Editor Pet Peeves, Part 1 — Commas, Independent Clauses and Double Sentences

I offer independent editing services for other fiction authors out there. Most fiction authors need an editor before they’re ready to go to print—some more so than others. It’s rare that I find someone who doesn’t need at least some proofreading before their manuscript is ready for publishing, independent or traditional.

There are certain things that I see far too often in indie books. As an editor, I don’t mind—that’s what I’m there for, after all. But as a reader, they bug the living crap out of me. Especially if it’s a book that’s out there in the marketplace. There’s a few basic things that are common to many, if not most, indie books, and yet are so simple to fix that I’m slightly offended authors don’t spot them on their own. Too many of these simple errors, and I’ll abandon a book straight away.

I want to discuss some of these issues, and it’s not because I’m trying to put myself out of an editing job. There will always be other people who would rather pay me to edit their book than go to the trouble of editing it themselves.  But I know most indie authors can’t afford editing, no matter how affordable my rates might be (read: very affordable). Those people can use every tip, trick and piece of advice we can get.

There’s no reason you can’t learn how to be a totally professional editor on top of being a top-notch writer. I know this statement flies in the teeth of a lot of advice in the industry. But guess what? A decade ago, the industry also advised us that you couldn’t be a writer and a publisher, too. Now that’s been proven false. Now they say that you can’t be a writer, publisher AND your own editor.

Well, editing your own books is CERTAINLY harder than editing someone else’s. But certain people are already proving this false. Johnny B. Truant edits his own books. So do I, and my stuff manages to do pretty well. Could I be a better self-editor? Of course I could. And I’m becoming one. Ironically, I’ll probably become a perfect self-editor right as my career really takes off and I can hire someone else to edit my books—because believe me, I’d happily shell out dough for that convenience if I had the dough for shelling.

Anyway, let’s start this editor pet peeve series off. Today I’m going to talk about what is possibly my biggest pet peeve: misuse of commas, independent clauses and the dreaded double sentence.

Caveat: I’ll be the first person to tell you that writing and grammar rules are flexible. You can break them if you know what you’re doing. But you have to KNOW what you’re doing, and it’s very obvious when a writer doesn’t. That’s what I’m trying to fix.

Second Caveat: I know these rules are incredibly basic. I know that they’ve been covered a billion times in style books and on other blogs. But I rehash and post them again because people STILL make these mistakes. The rules can’t be repeated enough, apparently.

WHAT IS AN INDEPENDENT CLAUSE?

Okay, so what’s an independent clause? This is a group of words that can stand as a sentence on its own.

 

I stood my ground as the knights charged.

John slid into the room silently.

He looked around and saw that it was empty.

Independent clauses can be their own sentences. And generally, they should be. If you’re going to link two of them into a single sentence, there are rules you have to follow. Too frequently, I see people joining independent clauses using only a comma. This makes me sad, angry and physically violent.

THE DOUBLE SENTENCE

Okay, so what am I talking about here? Let’s see some examples. Here’s two independent clauses joined by nothing more than a comma:

John slid into the room silently, he looked around and saw that it was empty.

This is incorrect. These should be two sentences. Look at the two of them, just sitting there hanging on to that comma by their fingernails. Damn them. Damn them both to hell.

John slid into the room silently. He looked around and saw that it was empty.

Much better. See how both of them can live on their own as sentences?

USING A DEPENDENT CLAUSE

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and even if you’re not looking for new and innovative ways to torture and/or kill felines, there’s also more than one solution to a problem. For example, if you just have to join these two ideas together, you can make the second part of the sentence a dependent clause—meaning that it doesn’t stand as a sentence on its own, and relies on the first part of the sentence for its meaning.

John slid into the room silently, looking around to see that it was empty.

Easy, right? And we can tell that the second part is now a dependent clause because it doesn’t work on its own:

John slid into the room silently. Looking around to see that it was empty.

See? That second part doesn’t work without being connected to the first part. (If you think it does, you’ve got bigger problems).

USING A CONJUNCTION

All right. There’s another solution to this. If you want the two connected, and you want that comma, you can also join them with a conjunction (a word like and, but, etc.). If two independent clauses are joined by a comma, they’ve got to have a conjunction to help bridge the gap.

John slid into the room silently, and he looked around to see that it was empty.

Now, the above is kind of ugly. It’s an awkward sentence, and if I was editing it, I’d probably recommend a change. But it’s TECHNICALLY correct, and as a reader, I wouldn’t be driven to murderous thoughts if I read it. Here’s another example of this conjunction rule that I might actually recommend as an editor.

WRONG: John missed his shot, the target dove to the ground behind cover.

RIGHT: John missed his shot, and the target dove to the ground behind cover.

See, I like these two clauses in one sentence. It conveys a sense of immediacy, indicating that the two events happened so close to each other that they’re nearly simultaneous. That’s appropriate for a scene with a failed assassination attempt.

But without the conjunction helping the connection, I just want to slap John and his target in the face, then throw them off a cliff. Into waters infested by piranhas. With laser beams attached to their foreheads.

RULES TO REMEMBER

Okay, so here’s some quick rules to help you remember what we’ve learned today:

  1. If two clauses can live on their own, they probably should.
  2. If you want to join two independent clauses, try making one of them dependent.
  3. If you’ve just GOT to have two independent clauses, join them with a comma AND a conjunction.

I hope these have been helpful to you. If you didn’t know these things already, you do now. If you already knew these things—you’re perfect! Well done! But this is only the tip of the iceberg, and so if you really want an editor, may I recommend one?

Garrett Robinson

Over 100,000 readers have read and loved Garrett's books, like the fantasy hits Nightblade and Midrealm. He's also a film festival favorite with movies like Unsaid, and a tech guru who posts lots of helpful how-tos for writers and filmmakers over at garrettbrobinson.com.

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