Ask an Editor: Punctuation with Parentheses

Every Friday I plan on answering a writing or editing question I've received via social media—or submission on this site. Today's topic? Those lovely curvy marks known as parentheses. 

Can you provide a refresher on how to handle punctuation with parentheses?

Sure thing! Parentheses function like a stronger pair of commas—or em dashes—and set off material from the surrounding text. It’s a way of creating an intensely visual amplification or aside. (You know, a whisper to the reader.) As a general rule, consider whether the punctuation belongs to the parenthetical matter or to the actual sentence:

  1. I made it to happy hour ($3 craft beer drafts!), but I missed the appetizers.
  2. It was colder, snowier, and pierogier. (Is that a word? It should be.)
  3. My cat ate a giant centipede (and left a big pile of legs behind).

If the punctuation mark belongs to the surrounding sentence, it goes outside the parentheses. In example one the comma separates two independent clauses at the conjunction. Because the first independent clause ends after the parenthetical matter, the comma follows the closing parenthesis. Example one also contains punctuation that belongs to the parenthetical matter. The exclamation point clearly belongs to the “$3 craft beer drafts!” statement, which means it needs to go inside the parentheses. Exclamation points and question marks are acceptable in mid-sentence parenthetical matter, but periods are not.

If an entire sentence is enclosed in parentheses and isn’t sitting in the middle of a nonparenthetical sentence (example two), a period precedes the closing parenthesis. However, when a parenthetical statement occurs at the end of a sentence (example three), the period follows the closing parenthesis.

When it comes to colons and semicolons, both can go inside parentheses to perform their respective functions; they just can’t precede the closing parenthesis. They shouldn’t precede an opening parenthesis either, unless parentheses are being used for enumeration:

She told her students to pack the following items: (1) a romance novel, (2) hiking boots and wool socks, (3) a light jacket and clothes for three days, and (4) a single book of matches. (Weird, right?)

Have something to ask the editor? Submit a question in the comments below!

I left my heart in ACES2015

It’s 9:00 a.m., and I’m standing on a corner where two empty streets intersect. It’s clear and sunny, but the wind gnaws at the exposed skin below the knot of my scarf, and my hands are warmed only by a cup of coffee.

There’s no hustle. Walk signals and stoplights cycle endlessly for non-existent traffic. A coal barge idles under a bridge. Even I remain motionless.

After a moment, I catch a thin refrain unspooling in the frigid air. The sound grows, and I recognize the clamor of church bells echoing down the incline. I’d all but forgotten Palm Sunday, and as my coffee cools and I turn to face the sun, the churches dotting the hilltop compete in calls to worship.

Pittsburgh is a strange place.


I’d spent the preceding five days at the American Copy Editors Society’s annual conference, a communion of editors, lexicographers, grammar gurus, and word nerds of all stripes.

When I signed up, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was desperate to get out of my office and my own head, and the dreaded nag of stagnation glimmered on the horizon. And, were I completely honest, I’d seen Twitter explode during the previous year’s conference in Las Vegas, and I was determined to be part of the in-crowd this go around.

I arrived by car, which presented its own set of problems: the hotel only had expensive valet parking. I ended up dragging a broken suitcase, a wool coat, a laptop bag, and a pair of boots down three flights of parking garage stairs and across four city blocks. By the time I reached the check-in line, I was frantic with the notion that I’d miss the freelancer happy hour and subsequently Everything Would Be Terrible.

What a crock of shit. I did indeed make it to happy hour (though I missed the appetizers). Everyone was warm and gracious, and I miraculously parted with the first stack of my business cards without quite realizing how I’d done it. I even won a year’s online subscription to The Chicago Manual of Style—my most-used reference. I traded increasingly intimate small talk, wondering at my ease, and finally slipped away for dinner on my own. (Ramen and dim sum, if you’re wondering.) Small steps.


Thursday morning initially left me feeling like the kid picked last for kickball: I wasn’t sure where I needed to be, if group breakfast existed, or whether I’d find folks to pal around with. A plethora of people were already engaged in friendly conversation, and I wondered if I were the only one who didn’t have ready friends. Regardless, I managed to get up, run(!), and make it to the first-timer’s session, a cup of coffee clutched tightly in one hand. I settled in near faces that seemed happy-hour familiar.

“We have a special guest here to talk to you,” Brady Jones announced.

“It’s Beyoncé,” one of my seatmates whispered loudly.

I suddenly had a feeling everything was going to be okay.

