Few times in the history of the written word has such a small character caused so much contention as the serial comma. Also known as the Oxford comma (after the dictionary by the same name) and the Harvard comma (after the school, of course), this punctuation mark divides more than words. It has the uncanny ability to divide authors and editors into one of two camps: for or against.
Among those who support the use of the serial comma are the Chicago Manual of Style and William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, authors of another well-known writing style guide, “The Elements of Style.” In this guide, the author is directed to use the serial comma “in a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction.” For example, “He opened the package, reviewed the contents, then abruptly tossed it aside.” Or, “Her skirt was a conglomeration of red, orange, and blue fabric scraps.”
Avid haters of the serial comma include the Associated Press (AP) and publications such as People, Variety, and The National Enquirer. AP prescribes that the serial comma should be omitted in all cases except when doing so would cause misreading. This is in direct opposition to the Chicago Manual of Style which states serial commas should always be used, except in the same circumstance. If this isn’t confusing enough, writers for Variety must accept that the publication basically sticks to its own unwritten grammar rules.
The Comma in Court
In March of 2017, the serial comma had its day in court. Dairy delivery drivers for Oakhurst Dairy, a company in Maine, sued their employer regarding overtime pay and who was qualified to receive it. The U.S. Court of Appeals determined on March 13 that the way Maine’s employment laws were written, the law was unclear and “ambiguous,” leaving too much room for misinterpretation. The problem of clarity came down to one missing comma!
In the end, the five drivers involved won their appeal, and the court ruled they were eligible for overtime benefits. Maine does have its own style guide for legislation which instructs law-writers to omit the serial comma. This could be revisited, however, as the drivers’ overtime case continues moving forward.
Which Way to Sway?
As a writer or an editor, the best tool you have in your box is communication. Writers want their work to stand apart in clarity, and an editor or publisher may have different criteria for the piece than the writer is accustomed to. Always clarify which style the end publication prefers, and it will make both of your jobs easier. Afterward, you can celebrate a little if your side of the comma conundrum has won the battle.
Character, plot, and place are intertwined elements good writers use artfully. Sometimes the place is fictional (for example, Kent Haruf’s Holt, Colorado), or real (Naples, the backdrop of a quartet of Elena Ferrante’s novels), or disguised (Oxford disguised as Christminster by Thomas Hardy).
The Importance of the Setting
The setting imbues the story with the environment’s mood. It layers the tale with meaning about the passage of time, stages of life, constraints felt by the character, and/or as a source motivating the characters’ actions.
Undisguised Real Locations
Stories set in a familiar place help the tale appear more real for the readers. The reader becomes absorbed in a fictional story that seems real because it is set in identifiable locations. These locations change over time and are not boringly static backdrops of the unfolding plot.
Elena Ferrante, who chooses to remain anonymous, picked gritty Naples for her stories of the enduring friendship of two girls who grew up in Rione Luzzatti, a poor neighborhood slum of Naples. Naples has a certain reputation because it is home to the autonomous local mafia clans, collectively known as the Camorra.
Ferrante’s quartet of Neapolitan novels have other real settings that the characters visit (Milan, and the island of Ischia), stay in (Pisa), and live in (Florence and Turin) as they mature.
Negative, factually incorrect descriptions are vulnerable to litigation. Writers can protect themselves by including disclaimers that their creation is a work of fiction, and any real locations, organizations, and businesses described in it are fictionalized depictions by the author.
Disguised Real Locations
Real locations set in a region where the fictional town is located add touches of authenticity that encourage readers to identify with the characters in the story. Readers who recognize the real place disguised by the author develop an intimacy with the unfolding tale. Also, anonymity wards off litigation.
The Freedom of Fictional Locations
Unrecognizable places can be anywhere, but world-building requires work. Fictional locations can be as varied as J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts and Kent Haruf’s fictional Holt, Colorado. One is more realistic than the other, but Rowling’s fiction is fantasy and Haruf’s is more realistic.
Haruf’s fictional town of Holt seems to capture life in the plains of eastern Colorado, where the author grew up. Holt, Colorado functions like Thomas Hardy’s Wessex – an imaginary place based on a real region that the writers were familiar with. However, Haruf claimed his stories could be anyplace. His characters’ experiences were not limited to a particular location or region.
