The Great Oxford Comma Debate

Give me ALL the Oxford Commas

One time, my friend messaged me to ask if she should use an Oxford comma when listing out projects on a resume. As a student of journalism, she came of age in AP Style and that comma before the conjunction was a big faux pas. I spent the next 26 minutes composing a verbose, but well-meaning pontification on how an Oxford or serial comma should always be used. No matter what. A month later she got me this →

Which leads us to the question: is an Oxford comma necessary? Or was my spiel a little too extra?

If you’re new to the Oxford comma debate, an Oxford comma or serial comma is that final comma in a list right before the conjunction. Example:

I like coffee, yorkies, murder mysteries, and tacos.

Now, MLA, Chicago, Strunk and White, and various government and academic publications demand its use. On the flip side, AP and The New York Times oppose use of that last comma. The arguments for and against usually go like this:

Promotes clarityUnnecessary if conjunctions are used properly
Offers efficiency in reading Takes up valuable space
Reaffirms the last two items in a list are separate entities Pretentious (i.e., too academic and not colloquial)

So to comma or not to comma? The answer is: it’s a stylistic preference. If you’re copywriter or a ghost writer, it’s important to stick to your employer’s preferred style guide to maintain brand consistency. If you’re writing for a personal project or your employer has no preference, the decision is all yours.

My take: if it’s within your discretion, you should always use an Oxford comma. Besides the reasons in the above #TeamOxfordComma column, an Oxford comma also promotes visual consistency and modernity.

As writers, we’re often more concerned with how a sentence sounds and communicates rather than how it looks. But in an age where Instagram and video rule the internet sphere, it’s important to have visually appealing work. A list without that last comma is unbalanced and distracting. Like an unresolved melody. Place that last comma my friend and resolve it.

Additionally, most writers, government agencies, academic institutions, and public in general support the use of an Oxford comma. Conformity in political and societal affairs = trouble. Conformity in spelling and grammar = understanding. If you want to connect with the general public, get with the times and add that comma!

At the end of the sentence, there’s no right or wrong way to use an Oxford comma. Language is a living breathing organism and “rules” are seldom hard and fast. It’s up to the brand, your employer, or your preference. Whichever way you swing, make sure you’re consistent in usage and everything will be just fine.

How do you feel about an Oxford comma? Pretentious? Necessary? Beautiful? Let it all out below!

Valuable Writing Lessons from Game of Thrones

As a GoT fan and a writer, I can’t resist jumping on the bandwagon and adding in my own commentary. Which leads us to this week’s post–valuable writing lessons from our favorite show to hate: Game of Thrones!

Photo by Kylo on Unsplash
Photo by Kylo on Unsplash

It’s difficult to be a timely publication and not talk about Game of Thrones. Whether it’s conspiracy theories or actor interviews or fashion commentary–everyone wants in on the game. As a fan and a writer, I can’t resist jumping on the wagon and adding in my own commentary. Which leads us to this week’s post–valuable writing lessons from our favorite show to hate: Game of Thrones!

The importance of flawed characters

Can you name one character in GoT that is completely honorable and unflawed? Even good ol’ Samwell Tarly has broken oaths and stolen books. That’s because George R. R. Martin and the writers at HBO have hit on an essential fact–stories with flawed characters are vastly more interesting and relatable.

We’re all in some way flawed and it’s much easier to identify with the character that spills coffee on herself vs. the character that prances through life saying and doing exactly the right things. So next time you’re developing a character, consider giving them a flaw. Whether a minor one like whistling at inappropriate moments or a major one like a compulsion to lie, flaws open up your characters to be authentic. Not to mention, a character flaw is the perfect opportunity to insert some conflict and context. That annoying whistling could reveal a character’s backstory or be the catalyst for their spouse to leave them…

No one likes a happy story

I can’t remember where I heard/read this, but someone at some point in my life advised that no one wants to read a story about someone else’s perfect life. #Preach. Think about it–no one likes inviting along that one friend who only talks about how perfect and great their life is. So why would you invite that one book to your bookshelf?

