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(4) And finally, THE rule. It works for narrative and it works for dialogue. Read what you've written aloud. Wherever you would pause for breath, whack in a comma. Because, you have internalized rules. You've been speaking English all your life. But as an aspiring writer, you've been so busy trying to learn "the rules" that you've forgotten rule you've known all along. And you DO know it.
If you'd like, you can look over some sentences in preceding paragraphs. You'll note some commas where they're not strictly necessary. Often, it's where I begin a sentence with a conjunction, also an alleged no-no. But that device can be used sparingly to emphasize a point. And when I do that, sometimes I whip in a comma for extra emphasis. A comma is a pause. That's what you should note if you indulge in this exercise. I'm pausing for emphasis. Read my sentences aloud. Pause at every comma. The rhythm works. It's how I talk, and you won't be all freaked out and confused as you listen because I paused in funny places.
Speaking as an editor, I run into a lot of writers who have problems with commas. Heck, speaking as someone who likes to read books and newspapers and magazines, I see commas where they shouldn't be, or missing commas where they should be. It's because we're trying to be too fancy, drifting dangerously far from "write what you know" mantra because we think we're stupid.
We're not stupid. As Sean Connery noted in FINDING FORRESTER, critics spend a day destroying what they couldn't create in a lifetime. That's also what I think of people who want us to memorize dozens of silly rules about commas. They're pauses. Nothing more, nothing less. Pause where you want to pause, not where you think someone else thinks you're supposed to pause.
Lemme remind you what writing is. Telepathy. I'm in China and you probably aren't, and you're reading this many months after I wrote it, but you know what I'm thinking. Stray commas would be a barrier to that. Good writers don't like barriers.
Just remember that a comma is a pause, and pause wherever you think you should. Blow off rules -- there are too many and they just keep changing -- and trust your gut. If you do that, I think you'll find that when you seek out publication, and find yourself working with an editor, you'll hear very little about your commas.
Michael LaRocca's website at http://www.chinarice.org was chosen by WRITER'S DIGEST as one of The 101 Best Websites For Writers in 2001 and 2002. His response was to throw it out and start over again because he's insane. He teaches English at a university in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China, and publishes the free weekly newsletter WHO MOVED MY RICE?