Whether you are an attorney, manager or student, writing skills are essential to your success. The rise of the information age – with the proliferation of emails, blogs and social networks – makes the ability to write clear, correct English more important than ever. Daily Writing Tips is about that. Every day we publish a new article, with topics ranging from grammar to punctuation, from..
Too often I forget to do it. But when I’m pleased or impressed by someone, I need to make a point to write them a note. Some people are embarrassed by strong face-to-face compliments. After all, if a compliment isn’t heartfelt, it may seem mocking instead. But if you think they will be uncomfortable, you can always send your compliments about them to a third party. And if you preface your compliment with “I think you’re…” or “I’ve always liked how…,” it may be easier to accept. After all, they may say, you have a right to your opinion. But secretly, everyone likes specific praise.
Here are 50 compliments, so that when you say something good about someone else, you can say it more precisely.
accomplished – for someone who has not only accomplished many things, but has accomplished them skillfully and with flair.
admirable – worthy of admiration, someone who should be looked up to.
adorable – for someone, often a child, who is cute and inspires affection and fondness, who seems worthy of love. Originally, worthy of worship, but rarely used in that sense.
affable – for someone is friendly and a good conversationalist; easy to talk to, courteous and gracious.
agreeable – for someone whose personality is suitable and pleasing to you. If they disagree with your ideas, they will do it tactfully and pleasantly.
alluring – so attractive they are like a lure, tempting and enticing. Not a compliment to be given after a business lunch.
amiable – pleasant and likable, kind and kind-hearted, sweet and gracious; literally “friendable,” since it comes from the French and Latin words for “friend,” which comes from the word for “love.”
amusing – for someone who makes you laugh, though the word can easily sound condescending or patronizing.
beautiful – for someone who is physically attractive (usually a woman is beautiful, a man is handsome), but can also describe aspects of a person: a beautiful spirit, a beautiful mind.
bright – clever and intelligent, a quick learner. The word has a positive connotation: someone with a bright mind makes for pleasant company, which can’t be said for a smarty-pants or a know-it-all.
charming – for someone with an attractive personality, as if they possess a magical charm that makes them likable.
cheerful – optimistic and happy, whose pleasant attitude is either contagious or annoying (some people don’t want to be cheered up).
commendable – worthy of commendation, praise, admiration and recognition.
congenial – for someone with whom others enjoy spending time, who is sociable, affable, and fits in well.
convivial – merry and cheerful, as at a community feast, which is the meaning of the Latin combination of “together” and “live.”
cordial – warm, sincere, and affectionate. The Latin root means “of the heart.”
diplomatic – tactful and courteous, who knows how to make peace and soothe offenses, like a good diplomat or ambassador.
distinguished – celebrated for their accomplishments, who stands out above the crowd.
elegant – graceful and refined, precise and restrained in style.
eminent – for someone who stands out as remarkable and noteworthy in their field. Not to be confused with imminent.
enchanting – for someone with an attractive personality, who delights others with their charm.
engaging – interesting and appealing, who makes others want to be involved with him or her.
enthusiastic – eager, even excited; fervent and zealous. Originally a religious term among the ancient Greeks.
estimable – worthy of admiration and respect. You would get an idea of its meaning if you misspelled and mispronounced it as “esteemable.”
fun – entertaining, amusing, and enjoyable. A compliment for those who help others laugh, not a compliment for those who are laughed at.
genial – cheerful and friendly, from the Latin for “festive.” The word congenial adds the Latin prefix for “with.”
gracious – for someone who doesn’t embarrass, who is always tactful, kind, and warmly courteous.
graceful – for someone who isn’t embarrassed, who is elegant and natural.
handsome – good-looking: usually an attractive man, but sometimes a striking and impressive woman.
honorable – worthy of honor and respect, or who is honest and principled.
inspiring – encouraging and energizing. Not as sentimental as the word inspirational so it’s more useful as a compliment.
jolly – merry and cheerful. Famously used to describe Santa Claus.
jovial – good-humored and outgoing, traditionally influenced by the planet Jupiter.
kindly – gentle and affectionate, considerate and warm-hearted. Typical of grandparents.
laudable – commendable and praiseworthy, someone who should be extolled and applauded.
likable – easy to like, personable, endearing.
masterful – skillful and proficient, a master of their craft, or sometimes a master of other people.
pleasant – agreeable, pleasing, personable. One of the most general and innocuous words in this list.
ProWritingAid is an automatic editor for your writing and works similarly to tools like Grammarly and the Hemingway editor. It looks like this:
It goes way beyond a simple spellchecker and flags up issues from incorrect punctuation to stylistic suggestions (like avoiding the passive voice).
