Lock In

Pacing Doesn’t Just Mean Wearing a Groove in the Floor

Lock In by John Scalzi

Written by John Scalzi

I write novels. And with just about every novel I write, I try to do something new or different that I haven’t done before, in order to challenge myself as a writer, and to keep developing my skills. In The Android’s Dream, of example, I wrote in the third person for the first time; in Zoe’s Tale, I had a main character—a sixteen year old girl—whose life experience was substantially different from my own; with The Human Division, I wrote a novel comprised of thirteen stand-alone “episodes.”

And now? With Lock In? What new thing have I done to stretch myself as a writer and teller of tales? Well, I’ll tell you; it’s something I’m really proud of, actually:

I’ve written a novel entirely free of semicolons.

And at the moment, I’m sure at least some of you are all, like, yeah, okay, so what? But you don’t understand. I don’t just like semicolons; I love them like kids love cake. And I don’t just use semicolons; I slather them all over my writing. I will write sentences with not just one, not just two but three and even four semicolons in them, pausing only for an instant after I’ve written them to change them into two or three sentences, if only to keep whatever poor copyeditor who is assigned to my writing from spinning up into a totally justified rage and traveling to my house to murder me in my sleep (I also occasionally write run-on sentences). I am a semicolon abuser; God help me, I adore them so.

Which is a problem; you see, people write with semicolons, but people rarely speak with them. I started noticing that semicolons were beginning to creep into my dialogue; that was not a good thing. If they were creeping into my dialogue, it suggested that I was overusing them even when, technically, they would actually be useful and desirable. It meant that semicolons were becoming a stylistic tic; a crutch, if you will, that I was allowing to dictate how my writing was getting done, rather than being just another tool in the toolbox.

There’s another thing; semicolons create a certain sense of pace in one’s writing. There are few sentences with semicolons that could be described as “punchy”; indeed the presence of semicolon suggests rather the opposite. Sentences with semicolons are languid, or unhurried, or even draggy; they take their time to get to their point. Often that is the point; a writer who knows his or her craft knows there are times when a point will be better made by going a circuitous route. But when every sentence starts taking the long way home, even without you intending it, that’s a problem.

Lock In is, among other things, a murder mystery. It’s fast. It’s blunt. It’s abrupt in places. It’s not a novel for semicolons.

So I cut them out. I intentionally wrote sentences that didn’t need them. And when I got lazy and wrote semicolonized sentences, I tossed them and rewrote, right there, right then. It was difficult for the first couple of chapters. Then I caught the rhythm and it was off to the races. Now the only place you’ll find semicolons in Lock In are in the acknowledgements.

And yes. It seems a little silly, when you look at it in isolation. But again, the point was for me, as a writer, to break myself of a habit that shaped my prose; to make myself aware of what I was doing with my writing, and how. I still use semicolons; I still love them. But now I’m using them because I intend to, and don’t use them when I don’t.

It’s a small thing. It makes a difference.

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36 thoughts on “Pacing Doesn’t Just Mean Wearing a Groove in the Floor

  1. I enjoy how many semicolons are scattered in this article about kicking the semicolon. I think it’s a very useful bit of punctuation, worthy of use, but you’re right; no one actually speaks with semicolons. Looking forward to the new book.

  2. I had that exact problem a while back. I’m pretty sure I used them incorrectly, too (I’m not a pro yet). I basically learned when they are appropriate to use, and it turns out those cases are pretty rare. Still working on it, but I think I’ve come a long way. I think my writing reads much smoother thanks to that change, and that’s all you need to do as a writer, isn’t it? Hone, perfect, repeat. ^^

  3. I disagree; I think a lot of people speak in semicolons, and they just don’t realize it. That’s the nature of punctuation: it’s silent. You don’t voice the period or the apostrophe, the colon or the semicolon. They are structural indicators; therefore, anytime you voice a sentence with a particular structure, you are “speaking in” whatever punctuation is most appropriate whether you intended to or not.

    (This is all assuming you aren’t Victor Borge, of course: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lF4qii8S3gw )

  4. Good idea — I tend to abuse dashes myself, which is a particular problem on the Internet where you can’t guarantee that a nice em-dash will get through, since for some unaccountable reason em-dashes and en-dashes are not ASCII characters.

    1. I, too, tend to abuse dashes. However because I write a lot of mathematics—using TeX or LaTeX—I simply automatically use three hyphens as a dash. No need to worry about a proper em-dash.

  5. Great, now I’m having trouble reading the text instead of checking the punctuation signs. Working as expected, I guess.

  6. What do you mean no one actually speaks with semicolons? They speak with them as much as they do with periods and parentheses. Semicolons signify particular vocal differences from periods (typically, a slightly shorter pause and less drop in tone). How is this even a question?

    I also object to the assertion that semicolons slow down the pace of a thing. Your addiction to them has not demonstrably hampered the zippy, crisp tone of your essays (here and on your blog). Great Crom, man, if doing away with semicolons would pick up the energy of your blog, NASA could power space ships with it.

    If anything, semicolons speed things up by getting rid of those annoying full stops. It’s the equivalent of cruising through well-timed green lights instead of having to stop at every corner. (On a good morning, that cuts 25% off my commuting time.)