We enjoy stories about trials, sacrifices, and questions. We love these stories because they give us hope, encouragement, or maybe even real life warnings. And as writers, stories with hardships give our characters an opportunity and a reason to grow and change. Rather than staying static and perfect and boring for the remainder of the story.

So take a cue from Game of Thrones where almost everything goes wrong and some characters are literally pieces of their former selves–add some hardships. One good trick to introduce conflict is to identify your character’s greatest fear. Are they pinning all their hopes of socio-economic advancement on getting a promotion at work? Are they terrified of squirrels invading their house? Will they die of embarrassment if their crush finds out they don’t know how to correctly pronounce phớ? Once you have it, make that thing happen. Make it as dramatic or as subtle as you want and take us through how your character reacts and is molded by their worst fears.

There is such a thing as too much suspense

There’s no argument that suspension and tension are the motors that drive a story along. But let that motor run too long and you’ve driven your audience right off the story path. Take heed from George R. R. Martin, who is now 8 years behind the last Game of Thrones novel A Dance with Dragons. In fact, he’s left us in suspense for so long that HBO has commandeered the story.

Now I’m not saying that waiting too long to tell your story means someone else will tell it for you. But what I am saying is that if you keep your readers in suspense for too long, they’re going to drift away. Too much tension (with no climax) will leave your readers feeling unsatisfied and disappointed. Too little tension will leave your readers feeling bored.

So how do you find that perfect balance? Unfortunately there’s no magic formula. However you can try some of these techniques to help you pace the tension:

  • Add a time constraint (does this all happen in a week? A day? An hour?)
  • Up the ante by creating increasingly worse situations until the character is forced to deal with it
  • Create secondary sources of conflict that exacerbate the main source of conflict

So next Sunday, while you’re waiting to see how Dany and Jon take on Cersei, pay a little closer attention to the story. You might realize it’s a wealth of techniques you can use in your own work.

Interested in more tips for creating AND sustaining suspense in your story? Check out this great article from Writer’s Digest.

Flesch-Kincaid: not a flesh eating monster but useful for your writing

But of course, this is not what it said and once I had adjusted the horror filter in my brain, realized the Flesch-Kincaid method is an interesting tool for writers. Let’s start with the basics: the Flesch-Kincaid method is a readability scoring method developed by Rudolf Flesch and J. Peter Kincaid in 1975.

Difficult doesn’t mean you have an audience full of village idiots; it simply recognizes that in most cases reading online text is different from reading print. Online we tend to scan more, so shorter words and sentences become even more important.”Ann Handley Everybody Writes

Maybe I watch too many zombie, post-apocalyptic-type shows, but the first time I saw “Flesch-Kincaid” in a book (Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes to be exact) I thought it said “Flesh”. Which naturally is a slippery slope to human-devouring monsters and visions of apocalyptic Georgia.

But of course, this is not what it said and once I had adjusted the horror filter in my brain, realized the Flesch-Kincaid method is an interesting tool for writers.

Let’s start with the basics: the Flesch-Kincaid method is a readability scoring method developed by Rudolf Flesch and J. Peter Kincaid in 1975. Flesch, an Austrian immigrant, was a HUGE proponent of using plain English (i.e., colloquial and informal words). And advocated for use of less technical language in highly regulated industries such as the Federal Trade Commission.

The Flesch-Kincaid method scores text on a scale of 0-100 with higher scores indicating a piece is easier to understand. Here’s a more exact breakdown:

  • 0-30 best understood by university graduate students
  • 60-70 understood by 13-15 year olds
  • 90-100 understood by the average 11-year-old

Side note—want to learn how to apply the Flesch-Kincaid method on your writing? Check out the guide for Microsoft Word users here.

Flesch advised that his scoring model accounts for how the human mind reads. With specific emphasis on successive points. Which in plain English, means that our brains make an indefinite verdict about a set of text up to a natural breaking point (punctuation, white space, new paragraph, etc.) and then pause at this point to make a final judgement. So the shorter the sentence or word, the easier to transition from indefinite verdict to final judgement.