You can type into the web interface, or you can copy-and-paste something you’ve already written. I used one of my previous Daily Writing Tips posts, 8 Writing Tips for Beginners.
ProWritingAid will analyse your text, flagging up grammar, style and spelling issues:
Viewing a Report on Your Writing
As well as addressing each of the different issues in your piece of writing one by one, you can get a report that summarises the strengths and weaknesses of your writing. Just click the “Summary” button on the top toolbar.
Here’s the start of mine:
Well – at least my spelling is good!
If you scroll down on the summary report, you can see other facts and figures, like how easy to read your writing is:
Some sections of this report will be more useful than others, depending on what you’re writing. If you’re working on a blog post, for instance, you might find it very helpful to know your readability scores. If you’re writing a novel, the section that deals with over-used words could come in handy.
Is ProWritingAid Easy to Use?
Yes – it’s simple to get started with, and the interface is clean and cheerful. When you first sign in, you should see a two-minute video that introduces you to the main features.
The different buttons along the top let you see different reports. For instance, if you click the “Style” button, ProWritingAid will show you a list of grammatical issues. If you click the “Cliches” button, you’ll see a list of clichés and redundancies.
One potential drawback is that there’s so much to explore, it could be a little overwhelming. If you essentially want to run an advanced spellcheck on your work, then you might feel that ProWritingAid is overkill.
What Does ProWritingAid Cost?
It’s free at the basic level, which allows you to paste text into the web interface and use all of the features.
If you want more, you can pay $50/year for the premium version, which allows you to analyse large pieces of work (like a whole book chapter or report) and also includes a desktop app plus add-ins for MS Word, Google Docs and Chrome.
This compares well to other similar tools: Grammarly, for instance, is almost three times as much at $139.95/year.
Does ProWritingAid Work for Different Types of Writing?
Yes – ProWritingAid has features that are useful for all sorts of writers, whether you’re a blogger, novelist, business writer, or academic writer.
Novelists sometimes struggle to use automatic editing tools, but there are features here that are designed for fiction writers.
For instance, the “Pacing” report lets you know about paragraphs of introspection or backstory that slow your story down.
You can also see your top dialogue tags – helpful if you’re concerned you’ve overused a particular tag:
ProWritingAid also allows you to set the version of English you’re using – US, UK, Australian or Canadian – and adjusts the spelling and grammar checks accordingly.
Can ProWritingAid Replace a Professional Editor?
No – I don’t believe any software can do that.
An experienced editor will spot the technical issues that ProWritingAid picks up, but they’ll also be able to advise on bigger-picture issues: whether the introduction to your blog post is gripping enough, for instance, or whether your novel loses momentum in the middle.
If you’re writing for your blog, though, or producing freelance work for clients, ProWritingAid could be a very handy tool that allows you to smooth out any issues within your writing – for instance, you might find you need to weed out some clichés or some inconsistencies.
The reports are valuable and unusual (other tools like Grammarly don’t offer such in-depth overall reports). You might find it helpful to review lists of overused words, for instance, or to look for areas where you haven’t varied your sentence length enough:
ProWritingAid focuses on helping you produce clear, easy to read text. You don’t have to adopt all its suggestions – sometimes, you might feel that your phrasing is better than the suggested change. You’ll likely find, though, that it highlights at least some issues you do want to correct.
Does ProWritingAid Work for Large Projects?
Sort of! I pasted a whole novella into both the free and the paid version of ProWritingAid. It took a while to paste each time, and the reports ran very slowly.
The summary report gave information on the whole document, but others (such as the pacing check) were only run on the first 500 words. If you want to work with long documents, you’ll definitely need to get the premium version.
The help documentation suggests tackling long documents in smaller sections, to be fair, so ProWritingAid isn’t designed to work with huge files.
Is ProWritingAid Worth It for You?
The free version of ProWritingAid might be all you need – so why not give it a go? Even if you don’t use it on every piece you write, you may find that you want to use it for important pieces (like a guest post you’re submitting to a major blog, or a short story you’re entering for a competition).
The premium version is fairly cheap, compared with other similar software, and could well be worth it if you’re a novelist or freelancer writer (even an aspiring one!). It might save you a lot of time laboriously self-editing your work.
If you’re interested in getting the premium version, we have good news. We created a partnership with ProWritingAid and are going to offer a free entrance to our Freelance Writing Course (it normally costs $49) to all our readers who purchase their premium version. You just need to sign up and send us an email (email@example.com) to claim your bonus.
