Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The $365 Writing Tip

finished editing Chapter One of Dragons of the Watch. Plowing into Ch 2

Writing Tip: Some time ago, I went to a writers conference. It was a good writing conference, but honestly only one thing stood out as something new and startling in the realm of improving my craft. So I call this tip my $365 writing tip. That was the price of the conference.

We were going through a critique, and the instructor noticed a grammar error on one of the submissions. The sentence was something like this:

She ran through the underbrush avoiding the thickest tangle of vines that would trip her.

That sentence needs a comma. Where? Look for the first -ing word.


What does the phrase beginning with avoiding modify? As it stands, avoiding modifies underbrush. Now here comes the $365 writing tip. I hope you have two thumbs, because you need them. Taking your thumbs and placing the left thumb before underbrush and the right thumb after avoiding, read what is in between. Between your two tumbs is "underbrush avoiding." Does it make sense? No. So you have to put a comma there. The comma signals the reader to apply this modifying phrase to a noun further back in the sentence, usually the subject. The sentence makes sense if "She" is the one "avoiding."

New sentence:

She saw him struggle to hold on with the rope slipping through his hands.

One thumb in front of rope and the other behind slipping.

rope slipping

Does the author really mean to say the rope is slipping through his hands? Yes! no comma!
If the words are meant to go together then don't separate them with a comma.

He ran into the station hoping to find one more person to help rescue the boy.

Thumbs in place?
Is the station hoping, or the subject "He" hoping? Building and hoping don't go together so separate them with a comma.

Several years later this thumb trick is the only thing I remember clearly about what I learned. I don't often forget the comma when it is needed, and I rarely put it in when the comma is not needed. I still think the writing tip was overpriced.


  1. I've got thumb marks all over my computer screen.
    And a new writer's tip!

  2. You just donated $365 writing tip to poor wannabe writers. Can you write it off your taxes now? or again?

  3. Good tip! I don't think I'll ever forget that one.

  4. I echo Jane. ;) That was really helpful. I'm a grammar freak, but my weakness is commas.