Last time we talked about commas. In particular, I brought to you the serial comma, or the Oxford comma. I emphasized the fact that details—even commas—really do matter to writers. This was on my mind because of that court case ruling hinging upon how workers, an organization, and the state of Maine interpreted its statutes as a result of a missing Oxford comma.
As I warned at the end of episode 94, however, this is a detail-level edit. Don’t let concern over comma placement stall the writing of your draft. You have to write with freedom and abandon when you’re in the writing stage.
Comma concerns come later, in the editing phase, when you pop on your fedora and dig into that draft. Even then, though—even when editing—comma concerns are not your first concerns.
They’re important, no doubt—I mean, I dedicated an entire episode to a single type of comma—but the first time you revisit that draft to consider edits and changes, the commas are not the first thing you tackle.
Focus on your high-level edits first.
Before you worry about sentence-level changes or stylistic flair you can add—that’s that jazziness that Ayn Rand called it in The Art of Nonfiction. In episode 69, I quoted her saying: “The first absolute is: be clear. Drama, jazziness, color—which can be added later—are never as important as clarity.”
Clarity before commas, high-level concerns before proofreading, high-order concerns before low-order concerns.
High-Order Concerns or High-Level Edits
That last set of phrases traces back to academia. When I taught composition to high school students, I kept encountering that terminology: “high-order concerns,” or “HOCs” and “low-order concerns,” or “LOCs.” I used this with my students, reminding them to focus on HOCs first, then spend time on the LOCs. In the publishing world, you might hear the high-order concerns, or HOCs, referred to as:
- high-level edits
- big-picture edits
- developmental edits
- structural edits
- substantive edits
- global edits
- macro concerns
It doesn’t really matter what you call this stage or level of editorial input. Just make sure you and anyone else involved understands what you mean and joins you in attending to these types of evaluations and recommendations first.
When you’re focusing on your high-level edits, the HOCs, you’ll be examining the overall focus of the piece. You’ll look at the big idea and the theme. You’ll need to be sure of your intended audience—make sure you know who you’re writing for.
What are you wanting to share with these readers? Can you state in one sentence what your piece is about? If you can’t, you may need to revisit the big idea or thesis of your project and figure out what you’re really trying to say. Have a friend read the opener of your nonfiction project and without letting him read further, have him try to tell you what it’s about. Did he get it? If not, figure out what needs to be brought out more and refine it. And then write the rest of your piece to match that opening explanation.
You may find in that evaluation process that you need to narrow your focus or tighten it up if you’re trying to tackle too much. Or, it’s possible you’ve narrowed your idea so much that you actually need to expand it a bit or dive more deeply into it.
These are all high-order concerns—the macro concerns for the developmental stage of your project.
Organization or Structure
The organization and structure of the piece also need time and attention at this stage. We make choices as writers about how to present our information or story. In fiction, this could be the point of view or the tense we choose to tell the story—is it first person and present tense? Is that working well for the story? In nonfiction, it may be the way you order your ideas and how those ideas or concepts build. Or it could be the way you group and present your content.
You, the writer, and any editor involved may decide upon a second or third reading that it doesn’t flow well. Maybe you’ve made some leap in logic or you need further examples to support a statement you make in your essay. In fiction, you may have left some jarring gaps in your plot or confused the timeline with a complicated flashback.
Try writing a detailed synopsis for your short story or novel or an outline for your work of nonfiction. If you struggle to do so, this may point to an organizational or structural issue. Identify where you struggled or stumbled and figure out what’s missing or confusing.
Reorganize or Delete
When you spot the issue, you might move sections or paragraphs around or even add a chapter or elaborate on a thought or scene you merely touched on in your draft.
When we tackle high-order concerns first, we may not only reorganize our material—we may end up deleting huge passages. In one of my books, my editor and I agreed we needed to cut an entire chapter. It seems silly to have fretted for days or weeks over the tiny details in a chapter that becomes obsolete. We don’t want to spend time composing a jazzy, tweet-worthy statement in a paragraph we end up cutting from our blog post!
Let’s divert our creative energy to tackling the big-picture edits first. That way, we’ll avoid wasting time obsessing about commas that may disappear completely when we restructure everything.
Focus on high-level edits first. Don’t worry, we will be looking at commas—they’ll get our editorial eye when the time is right. Be patient. We care about our commas—and our em dashes and semicolons, too. It’s just that our attention to those details ideally comes later in the editorial process—after we’ve looked at the big picture.
To listen to the full episode, click on the podcast player above or use subscription options below.
- Ep 93: How to Compose the Perfect First Draft
- Ep 94: Grammar Matters: Why Concern Ourselves with Commas?
- Ep 69: Have You Ignored the First Absolute in Nonfiction Writing?
- Ep 46: What’s the Big Idea?
- Higher-Order Concerns (HOCs) and Lower-Order Concerns (HOCs) (Purdue Online Writing Lab – OWL)
- What Is the ‘Oxford Comma’?
- A Missing Oxford Comma Just Changed the Course of a Court Case (Smithsonian Magazine)
- A court’s decision in a Maine labor dispute hinged on the absence of an Oxford comma (Quartz)
- All podcast episodes
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