Conquering Your Fear of the Semi-Colon with Editor Theresa Stevens

POSTED ON APRIL 25, 2018 BY PRINT THIS POST

Conquering Your Fear of the Semi-Colon with Editor Theresa Stevens

Re-run Week continues! Today’s post was written back in 2012 by editor Theresa Stevens, a long-time contributor and supporter of RU.

Do you rewrite sentences just to avoid using a semi-colon? Editor Theresa Stevens explains the proper usage of the semi-colon, narrative compression (what’s that?), and the importance of creating a likeable character as she critiques another RU reader submission. 

Line editing spans the gap between content editing (with its focus on story elements) and copy editing (with its focus on grammar and mechanics). Sometimes, in order to straddle that gap, we find ourselves with one foot in copy editing territory and one in content editing. That’s the case this month. Here we have a scene that contains many of the right elements — decent structure, clear scene-level conflicts, good insertion of description and dialogue — but the scene suffers from grammar issues and a difficult character.

 

“You stupid, piece of shit! Ugh!” Carly kicked the tire, directing her foot to the flat of the rubber but instead encountered the solid rim. Pain jostled through her body as a sharp stab flew up her leg.  “For the love of Christ!”  Her body fell to the hard, hot pavement as she pulled her leg up to her chest, cradling the now throbbing limb. Her heartbeat now pulsed through her foot and she paused momentarily, wondering just how she would get to the nearest hospital; hell, even civilization should something be broken in her foot.

She let loose a slight whimper looked around. The flat landscape spread out for miles ahead of her, the desert looking harsh and daunting to a city girl such as her. The vast brown expanse of land was filled intermittently with small shades of bare green trees, a crap load of tumbling weeds, and plenty of cactuses.

“Just my luck. Brown, brown, and brown. Oh, look, Carly, there’s something green. Yes, but it’s a cactus and that isn’t going to help you right now. Annnnd, now you’re talking to yourself. Wonderful.”

Carly dropped her head to her knees and felt despair begin to rise up. She had left Los Angeles in such haste only twenty-four hours earlier that she hadn’t planned on needing any kind of emergency equipment.  Hell, she hadn’t even planned on leaving at all but then again, you never know when your plans could change.

And hers had significantly.

Now in all of her infinite wisdom, she had set out on a path to get far away fast, she was stuck on the side of the road in some portion of Death Valley with only her broken down car and two hundred dollars to her name. Her phone was useless as there was absolutely no reception out here and the bottle of water she had purchased was used twenty miles back when her car had begun to overheat.

She lifted her head and glance up at the bright orb in the sky wondering just how long she was going to last out here, in the middle of nowhere, with close to one hundred and ten degree heat, no water, no cell phone, and a bum foot.

“Damn it.”

Her mind worked furiously trying to pinpoint what the last sign she had seen on the road or even when she had last passed a car, someone, any signs of civilization. She came up blank; aaaand now her ass was starting to burn, the heat of the pavement seeping through her jeans.

Several foul words spewed from her mouth as she scrambled up, trying like hell to ignore the pain her foot was now shouting with.  She tried to catch her balance as it gripped her body and reached out for the trunk of her car. Her palm landed on the metal and a burst of agony jolted her system only seconds later.

“Give me a break!” she shouted. The black metal gleamed as the sun pulsed with a reminder of its harsh ways. She held her hand up and examined the palm, noting the bright red skin which would no doubt have blisters covering it later.

God damn, what else could go wrong?

As if on cue, a bird overhead shrilled out its response. She looked up wearily as the large red-tailed hawk circled around her; patiently for the desert to seize her life. Sweat beaded and rolled down her back and in between her breasts, serving as a reminder that things were about to get a whole lot worse.

 

If you ever happen to be in a group of writers and the conversation lags, here’s a guaranteed way to liven up the group. Ask them, “So, what’s your opinion of semicolons?” I’m not saying blood will be shed, but really, it almost could be. People have very strong opinions about semicolons.

What they don’t always have, though, is a solid grasp of how to use semicolons. This is why, as an editor, I’ve come to despise the darned things. It’s not that I have anything personal against this form of punctuation. It’s that the combination of passionate opinion and imperfect grammar is usually a recipe for headaches. Be passionate about semicolons, if you choose — shoot, be passionate about every aspect of your writing. This can only help you in the long run. But know the rules, too.

In a nutshell, there are two ways to use semicolons.

1 – To separate complicated items in a list containing three or more items. In this case, there will always be more than one semicolon, and those semicolons will follow groups of words.

Example:

On my shopping trip, I purchased new sneakers and boots at the shoe store; jeans, three shirts, and a jacket at the department store; and a ladder at the hardware store.

