General Writing Tips

tips for writing books, theses (thesis), dissertations, academic documents, poetry, fiction, non-fiction, ways to write, writer’s block

The Downfall of Semicolon Use

The Purpose of the Semicolon

To allow for a pause longer than that indicated by a comma but shorter than that indicated by a period

To connect two related ideas that could be separate sentences (i.e., independent clauses)

Left Hanging

A. According to the research of Denee and Lomas (2008), the members of this “Nuclear Family” included the; father, mother and the children. 

B. Interesting to note, the research of Caspe, Lopez, and Wolos (2007), also suggest that even the low-income African Americans who participated in the research study; had great results with parental involvement and or support, yielded positive results, academically. 

Oooo, left hanging by a semicolon! I know I am not the only one to state this, but I will reiterate it. One of the most commonly misunderstood and misused punctuation marks is the semicolon. Examples “A” and “B” above provide some of the worst offenses utilizing the mark. Both sentences are split; in example “A,” a verb is separated from its object and the subject is separated from the predicate in example “B.”

Neither sentence actually needs a semicolon as illustrated in examples “C” and “D.”

C. According to the research of Denee and Lomas (2008), the members of this “Nuclear Family” included the father, mother, and children. 

D. Interesting to note, the research of Caspe, Lopez, and Wolos (2007) also suggest that even the low-income African Americans who participated in the research study showed great results with parental involvement and or support, which also yielded positive academic results. 

I made some other critical edits to make them both readable. Obviously semicolons aren’t our only problem.

 Correct Semicolon Usage

Two Independent Clauses

One of the two primary uses of a semicolon is to connect two related independent clauses (a clause containing a noun and a verb) to avoid short simple sentences. The ideas on either side of the semicolon MUST be related. Correct usage in this manner is depicted in example “E.”

E. Study participants indicated that when spiritual matters arose with students, they did not turn students away; they addressed the question or concern using their best thinking.

We could separate the two clauses into separate sentences. However, “they addressed” would become ambiguous because both “study participants” and “students” had been referenced. The semicolon not only allows us to make our sentences more complex and our writing less choppy, it allows us to use pronouns more freely as they refer to a noun in the initial clause.

Incorrect usage of a semicolon with clauses

When one clause is independent and the other is dependent, or cannot stand on its own, a comma is the appropriate punctuation, not a semicolon. See example “F.”

F. This study analyzed insect and plant biodiversity on and adjacent to organic vegetable farms on the Central Coast of California at two spatial scales; the landscape-scale and a smaller within-farm scale.

“The landscape-scale and a smaller within-farm scale” are further explaining or describing the phrase “two spatial scales.” They are not comprising a complete sentence and cannot stand alone because of their purpose. The sentence should look like this:

F. This study analyzed insect and plant biodiversity on and adjacent to organic vegetable farms on the Central Coast of California at two spatial scales: the landscape-scale and a smaller within-farm scale.

When equal ideas are separated by a punctuation mark, they should be separated by a colon. A comma is used if the ideas are adding information to and qualifying the previously mentioned concept. This is covered in another post. Example “G” illustrates further use of a colon before equal terms.

G. The Central Coast provides habitat for 482 vertebrate species: 283 birds, 87 mammals, 42 reptiles, 25 amphibians, and 45 fish.  

Complex Sentence Construction

H. The engineer found the tape player he’d heard about. He turned it on. It did not work. He called a technician. The technician had not worked on reel-to-reel players before. The technician worked only with cassette and 8-track players.

Obviously, some editing could make example “H” more interesting and read more smoothly.

H. The engineer found the tape player he’d heard about, turned it on, and called a technician when it did not work. The technician had not worked on reel-to-reel players before; he had only worked with cassette and 8-track players.

It is now a paragraph with what I call “heft,” also called substance, to it. It no longer reads like a 10-year-old wrote it. To test if one should use a semicolon or not, try taking the two clauses of a sentence and making them into separate sentences. If they stand on their own, a semicolon can be used. Sometimes, however, a comma and conjunction (and, or, but) are more appropriate. But if you are not using a conjunction, a semicolon is the way to connect those clauses.


When people think of listing items, they typically think of using commas. But what if commas are used inside the list? As example “I” illustrates, commas within lists can allow a reader to experience comma confusion.

I. The researcher conducted interviews at American River College focusing on three primary individuals: Manuel Ruedas, Coordinator of the Puente Program, T.J. Watkins, adjunct instructor and coach, adjunct faculty, coordinator of the Learning Disability/DSPS, and DSPS counselor.

