Copy Edits and Good News

By John Gilstrap

My favorite pic of my wife and myself from the Iceland trip. This is from the inside of a glacier. That’s actually a white light embedded in the ice. The blue comes from Mother Nature.

It’s been a long three weeks.  First, there was Magna Cum Murder in Indianapolis, followed the next weekend by Bouchercon in Dallas, then a week-long book tour through Texas with my buddy Reavis Wortham.  I finally got home from Texas on the nigh of November 9, only to go back to the airport for a trip to Iceland with my wife and cousins.  If you ever get a chance to visit Iceland, do yourself a favor and go. (This was our third trip, and I can’t wait to go back.)  The highlight was a walking tour through the inside of a glacier.  The deeper you go, you literally are eyewitness to the past.

Upon my return, I was greeted with the copy edits for Hellfire, the Jonathan Grave novel slated for July, 2020.  This is my 21st encounter with copy edits, and therefore my 21st reminder of how little I understand about grammar in general and the deployment of a comma in particular.  Take the previous sentence, for example.  Should it read, “. . . and, therefore, my 21st . . .”?  Should it be “. . . grammar in general, and . . .”?  Feel free to tell me, but I guarantee it will not stick in my head.  (That comma after “tell me” shouldn’t be there, should it?”)  Damn.

Appropriate use of commas seems random to me and the commas themselves complicate language.  For example, the copy editor changed this sentence to include commas that I did not: “He and his brother, Geoff, were being driven . . .”  To my eye and ear, the meaning is clear without the commas, but I let it go because they tell me they’re correct.  (That comma before but shouldn’t be there either, should it?)

Then there’s this edit: “. . . scrolled through his contacts list, and pressed a button.”  Why? What does that comma do that its absence does not?  Aargh!

Comma Splices

First of all, I didn’t know that a comma splice was even a thing.  Here’s the note, verbatim, from the copy editor:

“There are some comma splices in the book, where two complete thoughts, that is, separate sentences, are separated by commas rather than periods.  Some people accept this in dialogue but not in descriptive text.  I have highlighted those I found like this (word-comma-word highlighted) so you can see where they are and decide what to do.  In many cases, the comma splice can be fixed by adding “and” or “but” after the comma.”

Here’s an example of what he’s talking about: “Questions never changed bad news, they only slowed it down.”  For me, it’s about the rhythm of the sentence and I think the passage flows better with the comma instead of a period.  Apparently, I do this quite a lot.  In most cases, I kept the passages as I originally wrote them.

Another example: “Their mom was just arrested, their dad is dead.”  The “and” is silent and I think the sentence is better for it.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I clearly need a good copy editor, and this one (the same as I had for Total Mayhem) is very good.  He’s just going to have to get used to me not comprehending the role of the comma.

With every set of copy edits, I also receive a “style sheet” that gets deeply into the weeds of my writing style, and that of the publisher.  The sections of the style sheet include:

Characters (in order of appearance).  With each character comes a brief description, based upon what I wrote in the book.  Here’s an example: Soren Lightwater: head of Shenandoah Station, smoker’s voice, mid-forties, built like a farmer, more attractive than her voice;

Geographic Locales (in alphabetical order).  Here again, there’s a brief description of the role the location plays in the story.  For example: “Resurrection House/Rez House, in Fisherman’s Cove, on Church Street, up the hill from Saint Kate’s Catholic Church, on the grounds of Jonathan’s childhood mansion;

Words Particular to Text.  Examples include A/V (audio-visual), ain’t, Air Force One, all-or-nothing deal, asshats . . .

Grammar/Punctuation. Given the subject matter of the post, I thought I’d paste this entire section verbatim.  Apologies for all the spacing, but I don’t know how to manipulate this platform to prevent double-spacing between lines.

Hours and minutes given in numerals (4:47), but just hours can be written out (six o’clock, he had to be there by five)

Author’s preference of comma following introductory “So” is permitted, as is comma after introductory “Or.”

