If there is one thing guaranteed to send your submission from the envelope, straight to the ‘shred immediately’ pile, it’ll be a grammar/punctuation mistake in the very first paragraph. There are still so many writers send out this first submission without doing the care and due-diligence that will get them that vital initial read.
Now when I first started workshopping, my first few pieces were not so good. It wasn’t that they were poor stories; the main problem was the punctuation. It seems I’d managed to get through most of my life without really understanding when to use a comma and when to use a semi-colon. Fortunately, my immensely supportive group mentioned this (and it isn’t down to your workshoppers to educate you in the basics of language), so before writing another chapter, I set about fixing things.
There is a wealth of tutorials and advice, on the web and in books, that can help if you feel you need improvements in style, grammar and punctuation. Personally, I think Trask is a must-read, and the Purdue University has an encyclopaedia of notes and exercises that covers just about every aspect of writing. Not a lot of effort, really, and it would be such a shame to have your work rejected for the sake of a few minutes reading.
So, the next chapter my workshop reviewed was a masterpiece in structured grammar and meticulously placed commas. They went wild for it! Loved it! Applause, flowers, underwear – thrown onstage! A work of literary genius!
Except for one tiny, tiny problem:
‘Well, it’s nothing really…’
‘No, go on.’
‘You seem to have lost some of your flow.’
‘You had a lovely poetic flow to your last chapter. This one seems a bit more, you know, rigid.’
‘Yes, rigid. The punctuation’s much better though.’
So now I’d gone completely the other way; applying the rules to such an extent that the piece, while easier to read, had lost much of its spark.
It’s an old analogy, but punctation symbols are like road signs: too few and the reader loses their way; too many and the reader becomes distracted, tripping and stumbling through the prose and losing any sense of flow. So when it comes to punctuation, you need ‘just enough’. Above everything else, you are aiming to guide the reader through the text with as light a touch as possible, and sometimes that means breaking the rules.