The rest of the day unfolded as though in a dream: I hustled from session to session with a newfound friend, furiously typing notes and fighting to unkink my cramped legs. I attentively followed (and posted to) the #ACES2015 Twitter feed. The rapid-fire social media network became accepted background static for the event: everyone tweeted everything. Miss a session? No worries—plenty would livetweet it. Want to organize a food outing? Tweet about it with the appropriate hashtag (i.e., #teampierogi). It was glorious. In a somewhat surreal experience, a few people tracked me down solely based on information from my Twitter feed.

“You’re the one who mentioned the shiny shoes and the blazers,” someone would say.

“I am,” I’d confirm, and we’d shake hands and trade cards. Avatars became introductions.

Later I shared a generous pitcher of margaritas with Gerri Berendzen, two of her Mizzou students, and Dilane Mitchell. (I should add that my notes from the session following lunch don’t make a lot of sense.) I admired Gerri’s students; their futures brimmed with possibility. What if I’d known about ACES as a student? What if I’d pursued journalism rather than creative writing and marine biology? What if I’d gone into print media rather than the corporate world? I could have questioned my path forever.

I found myself in conversations so animated they fluidly moved from conference room to bathroom to coffee to the reception hall. More business cards disappeared. By the time I finally crashed in my hotel room, exhausted and stuffed with cheese and cured meat and mashed potatoes, it was almost midnight.

While I enjoy social events, I find them draining. Interpersonal interaction requires extensive use of all my cognitive resources: I gain creative energy, but my dark eldritch powers trickle away. And yet, I’d been on my feet talking, listening, and learning for seventeen hours. My people, I thought, easing sparkly pumps from tired feet. I briefly struggled with my pajamas before giving up. This is where I’m supposed to be.


Friday and Saturday passed in much the same fashion, though colder, snowier, and pierogier. (Is that a word? It should be.) I bought half a dozen delicious, tiny donuts after braving a turbulent shuttle ride to a Polish deli with Rachel Stuckey, Susanna Fix McCrea, and Melissa Morrow. I discussed plane crashes and the politics of translation over Cajun food with Karen and Michelle. We even got shushed at the banquet when, as we strained to hear and see the presentation preceding Ben Zimmer, things got a little rowdy.

I spent brief periods agonizing over which panels I should attend, especially because many popular panels ran simultaneously. How to choose between Mary Norris, diversity, or clarity in medical communications? But even when a time slot featured sessions that seemed inapplicable or uninteresting to my work, there was always something of value to learn. (The notable exception was “Niggles, Nudges, and Uh-Oh Sensors: The Intuitive Art of Catching Errors” in which I nodded off, though to be fair, I was dead tired and needed to nap.) I sat in thirteen panels—

  • Editing in a Digital Environment: Best Practices for Workflow and Quality Control
  • Switching Seats: Transitioning to a New Career or Medium
  • Using Checklists to Foolproof Your Editing
  • Social Media Fact-checking
  • Working Away from the Office: Benefits and Drawbacks
  • Level Up! How to Get More Out of Your Freelance Business
  • Deep Grammar
  • Niggles, Nudges, and Uh-Oh Sensors: The Intuitive Art of Catching Errors
  • The Language of the LGBT Community
  • Optimizing for Search or Social: Is It Really a Trade-Off?
  • Women in Management
  • Giving Copy a Face Lift, With No Pain
  • Proofreading: Catch Mistakes Before They Cause a Crisis

—and actively followed many more. My brain—stuffed with lessons, best practices, and new names—practically exploded. I never even made it to the lexicography discussions. Between panels, transcribing notes, and the miserable weather, I barely explored beyond the hotel.

The conference culminated in an adventure with my newfound girl gang that involved dessert, cocktails, cat pictures, and an after party at Olive & Twist, a local bar. (And, incidentally, an after-after party at a smoky karaoke townie bar outside of Pittsburgh proper. Margaux, I’m so sorry I met you while I was drunk; you are a lovely person.) We got back to the hotel late, elated and desperate for pizza, knowing that our elevator hugs were probably the last word before we left for our homes the next morning.


My final morning walk is synecdoche—my conference experience in entirety: a curious oasis of calm and belonging in (what should have been) an overwhelming stream of activity. A brightening. A melody of benediction tumbling away.


Handouts from many of the panels are available here, and you can read the ACES2015 blog here. My notes will be forthcoming to interested parties. I couldn't possibly mention all the wonderful people I met, but you should seek them out. Go read the #ACES2015 Twitter feed! 