Dialogue refreshes. Seeing quotation marks on a page has been proven to increase readability, which means that readers find the page more interesting. And you want your readers to stay interested. Dialogue breaks up “gray text” and gives your eyes a break too.
Dialogue uses basic rules for punctuating and formatting:
When the speaker changes, hit Return and start a new line (which Maeve Maddox demonstrates in Formatting Dialogue.)
Put punctuation, such as the closing comma, inside the quotation marks.
A colon can be used in a script, but in other forms of writing, you don’t routinely punctuate dialogue with a colon.
TOM POLHAUS: Heavy. What is it?
SAM SPADE: The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.
Here are some suggestions for more effective dialogue:
Do something, don’t just talk. Conflict creates action out of dialogue. If everything is dialogue, it’s a play. In real life, people do things while they talk, and they don’t talk all the time.
Don’t be yourself. New writers need to “find their voice,” but when you write dialogue, it’s not your voice now, but another’s. If they all sound like you, they all sound the same. Figure out what makes your characters different from you – perhaps age, life experiences, or social status – and how those differences affect their speech.
Who’s speaking, please? If it’s hard to tell the characters apart, your reader will be confused, bored or frustrated. Ali Hale gives several solutions in Dialogue Writing Tips. For example, you can have each character speak at his or her own rate, fast or slow, terse or wordy, big words or little words, long sentences or short, rude or polite. Vocabulary can also distinguish characters. They may express agreement in different ways: “Aye,” “Yup,” “Ja,” “Okey dokey,” “Absolutely,” “For sure, dude!” “Indubitably.”
Limit extreme dialect. In the 1800s, authors would represent a regional or cultural group by phonetically spelling their pronunciations, leaving out dropped endings, and so forth: “Och, dat wuz fright’nin’ an’ no dou’t!.” Unfortunately, deliberately adding misspellings and apostrophes makes your writing harder to read. Maeve Maddox and Kate Evans provide a better way in Showing Dialect in Dialogue and Writing Dialogue In Accents and Dialect.
You don’t have them with “Hello.” In fact, start your dialogue after the greeting. Leave out the fluff, pleasantries, and repetition. Real speech can be so repetitious that professional transcriptionists have special keys to avoid typing words such as “Okay” and “Fine.” Some people can have an entire conversation using only the word “Fine.” But don’t put it in your novel. Skip past the boring details. Really, it’s not the details that are boring, but the vague parts.
“How are you doing? Fine? Glad to hear it. How is your family? Fine?”
If a dialogue doesn’t advance the plot or expand the character, omit it. People all over the world say “Looks like rain” every day – everyone can agree on the weather – but you don’t need to do it in your story unless the rain would ruin an important action or object.
You don’t have to use complete or grammatical sentences. Real-life dialogue isn’t like that. People interrupt themselves, pause, change their minds, and so on.
Show their motivation. Or at least, show they have motivation, even if what it is remains a mystery. They may not be telling the truth or telling everything, but they have reasons for saying what they do.
Don’t have the maid tell the butler what he already knows. Yes, dialogue is a great way to feed details to your reader, but it needs to reflect what your characters would have actually asked.
“Is Heathcliffe Manor dark and dismal?”
“Yes, as you remember from working here for the past thirty years, the previous owner had most of the windows painted over.”
Try it out, out loud. Reading your writing audibly to yourself (or someone else) helps you decide whether your dialogue is natural. It may cause you to shorten parts of it by showing you that you need to breathe.
Avoid the info-dump. Sometimes at the beginning and the end of a detective novel, someone says:
“First, tell me everything you know about the murder.”
“Tell me, how in the world did you figure out that the butler did it?”
But an info-dump isn’t as much fun as revealing information naturally.
“This gold mirror must be four feet wide! How will we get it downstairs?”
From this one piece of dialogue, we can surmise that strangers are moving rich people out of a multi-story house.
Limit the cast. The more characters there are, the more confusing the conversation can be. If it’s hard to distinguish character voices spread through the story, it’s even harder to distinguish them when they’re all talking at once.
About dialogue tags
A dialogue tag tells you who is speaking. Writers and teachers disagree about what else it should do.
“Call a taxi,” she said.
“Taxi!” he shouted.
“Where you wanna go?” the driver said gruffly.
Some teachers want their students to choose from the hundreds of alternatives to said, telling them, “Said is dead.”:
“Stop the presses,” he bellowed.
“Everything will be fine,” Kate reassured them.
