Hi, my name is Kelly, and I haven’t used an em-dash in three paragraphs.
In case you are unfamiliar with this favorite of fiction writers, the em-dash—often typed as two hyphens next to each other—is used to set off parenthetical information, as I did in this sentence, or to indicate a break in—
What? Mommy’s typing. No, you cannot have more chocolate.
The em-dash also indicates a shift or break in character thought or speech…like my interruption above. Another pet punctuation authors overuse are ellipsis points, often “used to suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion or insecurity” (Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, p.457). Em-dashes differ from ellipsis points in that they indicate “interruptions or abrupt changes in thought” (ibid.).
I bring this up not to point fingers at any particular author I may have edited so much as at myself, in hopes that my experience will help others tidy their manuscripts.
My writing suffers from waaaay too many em-dashes. My crit partners pointed out that I’d used them in place of a comma that would have been a comma splice, anyway, sticking together two independent clauses.
How to solve? I like my em-dashes. I really like my em-dashes. A step away from the work was needed. I brought up “find,” typed in an em-dash, and used “highlight” to turn them all dark blue, a blotted out square in my text.
Do this, and then read the individual sentence that used to have an em-dash but now has a dark blot instead. You may leave in any em-dashes paired around parenthetical information or any that end a sentence with an interrupted thought or quotation.
For the others: How would you punctuate it if you could not use an em-dash? Is it two separate, complete sentences? Why not break them up? Would a comma suffice? How about a semicolon?
Tricky bugger, the semicolon. If dialogue, best to avoid them; but used properly in narrative, they take the place of a conjunction to join two independent clauses. You may also use them before a conjunction to set off an independent clause that has internal punctuation, as I did in the above sentence.
The same blot-out technique can be used for ellipsis points as well.
Yellow Faery Editor