BuzzFeed, Editing Peeves, and Split Infinitives

What—editors have grammar and style peeves?

You must be shocked.

Emmy Favilla from BuzzFeed asked ACES2015 attendees to write down their editing peeves as they relate to grammar or usage and used them to create a whiteboard post. As you may suspect, she had an eager audience. Even I made it on there.

I’ve got a thing about people who arbitrarily enforce a “no split infinitives!” rule. If you’ve worked with a stickler (or had a particularly strict fifth-grade teacher), you know what I’m talking about. So does Bryan Garner:

H.W. Fowler divided the English-speaking world into five classes: (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish. It is this last class to which, if we have a good ear, we should aspire.

Amen. We split infinitives all the time in common speech, even though misinformed grammarians prescribe against it, especially in formal writing. (This prescription usually exists because they’re afraid someone else will think you’re wrong, not because you’re actually wrong.) I’ve worked jobs that required me to recast sentences, or awkwardly rearrange words, to avoid splitting an infinitive. The reality? Unless splitting an infinitive makes your sentence weird or changes the meaning, there’s no reason to tie yourself in knots avoiding it. (Context matters!)

I suppose I should step back. What are infinitives? Infinitives are verb forms commonly used in conjunction with the word “to” or another auxillary verb (e.g., to go, can go, to examine). They can assume characteristics of nouns and verbs, and form phrases in association with objects and modifiers. These phrases can work as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs in a sentence.  

She needs to go to the store.

I offered a solution to solve world hunger.

They are taking a class to understand the complexities of grammar.

Splitting an infinitive is when you jam something—usually an adverb—between the two parts of the verb.

She needs to quickly go to the store.

I offered a solution to comprehensively solve world hunger.

They are taking a class to better understand the complexities of grammar.

If you can move the adverb (or whatever’s jamming the infinitive) to the end of the sentence or phrase without getting goofy, do it. Here, moving “quickly” to the end of first example sentence produces an awkward construction: “She needs to go to the store quickly.” While it’s not wrong, per se, it’s close to suggesting that the subject, needs to get to the store—STAT! Here, the writer might be better off recasting for clarity: “She needs to stop at the store for a minute.”

If we changed the second sentence to “I comprehensively offered a solution to solve world hunger,” we’ve altered the meaning of the sentence. In the original, the solution will completely solve world hunger. In the second, we imagine the speaker offered a solution to a global crisis in a thorough fashion.

The third sentence exemplifies a widely acceptable split infinitive; “to better understand” is a far more common construction than “to understand better.”

Consider euphony: Does the sentence with (or without) the split infinitive sound pleasing to your ear? The last thing you want to do is write or edit in a way that trips up your reader. Your audience demands clarity.

The Chicago Style Q&A offers an excellent epitaph:

CMOS has not, since the thirteen edition (1983), frowned on the split infinitive. The sixteenth edition suggests, to take one example, allowing split infinitives when an intervening adverb is used for emphasis (see paragraphs 5.106 and 5.168). In this day and age, it seems, an injunction against splitting infinitives is one of those shibboleths whose only reason for survival is to give increased meaning to the lives of those who can both identify by name a discrete grammatical, syntactic, or orthographic entity and notice when that entity has been somehow besmirched. 

Feel free to boldly go, friends.


Picture courtesy of Emmy Favilla and BuzzFeed. 

Grammar Day 2015

On March 4, word nerds, grammar gurus, and language artists collectively brandish their red pens to celebrate National Grammar Day.

But I get a little nervous when self-described sticklers and grammar police make finding typos and rule breakers their singular cause—the goal almost always seems to embarrass, not aid. And yet, I’ve cheered grammatical goofs. There’s a fabulous card sitting on my desk depicting a conversation between two women:

“Where’s your birthday party at?”

“Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.”

“Where’s your birthday party at, bitch?”

My old coworkers and I still giggle about an e-mail someone circulated after a rough project:

“We know that this was difficult. Thank you for your patients.”

Someone pinned a flyer about lifesaving punctuation to my cabinet:

Let’s eat grandma.

Let’s eat, grandma.

And, as a diehard proponent of the Oxford comma, I enjoy the below example:

We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.

We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.

I like to see these examples as grammatical merriment at a rule’s expense. I’m old enough that my grade school curricula included black-and-white grammar lessons and extensive sentence diagramming. We learned that you never end a sentence with a preposition, split an infinitive, use “they” in a singular context, or write in passive voice (unless, of course, you were taking any sufficiently advanced science classes, wherein all case studies adopted a third-person, passive approach). I get it—children require hard and fast rules to eliminate confusion and encourage growth. Too many exceptions can muddy the waters.

