Ah, the Difference a Comma Makes!

One of my recycled blog posts was published in an ezine today, and apparently people are more interested in insulting me than in reading what I wrote.

The article was about striving for clarity in writing. I wrote;

There seem to be two vociferous groups of writers nowadays:

1. Self-published writers who insist that they can do everything their way without regard to grammar rules, publishing conventions, and even readers.

2. Writers who want to be published by the major publishing houses, and who scrupulously follow every dictate in the hopes it will bring them the acclaim they strive for.

ReadingI described each of the groups and ended by saying that the truth of good writing lies somewhere in the middle of those two groups.

Very simple, right? Wrong.

One self-published author commented: Bracketing all self-publishers as people who ‘do everything their way without regard to grammar rules, publishing conventions, and even readers’, is not true Pat, and you know it! If your point was merely to be controversial, you have certainly achieved it. Your obvious prejudice against self-publishers in general has done you no favours, believe me. Yes, some do ignore the rules, but then there are people like myself – best selling self-published authors who do obey the rules…

Another wrote: Your categorising writers into two groups is just plain silly. It smacks of snobbery and a failure to comprehend reality.

Huh? Doesn’t anyone read?

First, even if I believed self-publishers are all bad writers, which I don’t, I would never publicly come out and say it. Too many self-publishers are militant, fighting a battle that has already been won, and it’s simply not worth getting into the fray.

Second, I listed two “vociferous” groups. Those who strive for good writing are not vociferous. They simply write without insisting that their way is the right way.

Third, if you will notice, I did not say all self-published writers. I said “self-published writers who insist they can do everything their way.” If I meant all self-published writers, I would have written “self-published writers, who insist they can do everything their way”.

Ah, the difference a comma makes!

Maybe next I need to write an article about striving for clarity in reading.

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For those of you who don’t understand the comma rule:

In the sentence “Self-published writers who insist that they can do everything their way”, the clause “who insist that they can do everything their way” does not have a comma before it, which means it’s a restrictive clause. It restricts the subject “Self-published writers” to those who insist they can do everything their way. Leaving off the comma means that the clause is an integral part of the subject, that the subject does not stand alone.

If I had meant all self-published writers, I would have used a comma. The comma would have alerted readers that the phrase “who insist that they can do everything their way” was a non-restrictive clause — merely a parenthetical remark describing all self-published writers, and it could have been removed without changing the meaning of the sentence. But, I did not use the comma. Hence, I did not make a sweeping generality that took in all self-published writers. The comment referred to a select few vociferous writers.

In my experience, those who insist they can write however they wish without regard to rules are self-published or plan to be, so my sentence as I wrote it was not pejorative. Writers who wish to pursue a different avenue of publishing know they have to follow the rules of whatever publishing company or agent they are trying to impress, and they will not vociferously proclaim they can write however they wish without regard to rules.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Striving For Clarity in Writing

stageThere seem to be two vociferous groups of writers nowadays:

1. Self-published writers who insist that they can do everything their way without regard to grammar rules, publishing conventions, and even readers.

2. Writers who want to be published by the major publishing houses, and who scrupulously follow every dictate in the hopes it will bring them the acclaim they strive for.

The first group of writers often strive for originality at the expense of readability. They take the easy way out by choosing limp words that demand to be propped up with adverbs and adjectives. Or they throw out grammar rules, which comes across not so much as being creative but as being too lazy to learn the right way. Grammar is not a straightjacket but a garment that flows softly around readers, keeping their attention on the story rather than the structure. If readers have to read and reread a paragraph to try to make sense of it, then the author has not done her job.

Some of these authors believe that readers should have to work to make sense of their story, that it’s okay if readers are pulled out of the story to look up an unfamiliar word, or to admire a particularly well-turned phrase, but readers for the most part want to be immersed in a story. If you’re watching a play, you want to see the characters, the action, the set. You do not want to be shown the backstage bickering or the ugly scaffolding. You simply want to be immersed in the play. (Unless, of course, the play is Noises Off, in which case all the bickering and scaffolding are part of the story.) And the same goes for books.

The second group of writers strives for perfection at the cost of originality, especially originality of style or voice. These writers are often too assiduous in their dislike of “was”,  “it”, “ly” adverbs, adjectives, or any number of words that make our writing seem amateurish. Yes, an abundance of such words does make our writing seem amateurish and even hard to read, but removing every single was or it or modifier makes for a stilted style.

The truth of good writing lies somewhere in the middle of those two groups.

As I read in an old book called The Practical Stylist by Sheridan Baker: “Clarity is the first aim; economy the second; grace the third; dignity the fourth. Our writing should be a little strange, a little out of the ordinary, a little beautiful with words and phrases not met everyday, but seeming as right and natural as grass.”

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

An Accidental New Year’s Resolution

UntitledtWhen I first got the internet in 2007, I embraced it as if it were a wonderful new friend. At the time, my mother was dying and my life mate/soul mate was sick. There was nothing I could do about either of those circumstances, and the internet gave me a place to escape from my real life.

The terrible times continued. My mother died, then three years later, my soul mate died, and one of the few ways I could escape from the grief was to spend time online. (Screaming also helped alleviate the grief, but being online was so much easier on my throat.) I moderated writing groups, connected to thousands of people, dived headfirst into blogging. I used a couple of my blogs to promote other authors because  . . . well, because the blogs were there and it seemed like the right thing to do.

Several unsettling incidents happened recently that made me rethink what I’m doing online. These incidents didn’t amount to much. A contretemps over an excerpt someone wanted me to post. The discovery that a terrible writer I know who writes awful books is making a fortune. A discussion about talent vs. persistence (most writers seem to believe that talent is more important, which disheartens me — are writers really so arrogant in their belief of their talent?). Just trivial things, but they got to me more than they should have, and it suddenly dawned on me that if I turned off my computer, these things don’t exist.

The truth is, except for this blog, I’m not having any fun online. I seem to have fallen into an alternate universe of self-published writers. I’m even getting known as a promoter of self-published writers, but I find this new world of publishing very discouraging. Many of the excerpts I post on my blog are not well written or are excerpts from books I’d never read if they were the last books left on this earth. And that’s saying a lot since once I read everything that fell into my hands. So why am I promoting such books? I no longer know.

It used to be that self-published writers were iconoclasts, following a dream at any cost. Now so many self-published writers are conformists, following a dream at no cost. Even worse, they are a militant lot, demanding regard for no apparent reason. I have become friends with numerous self-published writers in an online sort of way, and I know that many are good at the craft and strive to get better, but just as many self-publishers dash out a book in a month (sometimes even in a week) and expect to be taken seriously.

To be honest, I have no regard for most of the authors published by the big six, either, so this isn’t a self-published vs. traditional-published discussion. It’s about me. I am not self-published, though many people assume I am (guilt by association). Nor am I published by a major publishing company. Authors who were published by small independent presses used to called “indie authors” but self-publishers have adopted that name for themselves, so now there is no name for us.

In my case, it no longer matters what kind of author I am since I am not writing much fiction. Being around so much bad writing and so many self-aggrandizing writers has stifled any urge I might have to contribute words of my own.

So, to save my sanity, I’ve decided to escape from my online life. I’m going to keep up this blog, of course, but I’ll be cutting back on other online activities, especially those that involve promoting authors I don’t know and don’t like.

This resolution isn’t accidental — I’ve been giving a lot of thought to where I want to go with my online life. What’s accidental is the timing. What was supposed to be simply a resolution has accidentally become a New Years resolution.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+