Many of you may have seen this last week, when it was all over social media:
I think I’ll stay away from Rachel’s meat loaf.
Call it the tyranny of the comma if you like, but that tiny punctuation mark exists for a very good reason, as demonstrated here. Even among fine writers, it has become neglected of late, and that is a shame, because it clearly carries great power. Lynne Truss’s EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES is an entire book dedicated to the science of punctuation, and to the demons it can unleash when improperly used.
I recently read a Middle Grade manuscript that was truly impressive—good writing, a terrific plot, suspenseful storytelling. The trouble was, it took me twice as long to read as it should have, because the author had no conception of how to use commas. That meant that I had to go back and read nearly every sentence twice in order to grasp its correct meaning. As an agent, I cannot present a manuscript to an acquiring editor if it’s in that state. I did take the author on as a client, because the book was superb–but I had to insist that the manuscript be professionally proofread and line-edited first, with an eye specifically on punctuation.
If you know or suspect that you’ve got problems with punctuation, have the final version of your manuscript thoroughly proofread and corrected before you show it to any industry professional. Some of us may give up after only a page or two when a manuscript is riddled with this problem. We may even give up after reading just the query letter. I have to be a real schoolmarm about this issue, because commas are as important to a strong sentence as words are. They are the pins that keep it firmly anchored on the clothesline. You don’t want it slipping off and falling into the mud.