But that’s not life. Sometimes the grammatically correct option sounds wrong and risks alienating a reader (or client). Editors are not gatekeepers to arcane realms of language—we’re crafters who shape words for intent, value, and audience. The hard-nosed, dog-whistle teachers and editors who clamor about esoteric errors fail to acknowledge that most readers really don’t care (nor should they). Grammar exists to assist clarity and help articulate a message, but our English is hardly standard. Language evolves.  

This morning, I spent five minutes taking Grammarly’s quiz @Mededitor shared on Twitter, and was subsequently delighted when it returned the title “The Enlightened Grammarian.” Because I’m shameless, I’ve excerpted the description below:

“You know your stuff when it comes to proper English grammar and writing, but you’re not overly traditional. Language does evolve, after all! Chances are high that you’re fascinated, rather than put off by, the verbing of nouns or the disappearing ‘whom.’ You have balanced the standardization of language with the practical usage.”

I love this, precisely because it illustrates the type of editor I’m working hard to become: one who celebrates, rather than polices, the evolution of the written word.

Happy Grammar Day, friends.

The Price of Success: How Much Should You Pay for Editing?

If you’ve ever wondered what you should be paying for copyediting, you’re not alone. Rates can vary wildly, and it can be challenging to pit one editor’s services directly against another’s[i]. You want to know you’re paying a fair rate. At the same time, your editor wants to balance value with the desire to earn a living wage.

The Editorial Freelance Association posts a standard rate card on their website, and it’s a great reference for writers and editors alike. Their rate card assumes that a manuscript page equals 250 words, but acknowledges that quotes may be produced on a flat rate or hourly basis. A sample of their rate card is excerpted below.

Type of Work Estimated Pace Range of Fees
Basic Copyediting 5–10 manuscript pages per hour $30–40 per hour
Heavy Copyediting 2–5 manuscript pages per hour $40–50 per hour
Developmental Editing 1–5 manuscript pages per hour $45–55 per hour
Line Editing 1–6 manuscript pages per hour $40–60 per hour

Using the EFA’s rate card, here’s a breakdown of what a 150,000-word, 600 manuscript-page science-fiction novel could cost you in terms of time and money:

Type of Work Hours (minimum) Total Cost (low-end)
Basic Copyediting 60 hours $1,800
Heavy Copyediting 120 hours $4,800
Developmental Editing 120 hours $5,400
Line Editing 100 hours $4,000

Holy cow, right? Relax. Many freelance editors know those prices will scare off some of the most intrepid independent authors—even if their time, services, and expertise are well worth the expense. As an example, here’s what that same novel might cost if I provided those services:

Type of Work Total Cost (low-end)
Basic Copyediting $750
Heavy Copyediting $1,050
Developmental Editing $1,200
Line Editing $900

“But Jen,” you might say, “we know you’re a fabulous editor with varied professional experiences. What’s the catch?” The “catch” is that I’m not a full-time freelancer, which means that when I give you a quote, I may need more time to complete your project than another, full-time editor. I have a 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. corporate job, and I work on your projects during my nights and weekends. As a result, you get a lower total price if you’re willing to spend a little more time on the editing process.

That being said, each project has its own personality, and there are a multitude of factors that might influence your rates:

  • Workload. Editors are busy people. Your editor of choice may be willing to take on more work, but it may raise your rates. On the flipside, scheduling gaps may lower rates to bring in more business.
  • Rush requests. You want it fast? You’re going to have to pay for it.
  • Education level. Let’s face it—you don’t need an MFA or a doctorate to be an amazing editor. That being said, if you go out of your way to seek an editor with a hefty resume, you may need to pay accordingly.
  • Specialization. Some editors specialize in specific genres (e.g., nonfiction, fantasy, romance, etc.) or topics of interest (e.g., medicine, gender studies, history, etc.). These editors can be incredibly valuable, and you’ll probably have to pay extra for their expertise.
  • Content complexity. If your manuscript contains highly technical or specialized content (or, if your manuscript is just a mess), your editor will need to spend more time on it. More time equals more money.

Your work is important. Editing is an investment that helps ensure your work—your product—is polished, engaging, and effective. Finding and hiring a top-notch editor within your budget will not only improve your craft, but also make your work more marketable and financially viable.






