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John Jenkins March 10


The March column from the former editor of Writers' Forum

John JenkinsAs a publisher and editor I have been answering queries from writers for something like 20 years and as a result I have recently published a book FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers.


Keep the pot boiling with a biography

By John Jenkins

APART from urging my creative writing group to write every day and keep a notebook, I also urge them to have two pieces of writing on the go simultaneously.

When you are struggling with a novel or a short story and hit a rough patch, it’s always a relief to know that you can turn to something else and at least convince yourself that precious writing time is not being wasted.

To the inevitable question: what other piece of writing do you suggest?… I always reply: a biography or family history.

If the antics of Wayne Rooney can take up 80,000 words at the ripe age of 22, what’s stopping you?

Five members of my latest group, that’s about a third of them, have taken the advice to heart. One has already written a haunting tale of life in London’s East End and the army through the war years, and self published it to satisfaction.

Another has combined her talents in a cathartic exercise to deal with huge childhood problems which led to severe anorexia and low esteem. The encouragement and plaudits of the group mean that she now has no reason for low esteem. Her writing and courage are held in the highest regard.

Two others have taken advice to heart and have been rollicking through family events which would provide grist for Dostoevsky or Catherine Cookson. Don’t scoff. Those two authors from opposite ends of the literary pantheon share a shrewd eye for reporting on human frailties and fortitude.

The honesty and courage which these members of my group show is astonishing. Every tutor dreads working with people who can write but have nothing to say and conversely people who have plenty worthwhile to say but cannot write.

This time I feel like a prospector panning for gold who has found not grains, but nuggets.

What advice must you follow when writing a family history? Exactly the same as you would for writing a first class biography or novel. Thorough research, a beginning that grips the reader, great characters, a worthwhile theme and an ability to entertain and inform.

Remember, too, that the devil is in the detail. And characters who have had a profound affect on your life must be as clear to the reader as they would be to a director if commissioned to make a film of your book without discussing it directly with you.

Try it. Plan it. Research it. Do it.

Don’t lose sleep over the semicolon

As a postscript, can I make an effort to put the semi colon in its place?
The semicolon was invented by Italian printer Aldus Manutius to separate words of opposed meaning, and to indicate interdependent statements.

The earliest general use of the semicolon in English was in 1591. Ben Jonson was the first notable English writer to use them systematically. Shakespeare (1564-1616 or thereabouts) didn’t use them, although some idiots have put them in later editions of his sonnets. The modern uses of the semicolon relate either to the listing of items, or to the linking of related clauses.

Semicolons are followed by a lower case letter, unless that letter is the first letter of a proper noun. They have no spaces before them, but one space after. Applications of the semicolon in English include: Between closely-related independent clauses not conjoined with a coordinating conjunction:

"I went to the swimming pool; I was told it was closed for routine maintenance."
"I told Ben she's running for the hills; I wonder if he knew I was joking"
"A man chooses; a slave obeys."

Between independent clauses linked with a transitional phrase or a conjunctive adverb:
"I like to eat cows; however, I don't like to be eaten by them."

Between items in a series or listing containing internal punctuation, especially parenthetic commas, where the semicolons function as serial commas:
"She saw three men: Donald, who came from New Zealand; John, the milkman's son; and George, a gaunt kind of man."
"Several fast food restaurants can be found in each of London, England; Paris, France; Dublin, Ireland; and Madrid, Spain."

I think Aldus should have stuck to inventing brilliant typefaces and left the punctuation to Shakespeare.

Here is the view of the noted grammarian, Robin L Simmons

‘The semicolon [ ; ] is a powerful mark of punctuation with three uses.

The first appropriate use of the semicolon is to connect two related sentences. Here is an example:

Grandma still rides her Harley motorcycle; her toy poodle balances in a basket between the handlebars.

A semicolon can also team up with a transition—often a conjunctive adverb—to connect two sentences close in meaning. Check this example:

My father does not approve of his mother cruising around town on a Harley motorcycle; however, Grandma has never cared what anyone thinks.

Finally, use the semicolon to avoid confusion when you have complicated lists of items. Read the following example:

On a Harley motorcycle, my grandmother and her poodle have travelled to Anchorage, Alaska; San Francisco, California; and Tijuana, Mexico.

Keep these three things in mind when you use a semicolon:

The two main clauses that the semicolon joins should be closely related in meaning. Don't capitalize the word that follows the semicolon unless that word is a proper noun, one that is always capitalized. Limit your use of semicolons; you should not scatter them wantonly throughout your writing. Semicolons are like glasses of champagne; save them for special occasions.’

I totally agree with Simmons in that sentiment..

Fashion often affects punctuation. Few writers now use parentheses. Instead they will use commas or dashes. Example:

Challenging the Prime Minister (and not for the first time) David Cameron failed to force him to apologise.

Challenging the Prime Minister – and not for the first time – David Cameron failed to force him to apologise.

Challenging the Prime Minister, not for the first time, David Cameron failed to force him to apologise.

I prefer the second usage but all are correct.

As for the colon, this is now often followed by a capital letter when emphasis is required. Example:

Among Britain’s leading newspapers are: The Times, Daily Telegraph and Observer.

You can also use colon and a dash :- when setting out a tabulated list.

Aldus was not only a superb typographer but also a considerable scholar who saved and revived many Greek and Latin classics.

If you have a question you would like John to answer please email it to:

The latest book from John Jenkins is FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers

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