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Writing Better 2.0: the colon is cool, sentence flow is too

Colons are cool: they are used to help the writer convey more detail or emphasis on what they have introduced in the first part of their sentence, an independent clause. The colon is one of the most underused instruments in a writer’s toolbox, but I encourage you to consider using it more regularly. Use it between connected independent clauses or before a list, whenever the situation calls for it. The two most common uses are (1) using it after the first part of a sentence, which is technically a complete sentence on its own, to precede more detail or emphasis on what you introduced to the reader in the first part.  (2) The second most common use is related to the first, only in this case your details come in the form of a list. Two quick examples:

(1) The boy had a small dog: a miniature Great Dane.

You can see how the first part of the sentence is a sentence all its own. The second part gives the reader an important detail about the first part of the sentence.

(2) The boy had a Great Dane with unique features: it was only twenty inches tall, had long ears, a dark brown coat, and appeared to smile at you.

Here again, important details, but in a list.

Remember, what comes after the colon in the second part of the sentence must be connected to the first part, it must give a detail or details about what you presented to the reader in the first part. You can also see here above, I used a colon after the words “Two quick examples.” This is standard practice for many writers, and you can see how this usage follows the general requirement for a colon that what follows it is connected to what comes before it. Like all punctuation ought to, the colon helps the reader in terms of sentence flow. It’s all about flow when it comes to reading,  and colons can help you create a pause that will signal the reader to do the same.

ink-spill-300x200 Writing Better 2.0: the colon is cool, sentence flow is too
Spilling ink is another way to cause the reader to pause.

A few words about flow. Sentence flow is the rhythm the reader senses when reading your writing, and you want it to move like the current of a deep and strong river. Sometimes that can be slow moving, or you can get into a whitewater flow, but both are effective tactics pursuant to your specific context. With a writer like Charles Dickens, the flow is fairly slow, but in his best works it keeps you moving with interest: Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, for instance. Dickens’s flow is slower, as well, because he uses a great deal of colorful adjectives, and very insightful names for his characters, using onomatopoeia: in Greek, this word means ‘making names’. While technically it refers to the imitation of a sound, it can also, I think, point to a word with another meaning which we are more familiar with. Think of the lawyer in Great Expectations, Jaggers. His name sounds like “daggers”, and in our minds we are pulled towards that and Dickens, I suggest, knew this very well. Many of his characters’ names are created in this way. But there is the rub, having really interesting names, lots of description, and his famous long sentences, slows the reader down. But good for him, we still love his writing.

The important thing to remember is that flow is real for readers, and it either helps them or hinders them based on its quality level. I have previously given you some ideas as to what will help you create better flow, in a previous post, found here.  In this current post I have been referring to flow in sentences, but there is flow in the narrative/plot overall, flow between paragraphs and chapters, and flow in character development. These are a few of the more important instances of flow.

Keep writing!

Craig

PS – for another discussion on colons, and one I really like, visit grammar girl! There is also a more detailed consideration of the subject at  Purdue University’s Writing Lab.

Writers’ Wheelhouse: a passage from Bleak House, Charles Dickens

Charles-Dickens-1-213x300 Writers' Wheelhouse: a passage from Bleak House, Charles Dickens

Bleak House: Opening (in part) by Charles Dickens

CHAPTER I

In Chancery

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time—as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

~

You can read more selected passages from notable authors here.