There’s no superior choice of setting. Whether the location is identifiable, disguised, or fictional, the creative details depicted in each context draw the reader further into the world created by the writer.
For writers who grew up or lived in small towns, writing about them comes easily because that life is so familiar to them. Unlike large cities with many service providers, small towns demand more of local residents, who need to become handy at doing things because the service is either not nearby or not easily available. Small towns also are fascinating settings for other reasons.
Readers Can Picture the Setting
A ready-made setting springs up in readers’ minds when a small town is depicted as the background of the story. Their imaginations can work overtime with a few hints to fuel the pictures they have created in their minds.
Appear Quiet, Slow Paced, and Intimate
The pace of small towns does not appear to be stressed and busy like “big city” life, although work life is often hard and demanding. Local folk appear more relaxed, with time on their hands to do quirky things that writers can use to engage their readers.
Small towns have less anonymity. They can be more personal. The environment does not favor privacy because people gossip and are curious about what other townspeople are doing.
Small Town Values Make for Good Drama/Conflicts/Contradictions
Appearances can be deceptive. Under the surface of pleasant small-town life can be a bubbling cauldron of passions, enmities, feuds, and even small animosities. Residents may have larger-than-life emotions: generosity, pettiness, jealousy, vengefulness, bitterness, or some other type of meanness as they appear to have more freedom to be themselves and engage more personally with others.
Towns can also have dull-witted, slow-to-respond characters that appear to reflect the ambience. Small-town moral, ethical, and cultural standards provide a good foil for character development and influences.
Good Backdrop for Subterfuge and Secrets
Lack of privacy offers writers opportunity to imagine characters harboring secrets that add spice to stories. In the less private environment of small-town settings, there are major potential repercussions if secrets become public knowledge and get passed around so “everyone” knows what is going on.
Less Receptive to Change, “Modern,” or Different Folk
The slow pace of small-town life lends itself to acceptance of the status quo and resistance to change. Newcomers are welcome, so long as they are not subversive. Blending in is expected because the confined setting is not conducive to ruffled feathers.
Small Towns Can be Insular, Claustrophobic, Limit Potential
The flip side of neighborliness is the constraining insularity. Career potential and education opportunities are limited. There is a reason why ambitious youth leave their hometowns. For writers, that environment offers potential material for intergenerational and/or interpersonal conflicts.
The small town can be a creation of the writer; for example, Kent Haruf’s Holt, Colorado is a fictional derivative of three towns. Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio” is a reminder that small-town life has been inspiring American writers for a long time.
Compelling characters grab a reader’s attention and pull the reader into the story. In the best fiction, a reader becomes an interested observer, or at least feels as if he or she is part of the plot.
How do writers create characters? And, how do writers create characters who are so interesting that readers care enough to know what happens to them?
Interest in the Characters and Being Observant Helps
How a writer feels about the characters is part of the dynamic of writing interesting characters. In his Granta article, “The Making of a Writer,” Kent Haruf explained that, “To be more aware of others and to pay closer attention to what others around me are feeling… are good things if you are trying to learn how to write fiction about characters you care about and love.”
Writers like Eudora Welty and Jane Austen, who lived sheltered lives, were still able to write compelling characters with perceptive details about their society and the world in which they lived because they were observant about the people around them. Observing what motivates people provides writers with insight they can use in their work.
Creative Writing Courses Can Help
Writers can learn from workshops and writing courses how to create complex and compelling characters. Building characters to make them distinctive and credible can be learned. In creative writing courses exercises can help writers explore the facets and traits of characters that make them human and absorbing.
Watching movies to figure out how to build scenes, learning to write dialogue, and taking narrative classes that help writers learn how to craft longer stories that do not lose their momentum are among the skills that writers can learn.
The Distinctive Instructive Style of Writing Workshops
The workshop format generates progress through peer reviews. The University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop is recognized as the leader in this space. The university may have come naturally to this approach because of Midwestern farmers’ tradition of “neighboring.” Neighborliness was how small farmers supported each other by helping each other in farming chores. Writing is a lonely craft, but workshops help writers learn to refine their craft sociably.
