You’re probably asking, why on earth is this woman quoting Shakespeare? What does Hamlet have to do with being a writer? The truth is, I was going to call this post “In Defense of the Semi-Colon,” but I knew no one – and I mean no one – would read that, so I chose a title that I thought would get you to skim at least the first paragraph. As for those semi-colons … well, you’ll just have to keep reading to see where they fit into the plot.
Call me eccentric, if you will, but I believe Shakespeare’s advice has relevance to us as writers. Why? Because I believe most of us will be tempted to ignore it at least once in our careers, and we may regret that.
In some cases, disregarding the bard’s counsel is the result of not having fully defined “thine own self.” So, let’s start with that. I propose a few minutes of introspection to answer three questions:
1. Who am I?
2. Why do I write?
3. What is important to me? (or, to paraphrase that, What do I value?)
We all have different answers, and they’re all valid. I’ll give you my answers because – no surprise – they have a bearing on the issue of semi-colons.
Who am I? I’m a Christian writer. Though there are other facets to my life, my faith and the need to write are central. That’s how I define myself.
Why do I write? To entertain readers and to introduce them to my world view. (My world view, by the way, is one in which love heals and justice prevails.)
What do I value? Besides justice and integrity, perfect grammar. I doubt any one of you will add grammar to your list of values, but it’s important to me. And that’s where the semi-colons come into play.
In Defense of the Semi-Colon
More than ten years ago when I was still writing for the secular market I started working with a fledgling publisher. They were interested in one of my early romances to which I’d received reversion of rights, and – since that book was the first in a series that is still in print – I thought that having it reissued would be a good marketing move. It was, I believed, the classic win-win situation. The publisher would get a book that required no editing, and I’d be able to introduce some of my newer readers to that particular story.
Unfortunately, the publisher had what they called a ‘house style’ for text, and that style dictated the abolishment of both colons and semi-colons. I could live with the substitution of em-dashes for colons, since that didn’t change the meaning of the sentence, but turning all semi-colons into commas just didn’t work for me. As you can tell from reading this, I write sentences with multiple clauses, and there are times when a semi-colon is mandatory to maintain the meaning.
After a week or so of discussions with the editor, I pulled the book. Why? Because grammar is important to me, and the changes she wanted made would have turned my manuscript into one that would make me cringe. In other words, I would not have been true to myself if I’d agreed to eliminate semi-colons.
This may sound trivial; it may sound extreme. (Notice the semi-colon in the previous sentence.) I doubt anyone else on the planet would refuse a contract for that reason.
But what if the editor asked you to change the basic premise of the book, turning your heroine into a character you didn’t like?
What if an editor wanted you to change the setting and timeframe to one that was more popular but which didn’t appeal to you?
Or what if being published meant signing a contract with a company that had a reputation for being less than honest?
Would you do it?
The point I’m trying to make is that we all want to be published, and once we’re published, we want to continue to see our books in print. That’s part of being a writer. But, in my opinion, we should never compromise our principles simply to be published.
Think about that and your answers to the three questions each time you consider signing a publishing contract. The bottom line is, it’s your book; it’s your name that will be on the cover; it’s your decision. I urge you, though, whatever decision you make, to remember Shakespeare.