#24: Semicolon Surgery

Dear Story Nurse,

I don’t know if this is too much of a generalized craft question—I am currently working on a short story of about 10k words, but I have problems with this in general.

I use too many semicolons.

I use them correctly, and I am very good at them, but they show up in too many of my sentences and it’s frustrating from a rhythmic perspective. I want to make sure the two clauses are part of the same sentence because the staccato of a period doesn’t seem right and changes the way the story feels when it’s read aloud, but the repetition of the structure gets boring to read.

Here are some from the last story I wrote:
  • She was sweating nervously; the effort of trying to keep her composure was nearly too much.
  • The way he looked at her made her uneasy; there was a sort of intensity to him that she hadn’t quite prepared herself for.
  • The man kept walking; she wondered if she had the wrong man.

Do you have suggestions for other basic sentence structures that work well and can be used as stand-in for the typical two-independent-but-related-clauses-joined-by-a-semicolon construction that aren’t just to replace the semicolon with a period?

Thank you so much! (I say as I realize I have written this entire inquiry without a semicolon in sight.)

—Independent Clause (use whichever pronouns you feel like today)

Dear Independent Clause,

This is a wonderful craft question. As you’ve guessed, since you’re asking for other sentence structures, the punctuation mark itself isn’t the issue. I love semicolons; they’re great. The issue is what you’re doing with language and content that leads to the use of so many of them.

For example, where I wrote “I love semicolons; they’re great” I could easily have written “I love semicolons!” and left it at that. The second clause isn’t necessary. It’s window dressing.

Replacing the semicolon with a period doesn’t make it any better. In that last paragraph, “The second clause isn’t necessary” says all that needs to be said, and “It’s window dressing” is superfluous regardless of whether it’s set off by a semicolon or a period.

This is one of the problems you’re running into. Of the three sentences you give as examples, the first two can be fixed not by removing the semicolon but by removing the clause before it:

  • She was sweating nervously; the effort of trying to keep her composure was nearly too much.
  • The way he looked at her made her uneasy; there was a sort of intensity to him that she hadn’t quite prepared herself for.

If the detail about the sweat or the look is absolutely necessary, incorporate it:

  • The effort of trying to keep her composure was making her sweat.
  • She hadn’t prepared herself for the intense way he looked at her.

“Show, don’t tell” is not one-size-fits-all advice, but I think it’s relevant here. Dig deeper into her physical and emotional experience instead of labeling her “nervous” or “uneasy”:

  • She struggled to keep her composure but feared the sweat stains on her blouse would give her away.
  • He gave her an intense look. She flinched, hating that she hadn’t thought to brace herself against it.

(“Nearly” and “sort of” and “quite” diminish the power of your descriptions, and “quite” doesn’t even make any sense; either she prepared or she didn’t. Ditch ’em.)

In both these situations, you’re trying to convey the same information two different ways: describing a reaction first, and then the situation that the person is reacting to. Since you’re doing it temporally backwards, the first half of the sentence confuses the reader and the second half fixes their confusion. This feels like a dramatic tension trick but it mostly falls flat. Semicolons are often used to introduce a concept and then justify or expand on it (as in the parenthetical above), which is fine in nonfiction, especially if one is writing an advice column for someone who’s asked for advice, but not so great in fiction, where the reader is trusting you to help them have an immersive experience.

Between the repeated information and the hesitant language, I’d hazard a guess that you’re feeling a little uncertain of yourself when you write sentences like these. If you can find ways to build up your confidence in both your ability to convey a scene and your readers’ ability to interpret your words, you’ll have a much easier time writing effectively, and I bet your semicolon usage will go down by itself.

In the meantime, when you’re doing revisions the semicolons can be a little cue to you to look for (and trim away) repetition and diminution, and to shift away from labeling your characters and toward experiential descriptions. If you’re fretting over single words or punctuation marks, it’s always worth trying to radically rewrite the sentence; listen to the part of your brain that says something about the sentence is wrong, but gently discourage the part that wants to cling to all your precious words and make the fewest and tiniest possible changes. Just the act of rewriting, or of looking for another way to convey what you want to convey, will help you understand what’s really important to you and to the story, which in turn will help you write about it better.

The third example sentence is a little different:

  • The man kept walking; she wondered if she had the wrong man.

In this case, the semicolon should absolutely be replaced with a period. The man walking and the woman thinking are two independent things. The doubled use of “man” makes that very clear. For example, these action-and-reaction variations would work with a semicolon, though a period would be fine too:

  • The man kept walking; she hurried after him.
  • The man kept walking; she felt disappointed.
  • The man kept walking; she thought less of him.

But her thought about having the wrong man isn’t about the man who’s walking—it’s about the man she’s looking for—so a period is the way to go, though I’d still use a pronoun to avoid the repetition of “man” in such close quarters. I assume there was some prefatory sentence of her trying to get his attention, so the pronoun will have a clear referent:

  • “Excuse me, Mr. Lee!” He kept walking. She wondered if she had the wrong man.

(In more formal writing I’d say “if” should be “whether” but in tight third-person narration it’s probably fine.)

In summary, your instincts are correct: you’re using semicolons when there are better options. I hope this is a useful rundown of some of those options and how to know when to bring them in. Happy writing!


Story Nurse

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One thought on “#24: Semicolon Surgery

  1. I also love semicolons and probably overuse them. I love the tip to look for semicolons and see how the sentence can be improved. Lack of self-confidence is something that I’m noticing more in my writing, and I’m sure this is yet another symptom of that!


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