Writer Kent Haruf went to great lengths to get admitted by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. As he shared in his Granta article, the teaching methods in his time were more “descriptive” and less “prescriptive.” Experienced writers shared “what they thought worked in a story and what didn’t” and left it up to writers “to figure out how to fix it.”
Whether a reader’s attention stays with the story or the novel will depend on the writer’s skill in creating interesting, compelling characters, storylines, plots, and subplots.
In 2016, Claudio Gatti, an Italian journalist, conducted an investigation and proclaimed the identity of the author who chose to write under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante. Gatti unmasked his quarry in his blog article aptly titled, “Elena Ferrante: An Answer?” published in The New York Review of Books.
Gatti’s evidence appeared to be believable enough for some to accept that the identified person was the real author behind the persona of Elena Ferrante. There followed consternation and controversy about whether a writer who preferred to maintain her anonymity should be “unmasked” against her will. Gatti’s claim was not acknowledged by the identified person.
An Exciting Writer Who Prefers to Remain Private
The writer who has chosen the pen name “Elena Ferrante” as her persona became famous outside Italy with the release of her works in other languages. Her novels about friendship and the life of two women growing up in Naples are especially beloved already. However, despite the fact that the translation of her novels, “Troubling Love,” “The Days of Abandonment,” “The Lost Daughter,” and the Neapolitan Novels has catapulted her into the big leagues, the writer has stubbornly preferred her anonymity.
She remains an enigma because despite her fame, she refuses to own the work that has won her adulation. Some have even wondered whether the anonymity is because “she” is actually a “he.” One thing appears clear: the author is without an ego.
JK Rowling’s Crime Novel Written under a Pseudonym
In contrast, JK Rowling wrote a crime novel under a pseudonym that became a roaring best seller after she was identified as the author. Yet Elena Ferrante‘s work soared in popularity without her identity being known.
However, since her novels seem intensely personal; maybe it is just as well that the author remains in the shadows. Who knows what personal dramas would ensue if she came forward to own her work? But one can wonder how in an age when it is so hard to get published the writer “Elena Ferrante” was able to. Was she already known to the publisher, as Gatti appears to indicate?
Several well-known authors have written anonymously. For instance, Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy began their careers publishing anonymously. It is likely that like them, the author writing as Elena Ferrante will also unmask herself when she is ready. As her secret has not gotten in the way of readers enjoying her work, why does it matter whether the public knows who the author is?
Eudora Welty, Writer and Photographer, Shaped by Depression-Era Experiences and Her Native Mississippi
Eudora Welty inherited her love of literature from her mother and her love of photography from her father, who helped establish the first camera store in her home town of Jackson, Mississippi. Her mother, as related in the author’s memoir, even endangered her life during a house fire to save a collection of novels by Dickens.
Photographer and Writer of the Southern Experience
Before she became a published author, Welty held a one-woman show of her photographs that revealed her empathy for the kind of people that would become the subjects of her written works. During a period when African-Americans were not recognized, many of the subjects of her photography were African-Americans going about their daily lives.
Hired as a publicity agent in the 1930s for the Work Progress Administration, Welty traveled through rural Mississippi. She photographed and wrote press releases about the countryside and the condition of the people during the Depression. The creative writer saw up-close the small-town southern life that she wrote about in her stories.
The Writer Emerges in 1936
With the debut of the short story, “The Death of the Traveling Salesman,” in 1936, Welty displayed her original style of writing. A gardener and photographer, Welty captured transitory moments artfully in her writing. She wrote about a familiar world in the familiar surroundings of her family home, to which she returned after her father’s untimely death from cancer.
By 1941, Welty’s first collection of stories, “A Curtain of Green,” was published, and by 1955 she had composed most of the works upon which her reputation as one of America’s great writers rests. Writers today can learn from her observant details and sensitivity; the art of writing came naturally to Welty because of her passion for photography and her love of English language and literature.
In her prose, words describe scenes with the precision of a photographer’s eye for clarity and detail. Her gift for “verbal portraiture” as described by Danny Heitman in his article, “The Quiet Greatness of Eudora Welty,” is clearly evident to readers of any of her works.
