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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!


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.

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