This list is complicated for two reasons. First, each list item includes phrases, not just simple nouns. Second, the middle item on the list contains another nested list (jeans, three shirts, and a jacket), and using commas instead of semicolons would create confusion about which list items go together.

2 – To replace a conjunction in a compound sentence. In this case, there will be one semicolon, and there will be a complete sentence on either side of the semicolon. There will not be a conjunction after the semicolon.

Example:

The cottage is a busy house; visitors always stay for the weekend.

That’s it. That’s all there is to the semicolon rules. Every time you use a semicolon, it should fit into one or the other of these patterns. So look at this sentence —

She looked up wearily as the large red-tailed hawk circled around her; patiently for the desert to seize her life.

There is only one semicolon, so we know the parts before and after the semicolon each must be complete sentences. But the part after the semicolon is not a complete sentence, so this should be eliminated. There’s no need to replace it with any other punctuation in this case. Just cut it.

Similar thing here —

Carly hobbled to the driver’s side door, opened it and collapsed inside; her mind frantically trying to work out just how she was going to get out of this.

Again, the part after the semicolon is not a complete sentence. In this case, though, instead of just changing the punctuation, I would ask for a revision of the sentence. Why? The part after the semicolon is “telling,” a form of exposition known as narrative summary. We’re not hearing Carly’s thoughts moment by moment. We’re getting a compressed, capsule summary of the fact that she is thinking. That kind of compressed narrative is best saved for moments when we must present facts to the reader, but those facts are dull or repetitive. In this case, given the extreme problem to be solved, Carly’s attempts to think through the problem shouldn’t be dull or repetitive. They should be interesting and captivating.

It’s possible that the author has chosen to insert some distance between the reader and Carly because Carly is not very likeable here. This might be due to her extreme circumstances. She could be adorable and charming in better moments. But here and now, she’s sarcastic, defeated, and impulsive. She lets her frustration get the best of her. This makes her a little hard to take, and it’s possible that the author chose to use narrative compression to create some distance between the character and the reader in this difficult moment.

In certain circumstances, this can be an effective tool. Here, I’m not convinced it works. If I had the entire manuscript to edit, I would be looking for a better starting point for the story, one that would let us get around this problem so that the reader can bond to the character from the outset. We want romance heroines to be admirable, likeable, even noble. Yes, we must give our characters problems to solve, but we want them to go about solving them in ways that prove the essential goodness of the characters. In the beginning of the story, especially, it’s important to establish that. Save moments of weakness for the middle of the story, after the reader is locked into the character’s experience. But for the first pages, a slightly different approach might work better.

 ***

Now that you’ve vanquished your fear of the semi-colon, do you have any questions about other punctuation marks? What traits would you give your characters to help them establish a bond with a reader? 

***

Theresa Stevens, Editor/Publisher

Bio: Theresa Stevens is the Publisher of STAR Guides Publishing, a nonfiction publishing company with the mission to help writers write better books. After earning degrees in creative writing and law, she worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm in Indianapolis where she represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors. After a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry to practice law, Theresa worked as chief executive editor for a highly acclaimed small romance press, and her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers. Visit her blog at http://edittorrent.blogspot.com where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.

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One Response to “Conquering Your Fear of the Semi-Colon with Editor Theresa Stevens”

  1. I like colons and semi-colons. I feel like there is a place for them in non-fiction, although my garden editors disagree. I have written for one trade magazine in the landscape industry for more than twenty years. My work needs the approval of the editor/publisher and the executive director of the association that publishes the magazine. At the beginning, they only had two strict rules: 1) Keep myself out of the articles and 2) Put the botanical name, punctuated correctly, along with the common name when writing about plants.

    Because of the nature of the articles, I didn’t have to worry about my favorite grammatical error – overusing ellipses. I was careful not to include many em dashes, and I limited the use of colons and semi-colons. Turns out that wasn’t quite enough.

    The woman who was executive director for many of the years I wrote for the magazine let me know early on she never wanted to see a colon unless it was absolutely necessary, and usually not even then. My editor instructed me to treat semi-colons the same way I’d treat exclamation points in a technical article. In other words, don’t use them.

    I do occasionally slip semi-colons into fiction, but I avoid them if I can. It makes me sad, though. It feels as if I’m punishing a child who isn’t misbehaving, just acting his or her age.

    Argh – and there’s another grammatical issue that drives me nuts. My garden editor will let me say “their” rather than “his or her,” but I’m not comfortable with that option. In magazines, I often see his and her used alternately. I’m not sure what is technically correct. So – at the risk of starting a brawl – how do you all treat this issue?

    POSTED BY BECKE MARTIN DAVIS | APRIL 25, 2018, 10:58 AM

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