The Uses of the Colon

Last week I started a short punctuation series on semicolons, colons, and dashes. I had said it was going to be a two-part series, but I was only kidding myself. Once a person starts talking about colons and dashes, it's hard to stop. So we find ourselves not at the end of a two-part series, but spang in the middle of a three-part series: colons today, dashes next week.

By way of review, the semicolon is not a very flexible punctuation mark (though I have lots of students who find very creative uses for the semicolon). A semicolon can be used to separate items in a complex series (that is, lists in which one or more items includes a comma) or it can be used to join two independent clauses into a compound sentence. That's it: any other use of the semicolon constitutes a punctuation error.

Colons and dashes, on the other hand, are both a little more flexible than semicolons. For the purposes of this letter, I am going to stick to the uses of the colon within prose sentences and skip the many specialized uses in business memos, titles, bibliographical citations, scriptural citations, etc.

In preparing for this letter, I ran across a summary of the colon that I found very helpful: a colon signifies expectation or addition. In every proper use of the colon, you are adding something to a sentence that is already (grammatically) complete without it. The colon, then, either sets up an expectation that is fulfilled by the information after the colon, or it signals that you are about to give the reader bonus information that will add to his or her understanding of what you just said.

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What Are Semicolons for?

Habit reader recently asked about the use of semicolons, colons, and dashes. These punctuation marks can be exceedingly helpful for expressing nuance in your prose. But if you misuse them, bad things can start happening to good people. Nuance is a delicate flower; it wilts in the presence of faulty punctuation. This week's issue of The Habit is the first of a two-part series on the effective use of these three punctuation marks. We'll talk about semicolons today and colons and dashes next week.

The semicolon is not an especially flexible punctuation mark. In fact, it only does two things:

1.A semicolon separates items in a series IF at least one item in the series contains a comma.
This is sometimes called the "complex series" use of the semicolon.  

2.A semicolon joins two independent clauses into a compound sentence.
An independent clause is simply a clause (that is, a string of words containing a subject and a verb) that can stand on its own as a sentence.

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The Man Who Planted Trees

My father-in-law died yesterday after a long and courageous fight with cancer. He was a man of remarkable imagination and vision, and his sanguine attitude toward long-term projects is an example to writers and to anyone else who might feel called to bite off more than they can chew. In his honor, here's a piece I wrote about him a few years ago.

Until recently, my in-laws had a farm in South Georgia. When they bought the place, its charms weren't altogether obvious to the casual observer. It was scrubby where it wasn't planted in pines and swampy where it wasn't scrubby. But my father-in-law made it the work of twenty years to beautify the place.

When he planted pines, he planted longleaf, the tree that once shaded all of South Georgia--indeed, the tree that towered over nearly every mile of Hernando Desoto's path from Florida through the Deep South to the Mississippi River.

By the time my father-in-law was born, the longleaf had been logged to near-extinction; when the trees were replaced at all, they were replaced by faster-growing slash and loblolly pines, which produce income twice as fast as longleaf, but always fall well short of the longleaf's native majesty. Much of South Georgia's wealth and beauty had once been attached to the longleaf pines, before they were felled and floated down the Ocmulgee and Altamaha to the ocean, then shipped away to be the ribs of great buildings far away from Georgia.  My father-in-law loves his native country; no wonder he planted longleaf. If they take forty years to grow to maturity--well, then, they take forty years. He is a man of imagination and hope.

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The Stories We Live In

Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell's classic essay, "Politics and the English Language." In it, Orwell makes the case that vague, abstract, usually Latinate language is an important tool in the dishonest politician's tool-belt. 

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.

If you've read more than two or three issues ofThe Habit, you are probably aware of my ongoing campaign against vague, abstract language. I agree with Orwell that fuzzy, imprecise language fosters the kind of fuzzy, imprecise thought that allows the worst kind of politician to flourish. 

But lately it has occurred to me that my exhortations to clear, concrete storytelling are incomplete. If storytelling is the most effective vehicle of truth (and I believe it is), it is also, and for the same reasons, the most effective vehicle of falsehood. "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity," Orwell wrote. True enough. But that doesn't mean that all clear, concrete, specific language is sincere.