According to example “I,” the researcher interviewed seven, not four people. A reader would not necessarily know that and would probably be confused by the author’s numeracy. Upon further questioning, clarity could result, as shown here in “J:”

J. The researcher conducted interviews at American River College focusing on three primary individuals: Manuel Ruedas, Coordinator of the Puente Program; T.J. Watkins, adjunct instructor and coach, adjunct faculty, and coordinator of Learning Disability/DSPS; and the DSPS counselor.

Conjunctive Adverbs

Conjunctive adverbs are words such as however, moreover, furthermore, and therefore. Sometimes such words are used within a clause and are only set off with commas; however, as illustrated in this sentence, if they separate two independent clauses, a semicolon comes before the word and a comma follows it. Examples “K,” “L,” and “M” help illustrate the concept.

K. The majority of the ethnic groups in the United States are labeled or categorized for various reasons; however, most of these categories are used to assist various researchers and governmental officials with statistical data and population changes.

L. A majority of single-parent households are headed by women; therefore, only a small amount of research is focused on single fathers.  

M. The aid of programs such as AFDC are more likely to be given to single-parent mothers than fathers since it is assumed fathers have a higher average income and, thus, have a lower need for assistance. 

Other Sites to View on This Topic

A funny, quick explanation
University of Wisconsin

Missing the Writing Boat

It is a funny title for me considering I’m having trouble with both the writing and the boats. I started a ceramic boat series a few months ago. It has halted completely due to the class I began teaching September 2. The writing I am doing is totally restricted to anything for class or work. Well, that’s not entirely true. I snuck in a couple entries in the Trifecta challenge these last two weeks.

The Class

Designing a class takes much time and my financial planner is not happy about that because it does not pay. Oh sure, I get paid for teaching the class, grading the papers, etc. But really, the amount of hours I have been putting in relegates me to a lower than minimum wage. Ah, such is the price of education.

I’ve worked in education for almost thirty years in some capacity, so I am no stranger to the hours involved in relation to the pay. I am enjoying this class very much. I have two sections; I thought I would at least get paid a little more for doing all the prep work for one class. I have gotten much more than that, however. My two classes could not be more different in so many ways, thus enhancing the quality of my learning.

Well, as they say, all work and no play…

The Need to Write

I definitely started to feel the need to write as week five of the class carried me with it and confusion and fear settled into my students. We had all reached the end of the honeymoon period. The only way I could think to make it through the muck following that was to do something quick and frivolous. Trifecta called me and I answered.

Personally, I love nonfiction writing, editing, and consulting. I love research and everything involved with it. I am not a proverbial lab rat, though.  Eventually, I need to feed other parts of me. It was amazing how much it helped to simply write 99 words or 33 words. I’m also looking forward to getting my hands stuck in clay for a bit. I need just a bit sometimes. Meanwhile, it’s off to completing this week’s lesson plans. Keep writing!!

Writing Efficiently

Most readers do not necessarily want to slog through paragraphs containing around-about writing leading, finally after three pages, to the point. I don’t know many writers who want their readers to do that, but sometimes our writing can get long and drawn out. Writing efficiently is critical in just about every type of writing – fiction, scholarly, non-fiction, even memoirs, but especially reports and proposals.

Writing Efficiency Keys

Concept Clarity

The keys to writing efficiently include clarity and writing as a writer, not as a conversationalist. First and foremost is clarity. Writers need to have a vision of why they are writing, the breadth of what they want to say, and at least a concept of how they will get there. One of my techniques for making sure I have a vision is to actually describe (in writing) why I am writing a specific piece as well as who my audience is. If I’m unable to say for whom I want to write, specifically, then I’m going to have a hard time writing what needs to be said. An audience that is too general is tougher to write for than one that is too constricted.

For example, if my audience is a provider funding programs to assist mentally ill homeless people, I will write specifically in terms the provider will understand. Among other things, I will explain to the provider exactly how I will locate the population of mentally ill homeless people I intend to help. I will spell out the characteristics of the program. I need to ensure the provider his or her money will be used efficiently and appropriately.

With concept clarity comes concise writing. The following passage has definite efficiency issues:

You’ll write down everything you can think of that pertains to the topic or the question that you’re looking to answer. Then what you do is, you go on to something else. So again, in the first pass, you just write everything that you can think of, then you go on to something else.

As you can see, the last sentence is simply repeating the previous two sentences. Most writing does not need that much repetition. The passage also has word and sentence efficiency problems, which I discuss in the second section.