“Y’all need to meet my grandson,” she gushed.
“Only the Shadow knows,” he whispered.
J.K. Rowling is notorious for her adverbial dialogue tags, which she usually places in the middle of a dialogue. Three examples from a single page of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:
“Oh yes, everyone’s celebrating all right,” she said impatiently.
“You can’t blame them,” said Dumbledore gently.
“I know that,” said Professor McGonagall irritably.
On the other hand, Stephen King advises writers to avoid adverbs and use nothing but said: “While to write adverbs is human, to write ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ is divine.” He also says, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
Journalists are taught to use only two verbs in dialogue tags: said and asked. Adding adverbs or using more colorful verbs compromise their objectivity.
I agree with Stephen King. The word said doesn’t distract from the dialogue itself. It is unnoticed and unobtrusive. Dialogue is a character talking. A dialogue tag is you talking. The writer’s rule is “show, don’t tell,” and when you add an adverb to a dialogue tag, you are “telling.” You are also drawing attention to yourself.
When it comes to verbs, I distinguish between active verbs such as croaked or whispered and descriptive verbs such as threatened or urged. Saying “he croaked” shows your reader the sound of the speaker’s voice, something which they wouldn’t otherwise know. Saying “he threatened” is a crutch – the reader should be able to see the threat in the dialogue itself.
I never say ‘She says softly.’ If it’s not already soft, you know, I have to leave a lot of space around it so that a reader can hear that it’s soft.”
– Toni Morrison
More suggestions for dialogue tags:
Don’t use impossible verbs. Several commonly used dialogue tags represent actions that can’t really be performed while speaking.
“That’s not necessary,” laughed Bob.
If this could happen in real life, this would sound more like:
“That’s (ha ha) not (ha) necessary (ha ha),” said Bob.
Laughing and talking simultaneously is not possible.
Avoid Tom Swifties. The authors of the Tom Swift adventures of a century ago didn’t limit themselves to said because they believed in elegant variation. As a result, dialogue tags with obtrusive verbs and adverbs have been parodied in a class of puns called “Tom Swifties.”
“Someone has let the soup boil over!” Tom said hotly.
“It’s pouring rain outside,” Tom stormed.
“I’ll hold the flashlight for you,” Tom beamed.
“I prefer pancakes,” said Tom flatly.
Don’t be like Tom.
Is this dialogue tag necessary? Sometimes you don’t need one. In a conversation between two characters, the reader can assume that alternate lines are spoken by the same character.
Here’s an example from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace with some of the dialogue tags removed:
“Forgive me!” Natasha said in a whisper. “Forgive me!”
“I love you,” said Prince Andrei.
“Forgive me for what I di…did.”
Can you use an action tag instead of a dialogue tag? You don’t need a dialogue tag if you have just identified the speaker in a different way.
The detective abruptly snuffed out his cigarette. “How about you and me working together?”
In this case, he reader understands that the detective is speaking.
Dialogue is not just for fiction. Try including dialogue in everything you write, even scholarly papers and business memos. Seeing quotation marks brightens the eyes of an academician as much as anyone else. Instead of formally summarizing what your employers said to you, why not quote them word-for-word?
As you might know, some time ago we created a YouTube channel to publish some of our content under a video format. Here’s one thing we discovered: producing videos that talk about grammar and punctuation and that are entertaining at the same time is quite a challenge! That being said, we believe we are getting closer, and would love to have your feedback on the video below.
Please let us know with a comment if you like the video and if you would like to see more of those produced in the future. You can also find it on YouTube.
10 Incorrect Pronunciations that Make You Look Stupid - YouTube
Below you’ll find the video transcript, but I highly recommend that you watch the video instead of reading the transcript.