    Which isn’t to suggest your doing without them is a bad thing. Writers should break all habits from time to time, just to see what the difference is.

    1. Yeah, I have to dispute the notion that people don’t speak in semicolons. We absolutely do, every time we carry on from one complete sentence to another without dropping our intonation or pausing in a way that would be rendered as a period. To pick one sample sentence from the post: “I don’t just like semicolons; I love them like kids love cake.” That’s absolutely a sentence you could hear in speech, and the difference between it and “I don’t just like semicolons. I love them like kids love cake.” would be very audible.

      Folklorists, anthropologists, etc. have put a lot of thought into how to accurately represent not just the words people say, but how they say them, in print. By the system developed there, short sentences punctuated by periods are actually slower, because each period represents a longer pause. I find that if I want to make something read “fast,” it should be a long sentence, words and phrases tumbling over one another in a way that’s almost ungrammatical, so the reader keeps rushing onward. Not stopping every few words. That just slams you to a halt. It makes you lose all your momentum. (Not to mention that it starts to sound dumb.)

  7. Oh, I love me some semicolons. And dashes. Short crisp sentences have their place, but I love the impression of sustained thought allowed by the use of semicolons, as well as the interjection of dashes.

  8. Hmm, did Hemingway ever use a semicolon? Seems doubtful, given his normal style, but I guess all punctuation marks have a purpose and a valid usage, else why would they exist? But I certainly understand how usage of a particular construction can become a habit (my own bug-a-boo is parentheses)(sic).

  9. I’m making a point of simplifying my writing. If I write a sentence that requires a semicolon, colon, or relative clause, I rewrite it. I also use a different word when I can’t spell the one I wanted to use.

  10. How can anyone say punctuation is silent! Whenever I speak, I always speak with punctuation (not Victor Borge style – thanks for the links: I had forgotten how wonderful he was) so that I can be best understood.

  11. Actually, I’ve heard people speak perfect grammatical sentences that include semicolons. But I transcribe for a living, and they’re mostly lawyers, who believe in listing multiple points within a single sentence, separated by semicolons. Sometimes they get so carried away that I have to break each semicolon’ed chunk into its own separate paragraph so a paragraph doesn’t run on for 3-1/2 pages. Trust me, when someone speaks in semicolons, it’s pretty unmistakeable, and it truly IS possible.

    That said, you have my admiration for writing without them. I, too, love them too much, so I totally understand why breaking yourself of the habit would be useful. And I’m very much looking forward to Lock-In’s release, especially now that I know it’s non-punctuation-abused!

  12. The last two independent clauses—and the glaring absence of a semicolon between the two—epitomizes Mr. Scalzi’s argument gearing pace and intention. “It’s a small thing; it makes a difference” would have undermined the purpose and point of his reflective rant. Clever, cute, and worth a chortle—much like his books!

    An old Iain M. Banks novel featured characters speaking with semicolons, however, and to good effect. Something like “Yes; that is what I expected.” Took me a while to get used to it, but the semicolons never seemed gratuitous and added complexity to the characters who uttered with them.

    Most people speak with m-dashes, though—to interject asides they feel are pertinent to the conversation—and I’ve begun noticing a preponderance of those in my writing—formal or casual—when commas or editing would better serve. Orphaning direct objects to ghost transitive verbs into intransitive ones—and transforming nouns into verbs that initially befuddle the reader—are also becoming hallmarks that can only be attributed to lackadaisical, stylistic features—and only if the reader is feeling particularly generous!

    Egad.

    Looking forward to “Lock In” and hope that I won’t read it like a copy editor looking for omitted semicolons!

  13. Whatever challenge you need to keep writing is good enough for me. Not farting at any point while typing a book. Using the word ‘squeeee’ every fourth word. Writing a book blindfolded and then publishing it without editing. Writing a book with grease from a sausage link on paper towel. Writing a short story while Wil Wheaton hits you incessantly with a fun noodle. Writing a book while participating on Survivor. I’ll stop now.

  14. Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote a novel with no e’s.

    I understand what S did and why he did it, but I don’t understand the general beef with semi-colons. The feeling I get is that people don’t like semi-colons because they seem “all fancy smart and stuff” and they (they people) are not really sure if they (the offending marks) are being placed correctly or not.

    And what’s this thing about not speaking with semi-colons? Thanks to the posters who got there before me on this one (and left the sign riddled with bullet holes).

    I don’t get this. Never have, never will.

  15. Semicolons are a useful pacing tool. Remember, they mean “half-ass,” so if you imagine yourself pausing your thought to show your reader a single cheek, to ensure they’re paying attention, you’ve got the right idea.

  16. I really love that this article doesn’t just dismiss the usefulness of languid punctuation or suggest that punchy writing is always what is called for, but explains *why* it would have been the wrong thing for this particular piece of writing.

    So often what would otherwise be useful writing advice ends up being “THIS IS HOW THE GOOD WRITING IS DONE” rather than “here is a useful arrow to keep in your quiver, and here are some situations where you would use it.”

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