Thursday, January 10, 2019

Why J.R.R. Tolkien's semi-colons became the bane of my writing existence

Posted by: Angela Korra'ti
For a while now, my wife has been going to a small casual reading group involving another household of friends of ours. I recently joined in, once they decided to read N.K. Jemisin's excellent Broken Earth trilogy. And since, hey, I like reading books, I've decided to stick around!

And to my great pleasure, the next thing we're tackling is The Silmarillion.

It's deeply amusing to me to go back and reread Tolkien, whose work I've loved all my life, now that I've published a few novels of my own. After having worked with a few editors now, and in particular one editor on all three of the Rebels of Adalonia books, I've started being more aware of editing-level details in other people's work.

Even Tolkien's. And this time through The Silmarillion in particular, I noticed one huge thing that leapt out at me: SO. MANY. SEMI-COLONS. Like, every other sentence or so.

If you've read this particular Tolkien work, you know that it's written in deliberately formal, mythic language. I've known this for ages, of course. But this time around, the semi-colons particularly stood out for me because my editor on the Rebels books very specifically made me yank a great number of semi-colons out!

I now have a much, much better understanding of where my propensity for throwing semi-colons all over my prose came from. :D

So with this in mind, I thought I'd share with you all today a list of other quirks in my own writing I know I have to keep on top of, lest they get out of my control.

In no particular order:

1) Why should I say something in twenty words when I can use a hundred instead? Verbosity. It's my superpower.

Let me underscore this for y'all: the draft of the book I submitted to Carina Press that became Valor of the Healer clocked in around 118,000 words. Its original draft was more like 167,000. I took out over fifty thousand words editing that thing down. That's a short novel's worth of words right there, folks.

When I write posts for my own site, the SEO plugin I've got complains at me about this, too. It gets cranky if I have too many sentences that are too long.

2) If I get fixated on a particular word or phrase I really love, I run the risk of overusing it all throughout a draft. Sometimes across multiple books.

I've learned about Scrivener's functionality for checking word frequency in a draft. I WILL be making more use of this!

3) I also overuse ellipses, particularly if I'm writing a shy character. This came up a lot as I was creating Faanshi in the Rebels books.

4) I find it all too easy to get into a rut with sentence structures, too. The first time through a draft I don't always catch this, but it's a thing I look out for in edit passes. It helps my prose flow better if I vary up the sentence structures and lengths.

5) Likewise with catching myself starting consecutive sentences with the same word. In fact, while writing this post, I rearranged the previous item in this list just so all the sentences wouldn't start with "I"!

This is another thing the SEO plugin on will complain to me about.

There's more I could go into, to be sure. But in the name of curbing my natural verbosity, I'll cut it off here and turn it over to you all. Particularly fellow writers, whether you write professionally or for pleasure: what are your own quirks you catch yourself doing in your work?

Angela writes the Free Court of Seattle books as Angela Korra'ti, and the Rebels of Adalonia books as Angela Highland. Either way, you can find all her books at! Or, you can find her on Facebook or Twitter. (She makes no apologies, however, for her comma choices.)

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