunk, chick lit, erotica and straight romance.

And since they’re your readers, unless you’re with a publisher who specializes in your genre, don’t expect your editor to know as much about these subtleties as you should.

Write so your readers don’t think about punctuation, aren’t stopped by commas or lack of them, don’t get annoyed when something is inaccurate or misspelled. Write so the mechanics are invisible.

Invisible mechanics can be accomplished two ways (and ideally you’ll do both).

First (of course), write a story full of compelling characters driven by a great plot which keeps readers riveted right through to the last paragraph. Keep them so busy finding out what happens next that they don’t even think to look for things to criticize.

Second, pay attention to the rules and trends which affect your genre or niche, and to accurate spelling, facts and consistency. Either you or your editor (preferably both of you in a team effort) should be knowledgeable enough to avoid doing anything to distract readers from your story.

As author L. j. Charles says: “It has to be correct and so familiar that they don’t actually ‘see’ it.”

Which means: Know thy reader.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • L. j. Charles July 25, 2012, 10:24 pm

    Hi, Faith. Great first blog. And, wow, thanks for quoting me!

    I’m looking forward to visiting frequently.

  • Sibylla September 3, 2012, 7:42 pm

    hey what is your fb page

    • Faith Freewoman September 3, 2012, 8:06 pm

      You’re not gonna believe this, Sibylla, but I don’t have one. Nit enough time up to now.

      Ask me anything, though, and I’ll fill you in!

      Thanks for visiting.

      Cheers, Faith

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