Series comma

Comma before terminal “too” and “either” (Exception: me too, you too, us too, or any other one-word construction before “too”)

Comma around internal “too” and “either”

Comma before terminal “as well” and around internal “as well”

Comma before terminal “anyway”

Comma before terminal “though”

Comma after introductory and terminal and around internal “in fact”

Comma after introductory and terminal and around internal “instead”

Comma after introductory and terminal and around internal “after all”

Comma after introductory “Plus”

Temperature: eighty degrees

Numerals appear before the word “percent,” except in dialogue or when starting a sentence in narrative

Italicize sound effects, emphasis, letters as letters, words as words, internal monologue in present tense and in first-person narration, words written down, unfamiliar foreign words (especially if not found in dictionary)

Quotation marks when something (an object) is being given a sarcastic name or unexpected nickname

Small Caps: signs, displays, button functions


Six months ago, I posted here about my impending surgery to fuse vertebrae in my cervical spine to relieve a pinched nerve that was causing severe pain in my left arm and shoulder.  Y’all were very supportive of me, and I appreciate that to this day.  As of this morning, as I write this, I heard from my surgeon that that the procedure was 100% successful.  The fusion at all levels is complete, and no complications developed.

I am, as they say, jazzed!

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

28 thoughts on “Copy Edits and Good News

  1. Great post, John. As a very good copyeditor in my own right, I agree with you on some of your arguments. First and foremost, a copyedit shouldn’t follow grammar and syntax rules exactly. If that were the case, you could hire a machine to do it.

    Maintaining the writer’s authorial voice comes first, then how the sentence “feels” with or without a comma that should be there according to the rules. As you pointed out, much goes to pacing too, and that depends on where the sentence occurs in the story and even its juxtaposition with the sentences around it.

    Same goes for comma splices. If they don’t distract from the story, don’t sweat the small stuff. A good copyedit isn’t about rules. It’s about making sure the reader isn’t shoved out of the story by something as silly as a typo or wrong word usage (waste for waist) or a comma or the lack of it.

  2. Great news about your fabulous recovery, Mr. Gilstrap!

    Commas are tough. I’ve read explanations in Grammar Girl, Grammar for Idiots, an old high school grammar text I picked up at a book sale… Still not getting it.

    I submitted a first page here to Killzone, well over a year ago, and received nearly as many comments regarding my commas as my work. (perhaps that last sentence demonstrates my struggle?)

    I downloaded that popular grammar plug-in. I’m hoping it helps. We shall see.

    • I think your use of the comma in that sentence is correct. But it suggests another idea. Maybe it’s not the commas but the placing of the phrase that’s interrupting here. If the sentence started with “Well over a year ago,” wouldn’t it be clearer and smoother?

  3. Commas can interrupt the flow, commas can clarify the flow. Therein lies the rub.

    But commas also can clarify logic:
    “My brother Ben said we should go swimming.” Here the absence of the comma tells us which brother.

    “My brother, Ben, said we should go swimming.” Here we don’t need to know which brother but are being told his name.

    The “official” solution for a comma splice is the (gasp!) semi-colon:
    “Ben said yes; Mary said no.”

    I’m guessing the aversion to the comma splice is that with the comma splice [commas inserted here on second reading, removed on the third reading] the reader is not clued-in to the fact that the next clause is also an independent clause. Whether that’s a problem will (surprise!) depend on many things.

    And, of course, many will judge you just because you break the rules, regardless of whether what you write works or not.* But you’re cool with that [optional comma here], since your motto, as I recall [commas necessary here], is “No rules.”

    *(and, between you and me, even if they’re someone who says “irregardless” [no commas here, since we’re specifying which someone] or says “between you and I”)

  4. In a moment of synchronicity, my blog post today is also about some comma basics. Mr. Holtby simplified a lot of the rules. If you want, you can see my approach to commas here.
    (And I disagree with your editor on a couple of those, but when it comes to punctuation, if my editor suggests a change, I almost always accept it. Mr. Holtby was my high school English teacher, and I’ve been out of high school a long, long, long time.)

