Writers on Writers: Style, Writing Tips, and the Oxford Comma

Sophia Kriegel: And we’re back with the second entry in our Writers on Writers series! To refresh: I’m Sophia and I study Creative Writing at Emerson College where I focus mostly on creative nonfiction.

Catherine Kenny: Hello everyone! I’m Catherine, and I study Creative Writing at New York University with a concentration in poetry and short fiction. We both thoroughly enjoyed sharing about our different reading styles last time, and now we’re moving into more of the writing side of our studies! 

SK: We left on a cliffhanger last time after you posed the question of how would you describe your writing style, and what are some writing tips that have worked for you? I think in regards to my own personal writing style so much of it has to do with finding the balance between structure as a tool versus a constraint. For a long time I was writing in a way that adhered very closely to structure and grammatical rules and it felt like I was diminishing my own creative flair in trying to make my work look “correct.” Once I let myself shed some of those rules or structural guidelines, I tapped into a much more unique sense of self in my work and found an authentic voice that feels a lot more me. If I had to describe it I would say it’s choppy, candid, and introspective. The biggest writing tip that’s worked for me has been starting a piece by putting everything on the page, getting all the feelings and metaphors out, and then going in and revising. I find that starting big and jumbled and then going back to carve out what I really want to write allows me to find so much more depth within the narrative of a piece. And a lot of the time I find myself completely changing directions with where I want my story to go once it’s all on the page. I know you focus mostly on poetry which tends to be shorter than fiction or nonfiction, is there a certain structure you start with when beginning to work on a piece? How do you get the process going?

CK: I absolutely loved reading about how you describe your style- I think that being candid and introspective is something so important for every writer’s personal voice, and is very hard to achieve! As a young writer always looking for advice, I would hate to hear that I have yet to find the process that works best for me, but it’s true. Everything that I write comes to be in different ways, and I have yet to find anything else in the center of my writing Venn Diagram other than that I am the author. Most recently, I started writing a poem based upon inspiration from one of my courses, The Study of Literature. In class, we were studying the structure of sonnets and iambic pentameter, and I found myself losing focus in one specific class because I had the overwhelming urge to write one of my own. So, I took the academic structure of the sonnet, and edited and changed and re-wrote until it felt like it was my own. Somehow, starting with the most vague of ideas works best for me, because I have no choice but to add more. I never start with the first line of a poem or story either. I usually flush out the climax or hardest dialogue in its simplest form and work from there. Many authors feel obligated to start at the beginning, or even have a roadmapped plan for their entire writing process (sometimes to the minute)! I read somewhere once that you can’t edit an empty page, and that advice has been the closest thing to a “process” that I have come to use. What about nonfiction? What is your approach to writing longer pieces? And what is your go-to place and/or mindset to write? 

SK: I used to write a lot more poetry than I do now and I always loved having to dissect structure in such a concentrated way, like you described. I wasn’t really familiar with nonfiction until I came to college and once I found out that writing longer essays was a viable option, I never looked back. I think that so much of my process when it comes to longer pieces is just letting the writing come out in big waves and, like I mentioned earlier, whittling it down as the piece comes into itself more. I’m a notes app girl (which could be a phrase I’ve completely made up). I write every idea that pops into my head in my notes app on my phone and then revisit all those little, nonsensical thoughts and see what can be extracted from those ideas. It is, as most writing tends to be, chaotic at first but it finds its way eventually. I find that some of the hardest aspects of writing are taming some of those imaginative ideas and implementing craft into a piece of work. We’ve discussed our thoughts on the Oxford comma over Zoom and I’m elated that we’re both passionately pro-Oxford-comma. But that’s one of the few grammatical elements that I feel I have a confident hold of. The rest of them trip me up a lot and that’s where most of my revision comes into play. It’s definitely an area that could use some improvement. What aspects of writing come less naturally to you? And feel free to indulge us in your Oxford comma commentary as well!

CK: I am extremely glad that we share the same side of- dare I say- the most controversial grammatical debate in all of literature. Even though no one asked for a history lesson, the original comma was created by Aldus Manutius, an Italian printer, during the 15th century. The word itself comes from the Greek word Koptein, meaning “to cut off”. The glorious Oxford comma, however, was not established until the 1890’s by an Oxford University Press printer named Horace Hart. I could go on and on about why the Oxford comma creates a necessary clarity to one’s writing, or that I think it simply sounds better in my head, but I am really just pro-streamlining in a grammatical context. In fact, some of my favorite pieces to read are ones created by authors who diverge from traditional norms, and specifically turn our assumptions as critical readers on their heads (see: Ellen Hopkins or David Levithan). If you use the Oxford comma (bravo) then make sure to use it throughout your piece, and if it isn’t for you, then keep it that way. I would say that my biggest challenge in writing is moving on throughout the writing process. It is easy for me to create themes or ideas that I am proud of, but I will spend hours staring at one sentence that doesn’t feel right to me. I simply cannot carry on with any thoughts until the wording is perfect, and that trips me up all of the time. I have to continuously re-spark my creativity and re-edit sentences word by word until I get “that feeling” as a writer. 

Let’s close off this session of Writers on Writers here before I bore us all with more grammatical opinions. I speak for both Sophia and myself when I say that we love having a space to share our thoughts and opinions about the most complex (and sometimes the most random) parts of literature, so thank you!

Let us know if you have any questions, discussion topics, or literary woes you’d like us to chat about in our next Writers on Writers newsletter!



By Catherine Kenny & Sophia Kriegel

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