Pictured: The manuscript to Old Man’s War (the first time, incidentally, that I’ve ever seen the whole thing in hard copy form), onto which the copy editor assigned by Tor has made (I’m presuming the sex here) her copy edits, which I’ve either accepted or rejected, the latter being noted by me scribbling “STET” in green pencil where her changes were made.
I’ve heard tale of truly dreadful copy edits, but I’m reasonably pleased to say this copy edit didn’t seem at all dreadful. The biggest issue seems to be a difference in philosophy regarding commas in a series: When confronted with a series in a sentence (“Cheese, eggs, bread and milk”) does one add a comma before the word and? I say no; my copy editor believed otherwise. I’ve STETed all those additional commas out of existence; other than that, however, the copy edit caught several rather embarrassing grammar and spelling errors and brought up a few questions which needed to be addressed for clarity’s sake. In all, the copy edit makes me look better as an author, and I’m happy for it.
The comma thing does make me aware how much I use punctuation in general and commas specifically for intonation in my writing. Commas are grammatically used today primarily for reading clarity, to separate phrases and clauses from each other in a sentence, to make them all easier to read and comprehend; other marks (like that semi-colon just now, not to mention these parentheses) do much the same thing. But way back, when most words were spoken, not written, commas, semicolons and the like were guides for the speaker to tell him when and how to make pauses in speaking. Small pauses were commas, larger ones were semicolons and colon; and periods of course were the longest pause of all. They still function that way, even mentally (do you or do you not take a quick mental pause when you see a period?), but it’s not really the main thrust of punctuation anymore.
Even so, as a writer I find that I’m pretty sensitive to where the commas go in writing, and how they affect the flow of the sentence as it rolls through my brain. More than that, I think how I use my punctuation is part of my writing voice. I am most aware of it when I’m writing dialogue — change the position of a comma and you can change the emphasis and meaning of what someone is saying — but I’m also aware of it in other places. Good punctuation use (particularly commas) can make written words feel conversational; bad punctuation use — even if it’s grammatically “correct” — can make written words hard to read.
I don’t want to get precious about it, since there’s a lot that goes in to making writing readable, and it’s not as if I fret over every single comma. It’s just I sometimes think the rhythmic nature of punctuation can get overlooked in written language.
I’ve also noticed, interestingly, that Americans use more punctuation writing than the British. Read a UK newspaper article in which someone is quoted, and the quote often seems to read like a run-on sentence due to a distinct lack of commas: “‘I went to see if he needed help but he didn’t so then I left’ said Clive Jones of South London” where the US version of the same quote would have at least three commas in there. It could be British reading comprehension is better than in the US — they don’t need no stinking commas to show them where the clauses are! — but I do have to say that when I read news from a British Web site, I often feel like I need to take a breath at the end of a sentence. Canadian print that I’ve seen reads much more like US print; Australian print, on the other hand, seems to follow the UK model. So maybe it’s a North American English-speaking thing.
In any event, one more pre-publication step done; Old Man’s War is that much closer to print.