Some critics have seen her only as a regionalist, depicting southern life of a certain period. Despite past criticism of how Welty handled racism, Harriet Pollock reveals the sensitivity with which Welty approached race and racism in her “Eudora Welty, Whiteness, and Race,” published by University of Georgia Press.
A great writer is a great teacher of how to write memorably for all who follow, and Eudora Welty is no exception. Her passion for photography informed the beauty and richness of her prose. She is a joy to read in any era.
Surprise was the most common reaction when the 1913 and 2016 Nobel Prizes were awarded for literature. In 1913, a virtual unknown outside India, and in 2016, a world-famous celebrated songwriter, elicited the same reaction. Why?
Rabindranath Tagore was recognized for his first work translated in English: a songbook aptly titled “Geetanjali.” Then in 2016, Bob Dylan was himself surprised when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Coincidentally, the Nobel Committee’s selection — which was both praised and criticized — for the literature laureate in 2016 came just over a century after Tagore became the first laureate recognized for verse meant to accompany music. Tagore was the first non-western Nobel laureate; he did not expect to win even though he was already a recognized and beloved poet in his native land.
Anthems for Movements and Nations
What both Tagore and Dylan have in common is how they have moved people in their eras and afterwards. Dylan’s lyrics have been the figurative anthems for the civil rights and anti-war movements in the United States; Tagore’s poetry provided the lyrics for three national anthems.
Because the Nobel was established by an armament manufacturer, writer Will Self, while agreeing about the literary value of Dylan’s work, suggested that he should follow Jean Paul Sartre’s example and reject his award.
Both Laureates Were Surprised for Different Reasons
Dylan did not know that he was being considered for the prize, but Tagore had been informed by a friend that Thomas Sturge Moore had recommended him to the Nobel Committee. Even though “Geetanjali” was a book of lyrics, Moore felt its poetry merited consideration of Tagore as a literary genius worthy of recognition.
Tagore was already known at home for being a literary great. Dylan is also being presented in literature classes taught by his fans as a literary talent. Dylan’s biographers, Dr. David Gaines and Howard Sounes, agree that he was a worthy choice.
Tagore, a poet, consciously wrote lyrics. But in Dylan’s case, he was not consciously writing poetry, even though in his lyrics he has evoked literary masters.
Unlike Tagore, Bob Dylan was not recognized for a particular work but for a body of work. In a career spanning more than 50 years, Dylan has crafted more than 700 songs. Tagore, who lived to a ripe old age, composed more than 2000 songs. So, Dylan has a ways to go before his productivity exceeds that of the lyricist who preceded him into the annals of Nobel laureates.
Copyeditors face unique challenges when working with multiple clients and writers. Primarily, everyone has their own idea of what is right and acceptable, and clients will vary on what they expect in any given piece of work. Rules also tend to change with the times as traditional writing forms make way for modern artistic freedom in speech and writing. How fast do things change? Oxford English Dictionary editors estimate they add around 1,000 words per year. Wrap your spell-checker around that statistic!
Editing in Real Life
Thinking that editing class you took in college is the be-all and end-all of editing is where potentially great editors falter, and this can make or break a career. Classes are only the beginning, no matter how thick and unwieldy the dictionary and style manual were that you memorized. The best learning even an experienced editor will find is in real life situations, especially from writers willing to share their editing nightmares.
If you Google a phrase like “bad editor,” you will find more than 20,000 results telling you exactly what not to do, including a humorous definition from Urban Dictionary. Likely most of these “Don’ts” were born from writers fed up with their police-like editors ruining a good piece of writing by sticking hard and fast to old rules. As an editor, it is imperative to work with your writer rather than against them. Ultimately, you will end up learning a lot about yourself in the process.
When you are ready to get serious as an editor and you want to improve your skills in today’s terms, find some writers to talk with. Writers are everywhere, so it should be easy to find some with some interesting editing horror stories. Brace yourself for brutal honesty in their opinions of editors because this will shed light on how you can improve. Pay attention to how they fear and perceive editors and vow to do better.
