Proofreading: Learn the Secrets to Success Using Commas


After you’ve spent a lot of time writing your book or article, you may not feel like going back and revising. Of course, you don’t have to revise if you directly hire a professional editor to do the job for you. However, there are a few things you can do quickly and easily yourself. In editing terms, proofreading is a simple grammar and spelling check, the last once-over after previous editing before sending to the publisher. A full edit or a content edit may include more than just grammatical improvements; it might also include sentence rewrites, changes to words and phrases, and the addition or removal of information. Proofreading is a lot simpler because it involves following set rules, as well as formulas about the English language.

For some of us, writing comes naturally, and so does writing correctly; using punctuation according to grammar rules, spelling everything right, and using appropriate sentence structure. For others, it can be confusing and frustrating to write correctly.

The first step you can take to eliminate a large number of grammatical errors from your work is to use the spelling and grammar check in your word processing program. Microsoft Word has been steadily improving their spelling and grammar check over the years, although it still has some issues when it comes to being 100% accurate (that’s when professional editing can help). It is great for spelling mistakes because it underlines the misspelled words in red. You can right-click on the misspelled word for a list of spelling suggestions. Just click on the correct one! If the spell-check offers no suggestions, you can use an online dictionary and see what comes up. As a professional editor, I admit to using Google when I come across an obscure or unfamiliar word.

Correctly Use Commas

Another useful proofreading “secret” is to learn how to use commas correctly. The misuse of commas is one of the most common writing mistakes professional editors see. If you needed to pick one area in which to improve your grammar, you should choose to learn how to use commas correctly. Here are some ground rules:

  1. Use a comma to separate three or more items in a list. For example: “I enjoy reading science fiction, romance, and mystery novels.” Do not use a comma to separate only two items. For example, it is incorrect to use a comma like this: “I enjoy reading science fiction, and romance novels.” However, if two or more adjectives are describing a noun, the adjectives must be separated by a comma: “The woman’s shiny, white dress stood out against the dark background.”
  2. Use a comma to indicate an introductory phrase. For example, the phrase “for example” is an opening phrase, so it should be followed by a comma to prevent confusion. Another example: “After lunch, we need to stop at the post office.” Also: “Later, I went online and hired a professional editor.”
  3. Use the “fanboys” rule. You may remember this one from grade school. Use a comma between two independent clauses when the clauses are separated by one of the following words: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. Examples: “The store was closed today, but tomorrow we’re going to try again.” “I wouldn’t trade my past experiences for anything else, for all of my experiences have made me who I am today.” “My friends are coming over for dinner tonight, so let’s order two pizzas.” “I finished my book, and now I’d like to have a professional editor look it over.” Check and see if each half of the sentence could function on its own. Insert a comma before the connecting word (one of the “fanboys”). Learn this rule, and you will be ahead of the game. It is one of the most common grammatical errors editors see on a daily basis.
  4. Use commas to offset nonrestrictive clauses. A nonrestrictive clause is an optional phrase in a sentence. For example: “John, our neighbor, is on vacation.” This sentence could simply read, “John is on vacation,” but the nonrestrictive clause, “our neighbor,” adds additional information.
  5. Use a comma to separate an independent clause from a dependent clause. An independent clause could be a complete sentence, while a dependent clause needs a complete sentence to make sense. For example: “After many years as a successful pilot, he finally bought his airplane.” The first phrase is dependent on the second phrase, and the second phrase could stand alone.

These simple rules can take practice, but once you get the hang of it, you will automatically be writing better. Proofread a few pages of your work to see if you correctly used commas. Then use this information to make adjustments if necessary. Practice by noticing the commas as you read, and soon you will quickly see when to use commas.

There are many other ways to increase your proofreading skills. However, as a professional editor, I have concluded that it is best to learn one or two tricks at a time. Many teachers and professors will advise you to learn the rules, and follow them before you break them. Of course, there are writers who “break all the rules,” even famous ones, though they do so intentionally and with talent and precision.

It is also useful for writers to use their edited manuscripts to learn. After you receive your edited work, look through the changes and see what your editor has done. In part 2 of “Proofreading: Secrets to Success,” I will address several more useful tips on correcting your writing. Feel free to offer your comments and ask questions, and if you need help with your writing, don’t hesitate to hire a FirstEditing expert to assist you!

Originally posted 12/16/2008 and happily updated 11/15/2017. Thanks for reading!

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