Monday, November 5, 2012

November 2012 - Colons and Semicolons

"Drop ornate punctuation and work toward simplicity." -John Long WRITERS LITTLE BOOK OF WISDOM

    My research has proven that there is a definitive line between those that use semicolons and colons and those that don't. That line separates informal genre fiction writing and literary fiction writing. Yes, every genre has a literary arm in which the level of writing is high enough and the readership is such that it warrants use of colons and semicolons. However, most of the fiction in the marketplace is aimed at ordinary folks which means avoiding use of colons and semicolons because:

1) colons and semicolons are formal, mechanical pieces of punctuation better utilized in business communications and literary and scientific works. Of all the punctuation marks, the colon and semicolon are the most misunderstood and misused and the novice writer, especially, should avoid them or learn or relearn to use them properly.

2) 99% of people do not think or speak in semicolons or colons.   Thus actual dialogue, both spoken and internalizations (thoughts), will not include colons or semicolons. Of course, there will be a rare exception for the highly educated mind or a particularity of personality. However, most story people are "ordinary" people which must appeal to the majority of "ordinary" readers.

3) it was pointed out to me a few months ago by a reader that when they saw the semicolon, they were reminded of an emoticon, that the author was winking back at them. This shocked me because a writer of genre fiction knows the worst thing to have happen is a reader stopping as they read a story. Yet, the winking semicolon is a reality because of the use of semicolons in everyday e-mails.

    What does all this mean?  It means that a writer, and more importantly a storyteller,  has to first know who their reader is and then decide what guideline to use about the semicolon or colon appearing in their own work. If the decision is to write informal genre fiction, then the dash is the substitution of choice for both the colon and semicolon.  The other choice is to rewrite and use simpler sentence structures. After all, dialogue must mimic real speech, not duplicate it and to that end the "rules" of punctuation and grammar don't necessarily apply.  If they are strictly applied, the dialogue becomes stilted and unrealistic to the reader's inner ear.

   As always, adding a check for colons and semicolons is a good idea when revising so consider adding them to your revision check list.  You do have one, don't you?

Stop in next month for Widows and Orphans. 

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