Do you ever spend all day putting in a comma and then taking it out? No, me neither. No one does that.
Perhaps the best way to deal with the problem of the comma is to read the sentence, or better yet the whole paragraph out loud and see if you run out of breath. This will not only break the spell of staring at the cursor on the screen as it blinks and mocks you, it will lend a physicality to your text that will ground it. Readers have bodies, and you can manipulate them more effectively if you appeal to their senses. Sure, that sounds creepy, but that’s what they’re asking (and paying you, I hope) to do.
Let’s talk about the first sentence in the previous paragraph:
“Perhaps the best way to deal with the problem of the comma is to read the sentence, or better yet the whole paragraph out loud and see if you run out of breath.”
I’m torn about the presence of one comma at the beginning of the parenthetical statement and the absence of a second comma at the end of it. Then there’s the slight pause as the original thought resumes after the words “out loud.” Almost feels like a comma moment. I know deep deep in my veins that I do not want three commas in such a short sentence. Or maybe any sentence. I mean, it’s not 1864. I am not Thomas Pynchon. There’s a time and place for lengthy and beautifully crafted sentences, but I do not yet dwell in that fabled place. At least not in a blog post.
Considering various permutations of this sentence leads me into the black hole of editing. I believe it’s a good journey to take, but not when composing a first draft. The black hole compresses thought. It’s essential if you want to write anything that makes sense outside of your own head, but compression is the second, third, or final step. In your first draft, don’t you want to expand and explore your theme, learn about your characters, discover the mad impetus of unconscious desires that drive you to type or scrawl and invoke the stream of unbridled ideas dammed up inside you to burst forth in a flood that dumps as much garbage as gold onto your fertile banks? You want the gold, don’t you?
I’ll leave the first draft of the sentence unedited above as an example of how things pour out of us before we know what we’re going to say. To quote Dan Delillo, “Writing is a concentrated form of thinking.” I doubt he or any other author can hone a thought to perfection before it hits the page, at least not without a lifetime of practice. So let’s go back now and see if we can fix it.
First, here’s a version with all the commas my sense of organization and understanding of classical grammar demand:
“Perhaps the best way to deal with the problem of the comma is to read the sentence, or better yet the whole paragraph, out loud, and see if you run out of breath.”
Well that was terrible. It sounds like the speaker has emphysema.
Next, here’s a version with what should be the tidy solution of encasing the parenthetical thought in a cozy little comma embrace:
“Perhaps the best way to deal with the problem of the comma is to read the sentence, or better yet the whole paragraph, out loud and see if you run out of breath.”
Nope. That parenthetical break is too long and the phrase “out loud and see if you run out of breath” sounds all kinds of wrong. I still don’t want to change the words because I want the tone to be conversational, but I don’t like how the whole point of the sentence falls into a ditch at the end.
I’m not even going to try it with an em dash. Whenever I start em dashing I know I have gone full baroque and need to take a pill (metaphorically). It’s time to step back and see that the problem here is that there are too many thoughts in one sentence. While the connections structuring it as a whole inside my own mind still exist, objectively I can see that the different points lose impact by being presented in unity. Let’s take a meat cleaver to the concepts:
“Perhaps the best way to deal with the problem of the comma is to read the sentence, or better yet the whole paragraph, out loud. See if you run out of breath.”
Not bad. The phrasing sounds a bit like a challenge now, and I like that. The short sentence is a nice break from the longer ones around it. Varying sentence length for emphasis cannot be over-rated, in my opinion. I think I’d be happy with this as a final draft.
What’s key here is letting the bad sentence slide until the big picture of the whole piece is fleshed out. Sure, you can struggle to fix each phrase or sentence before you move on to the next, but I suspect you’ll never get your story finished that way. Until you’ve written the whole story, you don’t have enough information to tinker with such specifics as individual commas and perfectly chosen words. Most of your first draft is going into the garbage anyway. Deal with it. Treat yourself like a potential overdose victim when comma coma comes over you and keep it moving.