[i] If it’s important to you, make sure you ask questions about what’s included so that you can better compare quotes. Am I paying by the page, by the hour, or by the word? Will you take phone calls, answer extra e-mails, or talk via instant message—and will you charge me for that? Will you issue a formal contract? Will I be charged extra for a final report? If I’m only paying for proofreading but you find some other glaring inconsistency, will you still query it? What kind of experience do you have?





Upcoming Events

If you’d like to discuss a project, schedule a self-editing clinic in person, or have a beer, I will be attending multiple events this winter and spring:

Use my contact form explain your request, and we’ll make arrangements. (You can also drop me a line on Twitter, if that's easier.) If you’re local to Mid-Michigan, I will schedule personal appointments or events based on my day-to-day availability. Hopefully I’ll see you around!

Discounted NaNoWriMo Editing Packages

I love the idea of National Novel Writing Month. It’s an excuse to chase ideas and leverage oneself into a consistent writing practice. It’s a supportive (and sometimes competitive) community that offers on and offline resources to hobbyists and professionals. NaNoWriMo recognizes that cranking out wordage is crucial for producing a workable first draft, and it rewards and motivates you with badges, trinkets, and e-mails. If we’re really honest, sometimes that’s necessary.

Regardless of whether you write 11,000 words or 50,000* words, writing is happening. And the best part? Readers can’t tell the difference between a well-crafted novel written in one month, six months, or six years. The key is quality, and that’s where I step in.  

Ready ($100)

I’ll read your manuscript and provide you with a reader’s report detailing overall strengths and weaknesses. (Excellent for unfinished stories and those lacking direction. Let me be your compass!) This report also will contain suggestions tailored to your story. Expect honesty! No marks will be made on your manuscript.

Set ($700)

I’ll analyze your characters and provide concrete suggestions to improve your story’s structure or arc, and chances are good that I’ll ask a plethora of questions. After you’ve rewritten your manuscript to your satisfaction, we’ll discuss a schedule for completing a detailed copy edit. This comprehensive review will include recasting, rewriting, and reorganization, as well as strengthening dialogue, improving word choice, eliminating clichés, and flagging inconsistencies. You’ll end up with an awesome manuscript filled with comments and suggestions, ready for your final revisions.

Go ($850)

All of the above. Once you’ve worked through the developmental and copy editing processes, killed your darlings, and dragged your manuscript through glass, we’ll move to pre-publication edits. I’ll examine your manuscript to check for typos or other errors that may have been missed or introduced during revisions. You can send me your final manuscript as a Word document, eBook, or PDF. If you choose to send an eBook or PDF, this proofreading phase will also review formatting and layout.

These packages come with my ongoing support and are only available until December 31. Contact me as soon as possible if you’d like a sample edit, and know that I’ll be happy to make package adjustments based on your needs. Back to the word mines, wrimos!

*Please note that if your novel is (a lot) longer than 50,000 words, I may need to modify pricing.


8 Ways to Vet Potential Editors

A self-published writer recently confessed that while he doesn’t mind investing in a good editor, he finds it difficult to determine what constitutes a “good editor” before writing the check. I get it. Why fork over hundreds or thousands of dollars to someone who will only skim your work and correct glaring grammatical errors? Why contract with an editor who doesn’t understand your genre, or worse, is openly hostile toward your style? (As an example, I will decline religious texts and nonfiction books beyond my scope of knowledge. There are editors out there who will give you a better read on those than I will.) Choosing an editor is often as much a personal decision as it is financial; an editor proficient in her craft may still alienate you with her style. How can you find out what the experience will be like before you sign the contract?

