Comma Overload


Aspiring authors are frequently advised to read their target markets, try to discern editorial tastes, and learn from published writers. As useful as those tips can be, it is also infuriating when you read an article that defies belief.

I was in doctor’s office recently and picked up the February 2009 issue of Conde Nast Traveller. Admittedly, I don’t normally read this magazine and can’t speak for editorial preferences or the style expressed in issues over the course of a year. But in this particular magazine, an article on dogsledding in Greenland caught my attention because of gorgoeous photography from Tiina Itkonen.

Unfortunately the writing failed to equal the photos. After almost every paragraph, I wondered, “How in the hell did this make it through an editor’s review?”

The journalist, Bob Payne, seemed completely addicted to commas. The opening paragraph of “Going to the Dogs in Greenland” had 53 words and seven commas. A later paragraph boasted 47 words and six commas. Here’s an example:

“On just such a sled, my guide, Johannes Mathaeussen, and I are about to set out on a four-day adventure across a white, treeless landscape. The sled, little more than a narrow wooden platform on runners, is piled about three stories high with all manner of gear and supplies, including a shotgun whose barrel I keep catching a boot on when for practice I climb atop the pile, where I am to ride, Mathaeussen tells me, ‘like a cowboy.'”

Granted, it was early in the morning and I was sitting in an uncomfortable chair in a doctor’s office as opposed to studying in the intellectually stimulating library. But I had to read the part, “including a shotgun whose barrel I keep catching a boot on when for practice I climb atop the pile, where I am to ride,” approximately 3,239 times in order to figure it out. At this point, I should be able to recite the line with the eloquence of a classically trained Shakespearean actor but I still can’t get the freaking thing to flow nicely. Maybe Anthony Hopkins should give it a go.

Here’s another dozie:

“Our twenty-dog team, knowing that they are about to be given the word to do what they are bred for, which is to run, are yapping excitedly and straining against the metal ice screw to which their traces are still attached.”

Payne’s style was clearly not a straight-forward manner of journalism. And that’s great. I applaud the use of a more individual and distinctive writing voice as opposed to the boring USA Today style that barely exceeds telegram text. But some of these sentences were so clunky, so awkward that it’s challenging to understand how they made it to publication. As writers starting out our careers, it’s frustrating to try and learn the craft while seeing things like this in print. And, to be painfully honest, times like this can make you question your own taste and knowledge. It’s easy to discount your own judgment and say, “Well, shit, that article was printed in a relatively major magazine, so who am I to criticize it?” Ultimately, though, you must have confidence in yourself while remaining open to educational opportunities.

So here’s my slight alteration of the article, which I will submit to magazines forthwith, in anticipation that they will accept my query, for which is it what I endeavor to do with my career, and since I’m eager to learn from successful writers, I strive to improve my own style.

“On just such a desk, my mentor, Comma McCommerson, and I are about to write a challenging article across a white, punctuation devoid computer screen. The desk, little more than a narrow wooden slab, is piled about three stories high with all manner of reference materials and interview transcriptions, including a stapler whose barrel I keep catching a mouse cord on when for practice I dive into the pile, where I am to write, McCommerson tells me, ‘like a clauseophile.’

The almost forty-editor team at Conde Nast Traveler, knowing they are about to be given the word to do what they are trained for, which is to edit, are grabbing their dictionaries and honing their points at the pencil sharpeners to which their desks are still attached.”

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