Punctuation marks are to writers what knives are to chefs. The more experienced the chef, the fewer the knives. It’s the same for fiction writers. We need periods for emphasis, commas to keep meanings clear, and dashes to allow for informative or humorous asides to the reader. We need quotation marks for dialogue, an occasional question mark, and a few apostrophes. Colons, used judiciously, tell readers to sit up straight and pay attention. But semicolons tell them it’s okay to let their minds wander because nothing much is going on except some dull episodic recitation.
For some reason, fiction writers in the 90s became besotted with semicolons, especially recent grads of MFA writing programs. It got so bad you could almost identify a fiction writer’s MFA school by the number of semicolons per short story. But as those writers matured and grew in confidence, they dropped the delusion they were creating complex ideas when they linked two compound phrases. Their stories therefore took on more power and clarity.
Since most copy-editors learned their trade in nonfiction, fiction writers sometimes have to be firm about keeping semicolons out of their work, especially light fiction done in first person. With every manuscript I send my editor, I include a note for the copy-editors requesting that no semicolons find their way into Dixie Hemingway’s sentences. First-person narratives have to be written the way real people talk, and real people don’t use semicolons in their speech. Giving Dixie semicolons would be like giving her hiccups.