That may be a little over-the-top, but here’s the truth:
Last year I roomed with a literary agent at a writer’s conference. Our first night there, she admitted her complete frustration with commas. New writers and experienced writers both have been submitting manuscripts with obvious and repetitive comma issues, and it’s annoying her.
What does that mean for you?
If you’re a published writer with a record of decently-selling books, agents will probably overlook the issue as long as the rest of the manuscript knocks their socks off. If you’re a new writer, however, you’re setting yourself up for failure. You need to prove that you understand all aspects of writing, including grammar.
So how can you fix these issues?
I can’t possibly address every comma rule here, but I can point out some of the most common mistakes, as well as give tips that will help you stop annoying literary agents.
Common Comma Mistakes
The Oxford Comma
Whether or not you like it doesn’t matter; when it comes to the Oxford comma (the last comma before “and” in a list of three or more), it’s a must in books. Make sure you use it.
WRONG: I’m having dinner with my parents, Hitler and Mother Teresa.
RIGHT: I’m having dinner with my parents, Hitler, and Mother Teresa.
Independent clauses can stand on their own as sentences. If you want to combine them into one sentence, separate them with a comma.*
WRONG: Beth made Christmas dinner for the whole family and her brother decorated the living room and tree.
RIGHT: Beth made Christmas dinner for the whole family, and her brother decorated the living room and tree.
*If the independent clauses are short, you don’t need a comma: Bill laughed but Jim cried.
If you’re starting a sentence with an interjection, you need a comma.
WRONG: Why I didn’t have any idea about the party.
Well then let’s get going.
Hey why don’t you come with us?
RIGHT: Why, I didn’t have any idea about the party.
Well then, let’s get going.
Hey, why don’t you come with us?
Introductory Prepositional Phrases
If you can remove the introductory prepositional phrase without changing the meaning of the sentences, then it needs a comma.
WRONG: For example I hate tomatoes but love ketchup.
Of course I love pizza.
By the way I have a coupon.
RIGHT: For example, I hate tomatoes but love ketchup.
Of course, I love pizza.
By the way, I have a coupon.
- No one’s going to get everything right, and no one expects that you’ll be perfect. What an agent will appreciate, however, is consistency. If you’re not sure about a specific comma rule, at least be consistent with how you use it – always or never. That makes it clear that there’s a specific rule that you don’t understand, which is easier to correct than an entire manuscript of inconsistently misused commas.
- Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors by Kathy Ide – Get it. The Chicago Manual of Style can be overwhelming; Proofreading Secrets boils the CMOS down to the most common mistakes. It’s easier to read, easier to manage, and it includes pages for you to jot down rules that may not be the most common to all writers, but are common mistakes for you.
Don’t let something as small as the comma get in the way of your publishing dreams. Learn how to use it and start impressing agents today!**
**Short independent clauses; no comma needed.