At this point, you may be wondering what score you want your text to get. And like most things in life, it depends. It depends on your audience and medium. Writing for middle schoolers? Try getting close to 100. Writing a white paper? You can get by with something closer to 30.

Notice in that last sentence I said, you can get by. That’s because while your audience will most likely still comprehend the text, is it in your best interest to write overly complex material? Probably not. In general, the simpler and shorter your text the better the comprehension and retention rate. And what we all need as writers is writing that keeps readers reading.

Which is exactly where the Flesch-Kincaid method comes in. Using the scoring method as a general guide, you can see where your piece rates in readability. Rating pretty low on the scale? Try breaking up long sentences or using a thesaurus to swap out complex words. Use subheadings, lists, photos, and TONS of white space to make sentences easier to digest.

While there’s no substitute for editing your own writing and knowing your audience, the Flesch-Kincaid scale can be a good way to gauge if you’re going in the right direction. Because if there’s anything truly terrifying, it’s a sentence that’s difficult to read.

P.s., I’m thinking of writing a complementary post about how to use the Flesch-Kincaid method on other word processing systems. Is that something you would find helpful? Comment below or drop me a line! I’d love to hear from you!

Are You For Real? Magical Realism

Style guide on how to use magical realism in your writing

Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash


noun; A literary technique in which realistic narration is interwoven with elements of magic, fantasy, or surrealism.


Prudencio Aguilar did not go away, nor did José Arcadio Buendía dare throw the spear. He never slept well after that. He was tormented by the immense desolation with which the dead man had looked at him through the rain, his deep nostalgia as he yearned for living people, the anxiety with which he searched through the house looking for some water with which to soak his esparto plug. “He must be suffering a great deal,” he said to Úrsula. “You can see that he’s so very lonely.” She was so moved that the next time she saw the dead man uncovering the pots on the stove she understood what he was looking for, and from then on she placed water jugs all about the house.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Màrquez

Pros vs Cons

This is a great technique if you’re looking to add surrealism or fantasy without placing your characters in a make-believe world. I.e., you’re trying to set your character in the real world while still incorporating a little magic. You’re not interested in creating a whole new world, society,etc. You just want something out of the ordinary. Culturally, this technique is prominent in Latin American and Caribbean literature where voodoo, curses, zombies, and lengthy sleeping sicknesses are interwoven into everyday routines and consciousnesses.

A drawback to this technique is that if not done properly, you could set up your character or story to be unreliable or too far fetched. (Of course, this is only a problem if you’re not intending to intimate that your character or story is unreliable or crazy.)


Magical realism takes a subtle hand. You can’t blow pixie dust in the face of your reader. You need to slowly incorporate it into their food until they build a tolerance and accept your magic. A great way to get your reader to accept your magic as ordinary, is to have your characters accept it. Gabriel García Màrquez is a master at this magical subtly. His characters accept magic and surrealism as part of their everyday. No one questions that a certain cousin was born with a pig’s tail. No one freaks out that the ghost of murdered cockfighter comes to haunt them. No one finds the plagues of insomnia an unexplainable medical condition. Everything is taken as a fact of life.

Another good example is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In which the protagonist ages backwards (i.e., as an infant he looks like an old man, and as an old man he looks like an infant). The story is written so convincingly that the search term “Benjamin Button Disease Real?” pops up automatically in Google. Write so convincingly that your readers will need Google to discern facts from fiction.

The Masters

The best way to learn anything is to study those who have perfected the skill. If you’re looking for inspiration or guidance, pick up one of these for your next read:

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude; Gabriel García Màrquez
  • Wide Sargasso Sea; Jean Rhys
  • The Kingdom of this World; Alejo Carpentier
  • Winter’s Tale; Mark Helprin
  • Beloved; Toni Morrison
  • Chocolat; Joanne Harris
  • St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves; Karen Russell