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In Defense Of The Comma Or How To Stop Worrying About House Style And Learn To Love Your Voice

I recently had the joy of listening to Debra Dixon speak on writer voice. What she said at that luncheon helped clarify my part-musing, part-exasperation with authors who fight edits. I don’t mean edits where the content of the story may be changed. In fact, usually authors and editors can negotiate those things successfully and are often happy (or happy enough) with the results.

I’m talking about authors who will fight to the last breath to defend the right to use a misplaced modifier or a questionable comma. Often they say it interferes with their voice. Now no one in publishing wants to interfere with a writer’s voice, especially a voice that helps to sell books. The question is why a semicolon is so dangerous that removing it might do this, or why authors (and on the other side, publishers) fight the change so bitterly.

Debra Dixon stated, and, of course, I am paraphrasing, that a writer’s voice is made up of two things. One is the truth you write in your books. A writer may go back to certain themes, for lack of a better term, because this is what they know. When a reader reads those truths they resonate for the reader because they know that the author is revealing a truth, one that is true for the writer and the reader. That is the part of the writer’s voice that will never change.

The second part of a writer’s voice is how they say those truths. The way authors write is what is most easily changed in voice -- you can add an accent or change the rhythm of the sentences easily enough. A reader can still find the author’s voice, their “truth” in the story, even if the sentences or words are somewhat different.

I believe if you don’t occasionally change the rhythm of sentences or shake up the way you deliver your words, you are in danger of stagnation and eventually self-parody. For example, the way you phrase things for historicals would change if you then write contemporaries. Patterns of speech copied or adapted from the nineteenth century would not work in a contemporary story, even though a reader could still understand what’s being said. A good author can signal the difference by changing the narrative to fit the work.

But change in narrative can make an author uncomfortable. An author may not be able to articulate why that change bothers him or her -- or, worse, an editor may not have clearly articulated why it’s needed -- and the battle starts, especially if the argued grammatical usage has adherents on both sides. Obviously if it’s right either way and there is no other reason to change it, the author should be able to keep it, no matter how much other readers dislike it.

What is even worse for an author is when publisher house style wins over author style. If there are two ways to say the same thing and the publisher’s house style clearly says it must be one way, house style wins even if it might be arguably correct some other way. That is a problem with some authors, since I suspect they think their unique voice is being crushed by some anonymous house rule.

I would scream if someone made me spell artichoke as artechoke merely because it is house style. But that’s not how house style works. House style exists to create uniformity and consistency where the rules are vague. If there are two schools of thought on something like punctuation, say Chicago Manual of Style vs. Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, house style defines which way the argument will be decided.

Will it make a difference if you say dogs, cats, and babies vs. dogs, cats and babies? Did you even notice the difference? Will you care if this question is third in a series of questions or 3rd? I sincerely hope not. But the reader might if the rules change back and forth in a story. House style actually exists to make things uniform so that readers can move on to the content of the story without stopping to wonder about grammatical usage. Neither usage should impinge on your voice, or materially change your story in any way.

In epublishing, house style may also exist to make certain formats of books work correctly on certain e-readers. We all want the reader to have the best experience possible, and sometimes that means a publisher may format things like ellipses or fractions in a way that they’ve found looks best in certain formats. It’s a good thing for readers to be able to read your book, and not puzzle over strange hieroglyphs that appear when Mobi Pocket encounters some fractions.

House style will not change the most important part of the author’s voice. The author’s voice that delivers a universal truth can’t be squelched by a comma change. That is what the readers want and buy, not a particular modifier, verb or dialogue tag.

Treva Harte

PS: If your relationship with your editor and line editors is good enough that the worst thing you can find to argue over is a misplaced comma, you way want to take a Xanax and reconsider your position entirely. Count yourself among the extremely blessed. Few relationships in life work that smoothly.
Witty but irrelevant commentary supplied by the evil twin, M.



Damn it, Treva!

That was supposed to read irreverent commentary. Quit screwing with my voice!

Evil Twin

January 2013



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