For Want of a Comma

In a recent celebrated court case, the judge wrote “For want of a comma, we have this case.” The suit was between some Maine dairy drivers and their company, and the court sided with the drivers based on the absence of the beloved Oxford comma. While it’s not headline news, it’s an interesting win for the side that uses commas correctly. Read about it here.

Ever since I’ve cared about writing, I’ve seen the logic and wisdom of the Oxford (or serial) comma used in a sentence’s list of items to CLEARLY signal the writer’s intent. Yet, among grammar nerds, this little curly cousin to the period continues to instill polarized opinions.

At work, I am required to go by AP Style for externally shared content, which states (in must cases) don’t use an Oxford comma, although their rule explanation does allow it in complex lists. I think by then you’ve reached independent clause territory in many cases where Mr. Semicolon needs to make an appearance. Internal documents I put the comma back in, corporate rebel that I am! No, not really an anarchist, just want my meaning and intent to be clear.

I have tried to explore the reason and logic (assuming there is some) behind the Oxford comma’s absence, but the answers do not fully make sense to me. Here’s the current explanation from AP Stylebook:

“Commas in a series are for clarity and prevention of ambiguities. In a simple series, a comma before the last item isn’t essential for clarity, so AP Style doesn’t use a comma in that instance. In series with more complexity, a comma may be needed for clarity, so AP Style allows a comma before the last item in such cases.”

I love their simple series excuse. I now offer these simple list examples which show a lot of ambiguity not to mention confusion when the Oxford comma is MIA:

“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God”

“She took a photograph of her parents, the president and the vice president.”

To be fair, it all comes down to clear meaning and a little rewriting can often clear up confusion and avoid the comma issue. An Oxford comma isn’t always needed, but I prefer it in most cases. Why confuse the reader when it’s easily avoidable?

Just .5k a Day

GVWP-HabitEvery habit has, at its root, an obsessive need to ingrain itself into our days and lives. Some habits are needed for health and longevity, like stop smoking or eating healthy, while others are more like wearing comfy clothes: we don’t know we need those, but we really do!

Inspired by one of the few podcasts I listen to (Portfolio Life by Jeff Goins), I’m working on embedding a new daily writing habit: writing 500 words a day, every day, all months, all year long. Always.

Why just 500 words? Surprisingly, part of the magic is it’s not a threatening goal to reach, and for those time-challenged not difficult to work in 10–20 minutes to hit the daily goal.

What I’m finding with this approach is I’m dumping less garbage on the page knowing there’s that limit and I need to tell a complete story each time. Part of the modern writer’s bane is how easy it is to fast-type-like-crazy thinking quantity will distill down to quality like properly ground coffee into your cup of anticipated delight.

Writers should know (and if they don’t, they do now!) that improvement only comes through practice. Waiting for inspiration to appear or a beloved block of free time to open up, or even waiting for that isolated cabin with the roaring fire to seriously write something good are all a fool’s game. The only path to writing better is through writing frequently and consistently, without fail.

I’m only in a few weeks for this new practice (which I’m dubbing .5kd) but I’m seeing a couple of some interesting insights. First, 500 words for a fast typist is about 10+ minutes of work, a duration that does not exact scream “practicing writer.” Knowing that I have that ceiling to hit, I’ve found I slow down and think between lines and paragraphs. My mind seems to be organizing and structuring my 500 word piece as I’m working, a practice that wasn’t formerlly there in the old get-down-as-much-as-you-can first effort. Second, I feel more purposeful in telling a story than merely racing to the end of a first draft so I can begin the real task of weaving thoughts and words coherently together in the requisite second draft.

I’m sensing that the overal result of this approach is going to put me at least one draft (maybe two!) ahead of the old ways, and increase my skills faster and better through this process. It’s too early to tell if all that is true, but it feels like the trend.

At 500 words, one can fit this in even the busiest of days without too much effort. For those of us (raising my hand high) who have found their best creative flow occurs early in the morning, achieving a 15–20 minute goal each day versus the old one hour or more commitment is much easier. And if it’s easier, the habit will stick.

Tools of the Trade: One Editor's Solution

As part of my day job, I have to edit a lot of other people’s writing. Doing that in a concise, clear, constructive way requires using standard editing marks, writing clearly and of course, using the right tools.

I switched from red to green years ago as my primary editing color choice, largely because green comes across less intimidating than red. It’s not fun to see one’s writing all marked up, but is worse when it looks like someone used your paper underneath a fresh chicken getting ready for dinner!

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My choice of tools has varied based on what’s readily at hand, but I recently decided to narrow in on THE pen or pencil to use consistently going forward. This approach would solve several long-term issues: dealing with a variety of paper, wanting a thin enough stroke to allow notating between lines, and of course, the right colors of green and red. And yes, I still use red at times for emphasis or commenting while making most edits in green.

My critical-six criteria for the right tools include 1) thin lines, 2) functionally easy to work with, 3) affordable (I go through a lot of these), 4) who-cares-attitude if I lose one or leave it behind in a conference room, 5) comfortable in the hand while using, and 6) good red and green color. The holy grail would be something that you don’t really realize you’re holding after a while that just becomes and extension of one’s hand.

