Semicolon Surgery and
5 Other Writing Tips
© 2000 by Marilyn D. Davis
If you find yourself in a muddle over the words "you're/your," or it's/its confusing when to use these blasted contractions, you are not alone. Many authors have trouble with the simplest rules of grammar, and overlook easy-to-remedy composition quirks that detract from finished stories and articles. Check out the tips and examples below, chuckle along the way, and see if you recognize your writing.
1. Labor(ious) Contractions
Remember, the apostrophe stands in place of a letter or letters. So if you can substitute the phrase "it is" and the sentence still makes sense, use the contraction "it's." If you can substitute the phrase "you are" with similar results, use "you're."
A) The cat licked its fur. (Do not use "it's" because "The cat licked it is fur" doesn't make sense...to most of us.)
B) Tell me if you're feeling cold. (Use "you're" because "Tell me if you are feeling cold" makes perfect sense, particularly if you work in my arctic-like office.)
2. Readers are not this DUHmb
When writing about an incident, avoid telling the reader what he or she can infer from the words.
A) Sophie threw her dinner plate across the kitchen and stormed out the back door. She was really angry. (Omit that last sentence please! It's the rare individual who behaves in this way when she's feeling calm, unless, of course, there are hormonal factors involved.)
B) When it was time to leave the house, Alfred didn't want to go. He barricaded himself in the bedroom and hid under his covers, handcuffed to the bedpost. (Sounds like me as a teenager, before every orthodontist appointment. But can you guess which five words aren't needed? Hint: the first one is "Alfred.")
3. Those ing-things
Try to avoid overuse of words ending (oops) with an "ing."
A) She was walking through the woods, shuffling her feet. (better: She walked through the woods, shuffling her feet. Sillier: She walked through the woods, scrubbing her feet.)
B) I was thinking that I should quit my job. (better: I should quit my job. Even better: Marilyn quit her job because her first book of stories was published and she's going on a promotional tour.)
C) "I can't believe that," he said, taking a bite out of an apple. (better: "I can't believe that." He took a bite out of an apple. Biblically better: "I can't believe that." Adam took another bite out of the apple.)
4. Seeing Double Double
When a writer overuses the same words within a sentence or paragraph, they lose their impact, at best, or become annoying, at worst.
A) My arms felt so weak that despite all my efforts, I couldn't open the door. Sweat beaded on my upper lip from the effort. (It wouldn't take much "effort" to fix this paragraph.)
B) I'd love to see them, you told me. So I sent them to you. On Friday, I got a message on my machine saying how much you liked them and how you couldn't get them out of your mind all day. (I will leave "them" to your imagination. Let's just say that no body parts are involved.)
5. If you've heard it ONCE, you've heard it a THOUSAND TIMES: It's a cliché!
Use fresh images as opposed to trite phrases that should have expired before the new millennium.
A) It was a dark and stormy night. (Yes, Snoopy, this IS a cliché, but we'll forgive you because you're a dog.)
B) Her words fell on deaf ears. (What's worse than a politically incorrect cliché? Better: Her words fell on hearing impaired ears.)
C) James' heart ached for his lost goldfish. (I'll concede that an aching heart, bad as it is, beats having no heart at all.)
D) Before she realized what was happening, she ran smack dab into a suit of armor! (If you use "smack dab," be aware that your article may receive a PG-13 rating for drug content.)
6. Semicolon Surgery
This one is a lesser known error that I only learned about recently, but I thought was worth including. I have been a member of a fiction writing workshop for almost two years. Last month, during a discussion of my piece, I was told quite bluntly, "Marilyn, you CANNOT use semicolons inside dialogue." I was shocked by this revelation. How could something so small but so wrong have been scattered throughout my stories? I wanted to Fed-Ex an apology letter to the journals and magazines to which I've sent these flawed pieces. Instead, I wrote back to the bearer of bad news: "Thanks for sharing this with me, Carole, but I am sure I've always spoken with semicolons; it's just the way I talk! Now what am I supposed to do?" She told me not to significantly alter my lifestyle, adding that I owed it to my characters to make sure they don't lapse into semicoloned speech patterns. Enough said.
With a little work, you can make your writing clearer, sharper and more grammatically correct. You'll sleep better at night, and your readers and editors will love you more than they already do. Now I will check this article for clichés, sensible contractions, and unintentionally repeated words; ignore all my own best advice; and get on with my day. Have a good one. (better: Have a good-natured one. Tastier: Have a good-humored one. Sassier: If another person tells me to "have a good one," I'm going to reply, "@#$%#*@#!")