I’ve been reading full manuscripts from other writers lately, part of an effort to speed up the critique process while getting feedback on a manuscript as a whole. Most of the errors I’m finding deal with punctuation—mainly the comma. My experience with these manuscripts underscores the need to know how to punctuate properly and the need to use a knowledgeable editor as the last step before submission or self-publishing.

Here’s why. Self-published books in general suffer because they are often not vetted by anyone, the quality of writing is poor, and they sometimes look amateurish. As a result, the major reviewing media refuse to review self-published books, the usual distribution avenues are closed to them, and the Library of Congress will not issue a CIP data for them. Poorly produced self-published books make all of us look bad. A professional editor, not you, not your spouse, is essential for producing a quality book.

A book is a product for sale, like a car. All of us want to buy a quality product without a lot of mistakes and problems. This full-novel critiqueing process helps but doesn’t negate the need for a good editor too if you are self-publishing.. A professional cover designer and layout artist are also essential.

Publishing is a highly competitive business. Your book will face offerings from Simon & Schuster, Random House, W. Norton, and all the other big guys in the battle for sales. Make sure you book stands up to the competition and has a right to be proud.

Make sure that the readers of your current book will want to read your next.

Most punctuation rules can be found in a style guide or a good dictionary, but here’s a quick guide to using commas.

When two complete sentences (each with a subject and predicate) are joined by a conjunction, the comma goes before the confunction:
The cat is black, and the dog is white.

When a complete sentence (subject and predicate) includes a phrase that is not a complete sentence, don’t use a comma:
The cat is black and has white spots.

When there is a compound subject or predicate, don’t use a comma:
The cat and dog are both black and white.

Hyphens and dashes also give writers a lot of trouble. In the manuscript, a dash is written as two hyphens, no spaces. When typed this way, Word automatically turns it into a dash:
The dog is white—I think.

Hyphens are joiners, used to avoid ambiguity. Note the difference in meaning here:
Small-business men, small businessmen

Compound modifiers need hyphens. When two words expressing a single concept are before a noun, use the hyphen: mud-splattered face.

Keeping these few simple rules in mind will improve the readability of your writing immensely.