This week I read a brilliant essay in the New Yorker. Written by one of their copy-editors, it is mainly about commas. It was a beautifully crafted, excellently punctuated piece, documenting how Mary Norris fell into a job at one of the most prestigious magazines in the world, and it resonated with me.
This is possibly because I harbour strong affection for the humble comma and the wonders it can do for a sentence. Use them wisely, and not only do they lend clarity to your writing, but they give your work rhythm and, occasionally, a distinctive sense of being yours – only you use them the way you do. Whenever I take up an editor-like role, I am vaguely exasperated by the perfusion of comma-less sub-clauses and find myself muttering darkly about matters of syntax to whomever is unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity. The entire meaning of a paragraph can, I assure you, rest on a well placed comma.
It is possible that I am a little zealous in my comma usage. Sometimes I do have to take out a ‘, and’ and just put a full stop, which I find a little sad. To me, the comma is the best punctuation mark. So imagine by joy at finding an entire essay dedicated to the little squiggle.
But, of course, that’s not what really excited me about this wonderful piece. Really, it was seeing that someone could care so much about the writing process and the way that words work. Sometimes, when I am really into a piece, I am so concentrated on the idea that I only pay cursory attention to how I am portraying it – luckily for me, good prose tends to flow naturally, so I can get away with it. But during a recent idea drought, I took solace in the act of finding the best way to construct a sentence and ignoring everything else. In doing so, I came up with the title for this piece. But until I read Norris’s essay, I couldn’t get it off the ground.
Words are powerful. With the right phrase you can stoke a passion, kindle a political movement or fire the imagination. Not many other things can claim to do that. In fact, exquisite phrases, having stopped your skim reading mid-line, can stay in your memory for ever. Ever wondered why so many people can quote the last sentence of The Great Gatsby? In those few lines, Fitzgerald summed up so much of the human experience.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
My bout of struggling to write worried me deeply. But now, with the ability to draft blog posts in my head as I get dressed in the morning reassuringly restored, I am left more conscious of how I am expressing myself. My fingers hover over the keyboard as I decide on the passive or active, a simile or a metaphor and, yes, whether I really need another comma. As Fitzgerald undoubtedly knew when he compared all our lives to boats, it is the nuts and bolts of writing that hold a piece together and, sometimes, allow it to fly.