The search process narrowed things down to one fountain pen model and two gel pen models. I favor fountain pens because I love using them and over time, the economy of using bottled ink is a plus.

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Fountain Pens

While I have a variety of nice fountain pens, none are ones I’d be okay with losing (criteria #4). I settled on trying the Pilot Platinum Preppy fountain pen in extra-fine which sell for under $5. They are cartridge pens, but is convertible to eye dropper pens to take bottled ink with a small 0-ring and a little silicone grease on the threads.

In practice, I liked using these best of all three, but they fail my #2 ease of use criteria on two counts: uncapped the nibs dry up too fast and it’s common to pause and think before noting again and constant cap on/off isn’t practical, and my attempts at eye dropper conversion didn’t work too well so didn’t trust they wouldn’t leak. Several days of oddly stained green or red fingers was proof enough. Sure, I could skip the eye dropper part (or fiddle with it to make it work) and just use cartridges, but that doesn’t alleviate the nib drying out issue. Plus, Preppys take a proprietary cartridge and I wasn’t crazy about the red/green colors available. Additionally, fountain pen ink is a bit sensitive to paper types and in some cases the extra fine nib laid down more like a medium. Strike one!

Gel Pens

I’d read about the famous Signo UM-151 gel pens as being the choice for gels. On my trip last summer to San Fransisco, Andy Welfle of the Erasable Podcast and did a stationery crawl that included mostly Japanese stationery stores where I finally found some UM-151s. Unfortunately, I grabbed mostly .28s but did manage one .38 in dark blue. With that I was able to test and decide, for me, that the .38 was the perfect line weight. The .28s, while extra-extra-fine, were a bit scratchy on some paper types. Moreover, gel pens in general are pretty happy with any kind of paper, inexpensive, and aren’t a leak risk!

Fast forward to JetPens.com and an order of several red and green .38s in both the UM-155 (capless, ballpoint-click type system) and the UM-151 (with cap).

I liked the UM-155’s convenient retractable point/no cap, but it’s a little thicker barrel and a little fussier with more moving parts, which in a cheap gel pen feel…well…cheap while using. Strike two!

For me, I’ve chosen the UM-151 to go forward with. It’s only negative is I have to work the cap on and off, but the point doesn’t dry out. So unlike the Preppy fountain pen, I only have to on/off the cap at the start/finish of an edit session (a minor inconvenience).

The UM-151 is a solid, sleek minimalistic design with a dimpled rubber grip and is now my editor’s tool of choice. I’m a bit sad I couldn’t resolve using a fountain pen, but happy with the UM-151 .38 as my editing tool of choice. What’s your favorite tool for marking/notating? Let us know in the comments!

Now…where’s that 40-page report due next week that needs a little Christmas-colors makeover? Papa’s got some fresh UM-151s…

Ikea Romp: Not Exactly Your Go-To Stationery Store

On a recent trek to Ikea, that Swedish Delight of immense proportions and unrivaled innovativeness (not to mention real Swedish Meatballs), I took on a mission to see exactly what, if any, stationery goodies the gods of knock-down furniture and wordless instructions had on hand.

Answer? Not much. But, if one is worth one’s stripes as a stationery treasure hunter, there’s always something to find!

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Those golf pencils have almost obtained icon-status and who doesn’t love a natural pencil? But overall, Ikea has little to offer in variety or depth of stationery goodies, although the kiddie art supply stuff looks fun and there was a lot of it there. The adult stuff? Somewhat a single item for each category, and even at that, only a handful on the shelf. As said, not why we go to Ikea, but you have to admit it’s a colorful place, even in their token stationery efforts.

Love the Work, Not the Life

Those who write for a living, and definitely those who would like to, sometimes fall prey to this siren:  love the writing life without loving the work.

LIke many out there, I’m always fascinated about how others write:  what their workflows are, how they set up their writing nests, what they listen to (if anything) while writing, what they drink for inspiration, etc., etc. A wonderful way to procrastinate from actually writing yet feeling involved in writing, at least collaterally.

Seth Godin’s post today talked about this addiction and summed up resolving this foolishness of peering over the fence at a proverbial neighbor-writer to see how they do it:

The biggest takeaway for anyone seeking to write is this: don’t go looking for the way other authors do their work. You won’t find many who are consistent enough to copy, and there are enough variations in approach that it’s obvious that it’s not like hitting home runs or swinging a golf club. There isn’t a standard approach, there’s only what works for you (and what doesn’t).

This obsession with “what the other guy is doing” is entertaining, but ultimately hugely distracting from our writerly goals. The acid test for any activity, if you question whether it’s healthy or helping, is the simply asking oneself, “Is this taking me closer or farther away from my goal(s)?”  In most cases, learning whether Hemingway wrote in slippers or flip-flops is not going to get those words on paper for you any faster or better, although in thinking about Hemingway it may inspire you to avoid using adverbs and adjectives. And that’s a good thing.