by John M. Floyd
One thing I try to do is read while thinking like a writer and write while thinking like a reader. It doesn’t always work, but I try. And one of the things I’ve noticed is that most of us writers seem to use too much punctuation in our fiction.
Some marks of punctuation — periods, commas, question marks, apostrophes, quotation marks — will always be used a lot, because they’re always necessary. Others, not so much. And I feel qualified to criticize, here, because I myself am probably more guilty than most. I happen to love colons, semicolons, and dashes, and their relatives as well, but I’m working hard to cut back to only several a day. The simple truth is that while the overuse of anything in fiction can be a problem, the overuse of things like colons, semicolons, parentheses, ellipses, dashes, exclamation points, etc., can quickly become distracting.
In the case of colons and semicolons, overuse can also make your writing appear too stiff and formal — especially within dialogue. (Remember, I’m talking only about overuse, and only about fiction. Non-fiction is, pardon the pun, another story.)
You colon me paranoid?
I probably am. But hey, distraction of any kind isn’t something we as writers want the reader to experience, when he or she reads our stories. Especially our crime/suspense stories. We want the writing to flow smoothly and at a good pace, with as few interruptions as possible.
One thing that can help is a word-processor “search” for certain punctuation marks after a fiction manuscript is finished. (A general colon prowl?) If you then confirm that a colon or semicolon that you’ve used is the best choice, fine. Keep it. Otherwise, consider substituting a period or comma, or even rephrase the sentence a bit.
As I mentioned earlier, I actually like using colons. I think it’s because the colon is a mark that signals expectation. When I run into a colon while reading a story, I can be pretty sure something significant is coming up next. It might be items in a list, an emphatic thought or statement, even a surprise. And I like to write that way. Again, though, colons are like mosquitoes, or hardshell Baptists — they get irritating when there are too many around.
Friday the 13th Part XVI: Jason Re-Bourne
One of my pet peeves is the use of colons in the titles of novels, short stories, and screenplays. I’m convinced, due to extensive research (usually while seated in a movie theater with an overpriced bag of popcorn in one hand and a overpriced ticket stub in the other), that inserting a colon into the title of a work of fiction is often not a good thing.
Of the many, many movies I’ve seen that have colon-bearing titles, I can recall only a few that turned out to be worthwhile. Among them are Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan. There are others, of course, but not a lot. I won’t even mention the really pitiful ones here — you know the ones I mean.
Found: The Adventures of a Castaway Who Sighted a Cruise Ship
Even non-fiction titles that feature a colon — and that’s most of them, these days — can be annoying. It’s as if the writer always follows the colon with information that explains at length what the book (or article) is about. I always sort of feel that the author’s talking down to me, that he thinks I wouldn’t have enough gumption to be able to figure out the subject of the book from a simpler, shorter, uncolonized title. (Who knows, maybe if the writer tried harder to come up with an appropriate title, a long translation/explanation wouldn’t be required.)
Thankfully, colons don’t usually show up in the titles of novels or short stories. Could it be that readers are smarter than film-goers, so there’s not as much need to spell everything out? Certainly there are fewer sequels in printed matter than in screened matter, and most movie titles with colons are sequels (including two of the examples I gave earlier).
A colon reduction procedure
Here’s a thought: Save up most of the colons and semicolons you remove from your fiction and use them later in academic papers, legal briefs, and technical manuals.
Nobody understands those anyway.