Another example of a lack of concept clarity follows:

She glances casually around the restaurant. Nonchalant is the word of the day. This is a blind date and blind dates are for other women… not her. She’s not just ‘stuck-up’… she’s stuck-up with super glue.

This paragraph, the first of a story, jumps through three concepts without really telling us anything about what we are going to read. Sometimes we may begin to write just to get writing and ideas to come out, but as we keep writing, the real clarity begins. It is important to watch for that in the revision process.

Sentence Clarity

Along with concept clarity, as described above, are word and sentence clarity. Many writers write conversationally, or how they speak. It can be easy to do if one is just beginning a project or hasn’t written formally for a while. Also, conversational writing is a little more acceptable in the fiction world. However, the suggestions in this section apply to fiction as well.

What do I mean by conversationally? When we talk, we often use excess words because they’re just flowing as we speak. I consider the following words or phrases overused and mostly extraneous (there are always exceptions)

that           that is      that was     that are  (and other variations)
which        which is   which are
there are   there is  (passive)
who are     who is
in order

In this section, the red sentence utilizes one or more of the above words/phrases marked in yellow. Below it, in blue, I have the sentence without it/them.

Some may have a definition or meaning that is unique to the field of inclusive education.
Some may have a definition or meaning unique to the field of inclusive education.

kept in facilities that were run in a prison-like setting.
kept in facilities run in a prison-like setting.

stigmas of being different in school, and this is compounded when students are removed from the general education setting.
stigmas of being different in school, compounded when students are removed from the general education setting.

Silverman identified three major factors which are necessary in order for teachers to have a positive attitude about inclusion.
Silverman identified three major factors necessary for teachers to have a positive attitude about inclusion.

The blue sentences should sound tighter and more clear than the red ones. My rule for whether any of the words or phrases do not belong in a sentence is whether it sounds fine without it/them. In the majority of cases, the words/phrases I’ve identified as overused and conversational and do not need to be written.

Just Write!

Everybody needs a vacation once in a while to simply float in time, away from the typical routine. Returning to daily life, however, often requires re-entry skills. The same is true with an art such as writing. Yes, writing takes practice, regularly. However, whether you’re writing poetry, novels, blogs, reports, or even a dissertation, you need periods of time away from writing to rejuvenate the brain and writing muscles. It can be easy to let a day or more slide by without writing, thus giving yourself a mini-vacation. If you stop writing for an extended period, even a week, you may need re-entry skills.

Out of the Writing Zone

So how many days are too many before you realize you are out of the writing zone? When you are finding ways to avoid writing, it has been too many. When you are convincing yourself you only write as a hobby or you have time to finish that document if you start tomorrow, it has been too many. Have you encountered the hard stone in your stomach when you have to force yourself to sit down and write because it has been too many non-writing days? Then you have begun re-entry.

Writing Re-entry

Re-entry takes much more energy than sitting down to write every day, even if your writing produces little at first. Perhaps you think you are not writing on target. Writing anything will get the juices flowing, as they say, and eventually, what you write may be exactly what you need. When clients tell me they don’t know where to start, one of the first things with which I respond is, “Just write!” It may sound simplistic, but that is because it is. I say it along with other tips:

  • If at first you have to write about how you’re not writing, do it
  • Writing anything is better than writing nothing
  • Break the task down into portions
  • Give yourself deadlines for those portions
  • Try just writing and organizing later (does not work for everyone)
  • Go to the library or a different venue than normal
  • Change scenes or sections, i.e., work on a different part of the document
  • Re-read a section and clarify your thoughts about the story/project/proposal

Writer’s Help

I use writing for a variety of reasons from working through a creative block to producing a document. I learned the power of constant writing from Julia Cameron through her book The Artist’s Way. After working through the book, I came away with something I still use 10 years later – morning pages (not always done in the morning). Cameron suggests a practice of expelling our own critics by dumping them onto the page and “just writing.” I always do this exercise in longhand but it can be done on the computer or even via different media. The exercise is to fill three 8.5×11 pages without lifting the pencil/pen from the paper or stopping writing (except to turn a page).

If you are experiencing a block, it will inevitably show up on the page. It is stream-of-consciousness writing but what can happen, and often does, is the writing you have been struggling to produce gets uncovered. Sometimes all it does is allow us to vent our frustrations in preparation for writing. But not giving up and trusting the process is key. The point is to open the creative floodgates.

If you are at a writing crossroads, try the morning pages. They’re a good way to get out of a non-writing rut or get past the feeling of being overwhelmed. They’re a perfect way to “Just write! Then, as writing becomes a regular activity again, try some other tips mentioned to keep it fresh.

(see also this writer’s post on scheduling)