Storytelling, whether fiction or non-fiction, has a unique power to reframe a reader's or listener's sense of reality. It says, in effect, "I know you have a lot of ideas about the story you're living in, but consider the possibility that you are living in a different story altogether."

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Write Better Description

A couple of weeks ago, I hosted my first webinar, on writing vivid description. I wanted to share an example from that webinar with those of you who weren’t there.

I try not to teach from negative example, but this one sentence manages to violate all four of my guidelines for good description, so I thought you would find it instructive. Allow me to mention that this sentence was written by a person who actually writes quite well. We all have our slip-ups; and as you are about to see, this sentence is only a slip-up, not a spectacularly bad piece of writing. Here it is:

Humble little town homes sat situated above unique cafes on these quaint roads, right where renowned scholars and thinkers and poets had once walked.

See? This isn’t flagrant. It’s the kind of writing you see all the time, and under normal circumstances you might pass right by it and not think about it one way or another. And that’s part of the problem—the reader wouldn’t think about this description one way or another, or envision anything either.

Remember, when you write, you are inviting a reader into a scene. Good description offers experience to the reader in a way that approximates the way experience comes to us in the world God made—through the senses.

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A Word of Thanks for Eugene Peterson

Yesterday one of the dearest saints of our era stepped into the Long Hello. Eugene Peterson, a pastor, teacher, theologian, and writer died after a long illness. Here’s the story from Christianity Today. It draws on a beautiful account by the Peterson family, which reads, in part:

Among his final words were, ‘Let’s go.’ And his joy: my, oh my; the man remained joyful right up to his blessed end, smiling frequently. In such moments it’s best for all mortal flesh to keep silence. But if you have to say something say this: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy.’”

Yes. Holy, Holy, Holy. But also, I want to say a few words about what Eugene Peterson’s work has meant to me. 

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Some Tips for Portraying People

Last week one of my Writing with Flannery O'Connor students asked,

Do you have any tips for describing people's physical appearances and expressions? I've been trying show, not tell, their personalities and emotions, but I'd like to avoid cliches such as 'she had a heart-shaped face' or "his eyes shone." 

That's an excellent question; it can be very hard to convey a character's physical appearance. So I thought I'd share my answer with the rest of you.

When you are describing anything in writing--a person's face, a room, a landscape, anything, really--it is important to ask yourself how much description you need. Your goal is to give your reader just enough to look at so that he feels that he can envision the scene. But it's a bit of a magic trick, and a bit of a balancing act, because you are actually just giving the reader the impressionthat he can envision the scene. If you provide too much detail, you actually pull the reader out of the scene. 

When it comes to describing a person's physical features, one or two interesting or unusual features are worth a whole lot more than five or six forgettable physical features. 

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In Which I Shape Young Minds

I once gave a class of creative writers an assignment that required them to write about their hometowns. There was some groaning, so I reminded them that while many of us tend to think of our hometowns as ordinary places not worth writing about, in truth there are no ordinary places, and every place, if you just pay attention, will give you more than enough to write about. I don’t remember specifically, but I probably quoted Wendell Berry: “There are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places.”

It wasn't long before one of my students raised her hand: “But what if you’re from a place that actually is just a stereotypical little town?”

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Every Sentence Is a Promise

Last week’s issue of The Habit had a typo in the subject line. THE SUBJECT LINE! “A New Way to Grow as a Writers,” it read. A typo in a subject line is painful in any case, but given the fact that the whole purpose of the email was to announce Field Notes for Writers, my new subscription-based model for online writing courses—well, the phrase “dark night of the soul” comes to mind. Almost none of you have mocked me to my face, however, and for that I am grateful.

I’ve been telling myself what I would tell anybody in the same situation: typographical errors happen to us all; it's nothing to get too exercised about. Still, I’ve been thinking all week about why that phrase, “A New Way to Grow as a Writers” is so bothersome. It is bothersome in the way that the phrase 2+3=6 is bothersome.

We human beings crave symmetry and harmony and balance. We can tolerate discord, but only for so long: we want resolution. 

The equal sign in the middle of a math equation is a kind of promise. It says, Whatever the complexity that appears to the left of this sign, I can show you a simpler, more comprehensible equivalent to the right of this sign

The equal sign is also a commentary on the powers of the human mind. It says, The world is a complicated place with an impossible number of variations. But watch what happens when the human mind goes to work on it: Symmetry. Order. Harmony. 