  • Determine the type of editing your work needs. When you match your needs to an editor’s skillset, you’re more likely to receive the results you want. Understanding the editing process helps lessen surprises, too. (Hint: if you think your work only needs proofreading when it’s never skimmed an editor’s desk before, you may be in for some wonky quotes.)
  • Ask around. Freelancers often receive the lion’s share of their business from word-of-mouth referrals. Crowdsource your editing needs—your writing group, forum, or institution may have reliable, honest recommendations. Many of my clients find me through social media.
  • Read testimonials. Most editors post client testimonials—including me. While testimonials showcase praise rather than problems, they can still give you a feel for what clients liked. If an editor produced “great results” but was “slower than anticipated,” you may have found a meticulous editor who’d be a great fit—if you have the time to spare. Check to see if the editor has additional freelance profiles on LinkedIn, Upwork, Guru, Reedsy, or Freelancer. Many of these sites allow clients (or associates) to provide unfiltered feedback.
  • Check professional associations. Membership in a professional association does not guarantee the quality of work. However, membership can indicate that an editor is dedicated to advancing his or her craft and has enlisted the resources to do so. These editors also have access to networks of like-minded peers for support. As a result, they may be able to refer you to another, better-suited editor when warranted. Check out the American Copy Editors Society and the Editorial Freelancers Association.
  • Compare bookshelves. Ask your prospective editor about the last book he or she read. Most editors will be delighted to share their literary proclivities, and their responses may help you determine whether they’ll be interested in your work. One individual asked me to provide a list of the last ten books I’ve read, as well as a list of my ten favorite books. It was a fun exercise, and it provided a personal connection point. Just remember—an editor’s interest in hard science-fiction may not preclude them from being awesome editors of paranormal romance (and vice versa).
  • Send a sample. Most editors will ask for a sample of your project, especially if it’s big (e.g., grants, dissertations, novellas, novels). Don’t choose the first chapter. Instead, pick five to ten pages that represent the messiest portion of your work. Giving your prospective editor the chance to read a challenging section lets the editor properly gauge the complexity of editing required, which ensures you receive an accurate quote. I once provided a copy editing quote based on an early chapter of a story. It seemed fairly tight, and I accepted the contract. It turned out that the writer had, in earnest, sent me the best chapter. The remainder of the book required far more time and editorial effort than I’d planned for, which necessitated a revision of my initial quote. It worked out in the end (largely because we both kept open minds), but you may not be so lucky.
  • Request a trial proof. Great editors will offer you a trial proof. If they don’t, you should request one. Remember that sample you sent for an initial quote? Your prospective editor should take three to five of those pages and perform a sample copy edit, gratis. You can look over the type of changes provided, as well as query style (if any), and make a more informed decision.
  • Check the contract carefully. Don’t provide any type of payment until you’ve signed a contract you’re satisfied with. The contract doesn’t need to be elaborate, but it should include detailed information about preferred payment methods, total costs, late fees (if any), timelines, and the exact services provided. If any of this information is missing, request clarification. This ensures that both you and your editor are on the same page.

Vetting a potential editor requires your being open and honest about your expectations. If something doesn’t make sense, request clarification. One editor may be willing to Skype with you on a weekly basis, while another will only send you an editor’s letter at the end of the project. (And both options are equally great depending on your needs.) The person who edits a best seller may not be the optimal choice for your project. Remember: a little extra work at the beginning of the editing process can prevent chaos or disappointment at the end.

Breaking the Rules

Have you ever encountered a work rule so ridiculous, arbitrary, and inflexible that you want to shoot yourself or someone else into the sun at the earliest opportunity? Me too. But before you start crafting your solar cannons, put down your spanners and reassess: what’s the genesis of the offending rule? In some circumstances, hard and fast rules are created to prevent mortal peril. (So please, put your helmet back on). Other rules prescribe against economic peril, wherein an old, faulty process may have cost your company clients or cash. Still others guarantee a specific sort of orthodoxy; they may not make sense in every situation, but they’ve had the effect of keeping things moving forward in a uniform fashion.

As a writer and editor, my work is guided by a myriad of grammar, style, and usage rules, some of which have been dictated by my place of employment (rather than a dusty book or database). One particular supervisor decreed that no sentence should have more than twenty-six words. On the face of it, this rule makes sense: concision aids in client understanding. However, this particular individual would review every document for conformity, counting words and slashing sentences that violated the standard—even if the sentence made perfect sense. (You may imagine how challenging this was when working with legal documents. Lawyers have a unique talent for stretching sentences into paragraphs.)

That particular bugaboo caused far more consternation than it warranted, but was still useful. It’s a reminder to tighten up, to ask:

  • “Could I write this sentence more efficiently or effectively?”
  • “Is this sentence lengthy because it contributes to a particular mood or theme, or because I lost my mind and crammed in too much information?”
  • “Am I Proust?”
  • “Am I varying length in a way that engages the reader?”
  • “Is my sentence swollen with unnecessary adverbs?”
  • “Does the length of my sentence contribute to a series of dangling participles?”

You get the idea. Sentences with more than twenty-six words can and should occur. Style and grammar rules will occasionally be subverted for the betterment of a narrative. That’s okay. Our rules exist as beacons to light our path and illuminate the monsters; we’re still free to trail our pens through the gloaming.