When a friend phones us, we’re usually able to identify them from the sound of their voice. We take this for granted, accepting the singularity of each speaker, seeing their idiosyncratic speech habits as part of what makes them who they are.
We writers communicate through our fingers, keying our thoughts. Our readers can recognize our work because we each have a unique voice and pattern to our writing, not unlike our individual manner of speaking.
And just as we do when we are speaking, we may have ‘keyboard tics’ when writing the first draft of a given work. These small keying habits occur as a pause in our thoughts, a simple twitch of a finger, liberally sprinkling the work with hyphens, semicolons, and exclamation points, to the extent the work makes our first reader breathless.
These punctuations have their place, but when they are used excessively, they must be weeded out, and this is part of making effective revisions.
One good way to do this is to print out each chapter, one at a time. Use a blank page, and work your way from the bottom up, covering all above except the paragraph you are looking at.
When you go back and isolate each paragraph, removing the context, you can make a better determination of how you really want to punctuate those ideas. Eight times out of ten, a simple period or comma will better serve the sentences and make the paragraph less confusing.
Using semicolons to make strong pauses in your sentences is WRONG, so remove them and use a comma or a period. Use an emdash or a hyphen to set a clause off for emphasis, and an ellipsis to show uncertainty.
But don’t go nuts.
No one enjoys reading a choppy narrative because short sentences are distracting and hard to get into. The way we smooth the narrative is to join short sentences into longer, compound sentences, but frequently that creates run-on sentences. (I am the queen of those.)
You do not join independent clauses with commas as that creates a rift in the space/time continuum: the Dreaded Comma Splice:
Comma Splice: My car is a blue Chevy Malibu and I like it, the dog likes to ride shotgun.
Same thought, written correctly: My car is a blue Chevy Malibu, and I like it. The dog likes to ride shotgun.
So when do we use a semicolon? Semicolons join independent clauses, which are clauses that can stand alone, and your best bet is to avoid using them except under extreme duress.
The two clauses that are joined together with a semicolon should be
- complete sentences that relate to each other
- if they don’t relate to each other, make them separate sentences and reword them so they are not choppy.
Two separate ideas done wrong: We should go to the Dairy Queen; it’s nearly half past five.
The first sentence is one whole idea—they want to go somewhere. The second sentence is a completely different idea—it’s telling you the time.
Two separate ideas done right, assuming the mention of time is important: We should go to the Dairy Queen soon. They close at eight, and it’s nearly half past five.
If time is the issue in both clauses, and you feel like you absolute MUST use a semicolon or you will explode, say, “The Dairy Queen is about to close; it’s nearly half past five.”
I generally try to find alternatives to semicolons, but I don’t dislike them, as some editors do. I think they are too easily abused and misused.
But what about exclamation points! I get so excited when I see a plethora of pointy exclamations! It makes me breathless! Too many, and your reader will be thrown out of the narrative and put the book down, never to pick it up again.
We shouldn’t resort to creating excitement with the overuse of exclamation points. I am just as guilty as anyone when it comes to peppering the first draft with exclamations, em dashes, and ellipses, because a little power is a dangerous thing, and certain punctuation has power:
Never underestimate the power of the “e-punctuation,” and never forget how easy it is to get carried away with them.
Exclamation points, em dashes, and ellipses should be used at important points. For the most part, the way you have set the scene combined with the dialogue itself will convey the tension without your having to sprinkle the narrative with ‘e’ punctuation.
Generally, dialogue worded powerfully, along with the way you show the attitude of the characters and their situation will serve to convey the emotions. Done right, you will only need one or two morsels of power punctuation. The common, garden-variety period or comma will usually serve the situation well, and won’t throw the reader out of the book.
Power punctuation can inadvertently become keyboard tics when we are laying down the first draft. They are road marks to show us how we felt when we first expressed that thought and want to just get it down on paper before we forgot it. The second draft requires us to step back and craft the narrative so that we are not relying on these signs to tell the story.
We want to show the story with mood, atmosphere, and setting the scene. The words we choose for each character’s conversation conveys their emotions, as does the way you have portrayed them. Thus, power punctuation should be used, but sparingly and for emphasis.