Consider the Audience
Consider editing as a continuing education in the English language. Consider the audience your writer is writing for and what the readers expect as far as form and function. It is important to know that being on the cutting edge of linguistics is bad for business (you don’t want to be too different), but being able to flex your branches with differing needs and expectations will make you less of a “bad guy” and more of a partner.
Finally, seek out a mentor or team of mentors who will provide you uncensored advice on your copyediting techniques. The more people you ask opinions of, the more diverse your skills will become. This in turn will help you break free of stagnancy and allow you more room to grow in the career.
Writers may at times find themselves stuck for a new angle on an existing project or at a loss for new topics to explore. When this happens, writing becomes frustrating, and that puts a damper on creating new material. If you are a writer, consider how your immediate surroundings affect you. Do the “same four walls” often make your writing as drab as your office? Does your personal writing drone on about the same topic night after night? If so, it is time for a change.
Professional spaces are often highly limited in how they can be personalized. In a creatively stifled office situation, it often helps to invest a small amount of money into personal writing effects like fountain pens, colored pens, and higher-end notebooks or sketch books. Taking notes with different tools helps pull a bored office worker out of the mundane and makes business writing sound better. It is also easier to work when you are happy. E-mails and memos will sound much more alive, catching more interest.
Personal writing spaces offer a lot more freedom when it comes to how they can be decorated. Writers with their own writing rooms can experiment with color, sounds, and scents to wake up the right hemisphere of their brains. If painting the walls with inspiring colors (usually oranges, blues, and greens) is too much of a task, walls can be covered with colorful tapestries or even embellished bed sheets and photo frames. Background music helps some and hinders others, so try a few things until you find a happy place.
Of course, some writers may engage in work that requires both professionalism and extreme creativity. These are the lucky ones! Marketing and advertising are two such careers where a certain amount of artistic freedom is rewarded with bigger paychecks and better contracts. In these instances, such writers are encouraged to make their work spaces (desks, offices, studios) a reflection of their creative vision, places that never stop inspiring their work.
No matter the type of writing you do, whether personal or business, if you ever feel stuck for new ideas, try changing up your surroundings. Something as simple as sitting in a new park if you work primarily indoors, or writing in a museum cafe or anywhere else you do not usually go, can provide the boost needed to start creating again.
Flash fiction, or extremely brief works of fiction, has exploded in popularity over the past few years but has been around longer than many realize. In America, one can find examples of such micro-storytelling as early as the 1800s from authors including Kate Chopin and Walt Whitman. The popular magazine Cosmopolitan popularized these short forms by way of their “Short Short Story” section, and by the 1930s, anthologies of these shorts started to hit the printing presses.
Presently, numerous print literary journals are dedicated to flash fiction, including the Vestal Review and Flash: The International Short Short Story Magazine. The internet has
broken through the limitations of print publishing these short pieces and given audiences a means to instant satisfaction, both in writing and reading the short-form written works that feature short prose, snippets of high drama, and often open endings designed to leave the reader wondering, “What next?”
Often called “fast food for the mind,” flash fiction has jumped off the pages of obscure literary magazines and found a comfortable niche on the internet. Now everyone with an internet connection and some imagination is invited to try their hand at this not-so-new style. Some writers take flash to the extreme. Historically, although the story has seen a few versions from one telling to another, there is a tale of Ernest Hemingway winning a bet with his “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
In addition to the six-word-story challenge alluded to above, folks have come up with other now commonly accepted subsets for flash fiction. Included in these powerful little subs are:
- 140-character stories called “Twitterature”
- 50-word “Dribbles”
- 100-word “Drabbles”
- 750-word “Sudden Fiction”
While there is no hard and fast rule for an actual word limit to any flash fiction story, audiences will agree on “the shorter, the better.” The internet is, after all, the go-to source for bite-sized information and entertainment. Because of this, flash fiction naturally took over a corner of the web. Not only has the internet been the impetus for enhanced awareness of the style, it has blatantly influenced its popularity. We now see online journals dedicated solely to this uniquely satisfying writing style.
New online journals crop up weekly, bringing us new flash fiction to consume. With every new voice on the web, the style continues to evolve and new rules are written. Keeping in form means flash writers take existing forms and redefine them. As long as the many forms of flash fiction remain nebulous, audiences will remain interested.