When you see that an equal sign has not kept its promise, you feel the inequality as unresolved discord, just as surely as you feel it when a piece of music fails to resolve. That is to say, the trouble you feel when you see 2+3=6 is aesthetic trouble, not just cerebral trouble.

Like the equal sign, every sentence makes a number of promises. At every level, writing promises to bring order out of chaos.

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A New Thing: Field Notes for Writers

I am doing a new thing. I am happy to announce an online subscription plan I call Field Notes for Writers. It's an ever-growing library of writing resources—online courses, podcasts, videos, teaching webinars—and (hopefully) a hub of community for writers of all skill levels. 

The cornerstone of the subscription is Grammar for Writers, a new 42-lesson course designed to help writers fear less fear about getting grammar wrong and instead feel the freedom in the flexibility that our complicated language affords. 

This 3-and-a-half minute trailer gives a good idea of what you can expect from Grammar for Writers.

Grammar for Writers, as I mentioned, is 42 lessons long. But not all of those lessons are currently available. (As it turns out, writing and filming a course goes quite a bit more quickly than video editing). I am releasing the first five lessons now and will be releasing five to eight new lessons a month for the next several months. Field Notes members will have early access to the lessons as they are released, and will continue to have access to all 42 lessons after they are available in early 2019. 

But Grammar for Writers is just the beginning. Each week I will add new content to the library according to the following rotation:

Week 1: Live Teaching webinar. In these webinars I will cover topics suggested by Field Notes members. Webinars will be recorded and added to the content library. The first of these webinars will be this Thursday night, September 27, at 7:30pm Central. It will be open to all, not just subscribers. (I'll send out an email with more details and a registration link in the next day or so.) I should point out that this is a webinar for teaching, not for selling. I will offer a subscription link at the end, but I promise this won't be one of those webinars that purport to teach but end up being a hard sell. 

Week 2: Line Edits Video. From teaching my online classes, I have quite a collection of student papers. Once a month, I will be taking one of those papers (with the permission of the writer) and walking through my suggested revisions—what I suggested and why I suggested it. 

Week 3: Comparing Notes Podcast. Once a month, I will release a short podcast episode in which I sit down with a writer friend and compare notes about writing. (I am happy to report that I have quite a few very interesting writer friends.) The first episode, which is already up, is my conversation with Rebecca Reynolds, author of the newly released Courage, Dear Heart: Letters to a Weary World. If you don't have this book, you need to get it immediately

Week 4: More lessons from Grammar for Writers.

Then cycle starts again. That's new content every week. I'm mighty proud of this content. I think you're going to get a lot out of it. I have put together a free sampling of the content that's on offer—one lesson from Grammar for Writers, one episode of Line Edits, and one episode of Comparing Notes; within a few days of this Thursday night's webinar, I plan to add the recording of the webinar to the sampler.

The cost of the subscription is $11.95 a month. You can save 17% (and help me pay the video editor) by subscribing for the year at $119. If you're ready to subscribe, you can do that here. Or, again, you can check out the free content here, and if you like what you see, you can subscribe from there.

I'm excited about being able to offer this subscription at such a low monthly rate. Hopefully it's not a painful entry point, and I feel quite confident that I can offer you enough value that it seems like a no-brainer to keep your subscription. 

I should mention that Writing Close to the Earth and Writing with Flannery O'Connor, my "legacy" online offerings, will not be included in the subscription library. Those courses require weekly involvement from me that I won't be able to offer to a large group (or at such a low price!). There is still a section of Writing Close to the Earth coming up before the end of the year. I have not yet decided how often I will offer Writing with Flannery O'Connor and Writing Close to the Earth after the New Year.

Finally, a word about The Habit. Nothing will change about this weekly newsletter. You will still get it on Tuesday mornings, and it will still be free, just as it has been from the start. Field Notes for Writers will be a little more intense and will provide opportunities to interact with other writers, but if The Habit is all you want, that's fine too. I'm just happy to be able to give you something that does you good.

Actually, there's one more thing. It's not easy to get a new project like this off the ground. Would you be willing to help spread the word about Field Notes for Writers? If you were to forward this letter to somebody who might be interested, or share it on social media, that would mean a lot to me. Or you could just share the Grammar for Writers trailer by sharing this link: Or both!