  5. Glad the recovery is optimal! Always great to hear.

    RE: Comma drama, all the rules are tedious & I try to get them right, but in the end as a reader, I just want the author to make sure they achieved the statement they intended. It all goes back to that joke that circulates on social media. The difference between:

    “Let’s eat grandma” and “Let’s eat, grandma.” In this case, proper comma placement is a life and death matter. 😎

  6. I used to be an editorial assistant for a publishing house.

    Honestly, if we went by every tedious rule, books would often be stilted and boring.

    Sometimes two sentences work better than long sentences with commas. The “read aloud” test always workes for me.

  7. The worse mistake I see these days is not using the vocative comma. “Let’s eat Fred!” “Let’s eat, Fred!” Vocative commas save lives!

    The simplest punctuation for your “therefore” sentence. “This is my 21st encounter with copy edits, and, therefore, my 21st reminder” Think of the conjunctive adverb as a parenthetical element of the sentence so set it off with commas.

    • Marilynn, phrases like, “Think of the conjunctive adverb as a parenthetical element of the sentence” only serve to reaffirm my fear that I don’t understand anything about what I do. Somehow, I get more right than I do wrong, but it’s clear that I know the names of only a few of the tools in my bag.

      A conjunctive adverb is a real thing, huh? In this case, it’s “therefore”, right? (Google helped me on that one.)

  8. I had never heard the word vocative before. I had to look it up. Still don’t fully understand its meaning, but thanks for introducing me to a new word.

    Written and spoken English aren’t exactly the same. I sometimes ignore grammar rules just for the sound of it, if that makes sense.

    • Vocative means “spoken.” A vocative comma means you are addressing someone in written dialogue by saying their name or something else. “Hey, you!” “Are you talking to me, sir?” “No, Fred. He’s talking to your dog.”

  9. I can’t believe how many people get precious about their incorrect grammar. In the past, I’ve pointed out comma splices and other grammatical errors to a few “I know everything because I read a book on craft once” authors, whom I know (it’s not as though I say these things to people I don’t know!). “It’s how I write” and “that’s my author voice” are the common excuses I hear. Yeahnah, it makes you look amateur. These authors write good short stories, but honestly, the grammar errors make it much harder to read than it needs to be.

    I’m going to bookmark this page. While I know a bit about grammar, the rules slip out of my head (especially rules about commas).

    Wonderful news about your recovery!

  10. I am the antithesis of a grammar nazi, no matter how often they tell me rules I am guaranteed to get each rule mixed up with another. Best for me to just pay someone with a Bachelor’s of Punctuative Arts degree.

  11. A lot of grammar phobias, here. Relax, it’s not that complicated when you are writing fiction. I assume programs like Grammerly can help as well as your grammar nerd friend with a useless BA in literature and writing.

  12. Great to hear your surgery went well. Fuzzy rules bring doubt. If I’m teetering, I’ll read the sentence/paragraph aloud. Clarity. Cadence. Then there’s ‘and’, a life-raft bobbing in the sea of doubt. But should that comma be inside the quote? There’s another way around the problem. Italics. ?

  13. Hurrah for you for the successful surgery.

    I’m with you on the commas, and I’m an ex-English teacher. I’m especially with you on “…he and his brother Geoff…” Yes, there is a rule about setting off what are called “appositives” with commas, but here the situation is more ambiguous. Setting off “Geoff” with commas could be interpreted as directly addressing someone named Geoff in the telling of the action. Too bad we can’t throw out a red flag and ask to review the call.

  14. With ya on comma challenges, John. I like Elmore Leonard’ s rule that says get your best draft done and then give it to someone else to put in all the commas and shit.

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