Rick: Hi everybody. My name is Rick and here are the details. We are going to hold a debate under the aygis of the League of Women Voters. Audience member: Under the what? Rick: The aygis. Audience: You mean aegis. Rick: I thought it was aygis. Audience: Misspelling aegis is one of the biggest mistakes of the ages, Rick! Rick: Well, anyways the debate will take place… Audience: Wait, wait. Anyways? Rick: Yeah, anyways the debate will take place… Audience: No, you mean anyway. Otherwise you will be referring to the many instances of stepping on a scale. Rick: Oh, any weighs. I get it. Anyway, the debate will take place on one of the islands of the archie-pelagos. Audience: Archipelagos! Rick: Then what is archie-pelagoes? Audience: I am thinking that has something to do with the bottom of your foot. Rick: I may have falling archie-pelagoes ha ha. Audience: Skip the bad jokes Rick. Please continue. Rick: Okay. You should be aware that the air conditioning there is really, really efficient. Bring a coat. It’s going to be like the Ark-tic there. Audience: Like the Arctic! Rick: It’s spelled Ark-tic… Audience: It’s pronounced Arctic! Ark-tick is the sound made by Noah’s clock on his big boat… Rick: As I was saying, you may also want to bring an earmuff as an a-cessory. Audience: Ack! Rick: Did someone step on your foot? Audience: Accessory! When you say a-cessory I expect you to mention another cessory or more cessories. Rick: Right… So if any of you have any questions just aks me. Audience: You don’t want them to do that. Rick: To do what? Audience: Axe you, although I’m tempted to axe you myself if you keep mispronouncing ask. Rick: Oh! Gotcha. Just ask me anything. In my notes I will leave a footnote with an asterik. Audience: Risk! Rick: Am I still risking being axed? Audience: The word is asterisk, not asterik. To say asterik is a disaster, Rick. Rick: I will keep that in mind. Audience: Apparently there’s plenty of room in there… Rick: We are excited to feature a famous ath-a-lete at this gathering. Audience: Ath-a-lete? Rick: Yes, an ath-a-lete. Audience: Is that a comp-a-lete fact? Rick: Huh? Audience: Athlete has two syllables. Rep-a-eat after me: Ath Rick: Ath Audience: Lete Rick: Lete Audience: Put them together. Rick: Ath-a-lete Audience: Well, I guess Ath-a-lete is better than none… Rick: Sometimes I don’t understand you. Audience: Imagine my surprise… Rick: When you arrive the landing strip will be secured with bobbed wire. Audience: Where did they get the wire bobbed? Is there a wire style saloon where you can get your wire bobbed? Rick: Are you trying to make a point? Audience: Yes, a point as sharp as those on barbed wire! Rick: Oh! Barbed wire. Anyways… Audience: Ahem! Rick: Anyway to make things more exciting we have hidden a ca-shay full of prizes for you to find. Audience: Cache. Rick: No, not cash. Just fun prizes. Audience: The word is not ca-shay, but cache. Rick: But in France they say “ca-shay”. Audience: Then they would also say “you are a-ay dope-aye!” Rick: I think this information session is done. I will see you on the archie-pelagoes. Audience: We will also see us at the Betty-pelagoes and Veronica-pelagoes? Rick: Okay, we are done here. Audience: That’s the most accurate thing you have said today.
The Oxford Dictionaries has announced that its Word of the Year for 2018 is toxic, which visitors to its websites searched for not only in isolation but as an element in multiple phrases.
Toxic, which derives ultimately from the Greek term toxon, meaning “arrow,” came to apply to poison delivered on the point of an arrow. In Greek, toxikon meant “poison arrow,” and later, the Latin word toxicum pertained to poison itself. The primary definition of the adjective toxic is “poisonous,” though by extension, it has come to mean “harmful” or “malicious.”
Although several phrases frequently used in searches on the Oxford Dictionaries sites pertain to the literal meaning of toxic—reflecting concerns about pollution—several pertain to the latter senses, including “toxic culture” and “toxic environment,” which allude to a physical realm that is unhealthy for one’s psychological (and therefore physical) health, such as a company or other organization that tacitly condones sexist or unethical behavior, or a dysfunctional domestic situation.
A toxic relationship, meanwhile, is one in which one of the parties is emotionally and/or physically abusive toward the other, and toxic masculinity is the concept of a distorted perception about what it means to be a male in modern society; symptoms of this malady include aggression and excessive competitiveness, as well as sexism and homophobia.
Toxicity is the quality of being toxic, and a toxin is a poison; antitoxin is an antidote to poison. The study of poisons, meanwhile is toxicology, and one who studies poisons is a toxicologist. (Toxic- and toxico- are combining forms referring to poisons.)
The Oxford Dictionaries also listed other words and phrases that were most frequently entered in search boxes on its websites this year, including a couple that are little known in the United States—and, interestingly, they all are associated, more or less, with toxic behavior.
One British English–centric term is cakeism, which alludes to the saying “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too,” meaning that one should not be greedy or try to have two things that are incompatible. Cakeism, by contrast, suggests that one can or should exploit two alternative opportunities at once. The other is gammon, extrapolated from the term for salted pork leg (which turns pink when cooked) and describing a white person, especially one with a conservative sociopolitical worldview, who develops a florid complexion due to the person becoming emotionally exercised about an issue such as Brexit, the controversial and contested decision by the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union.
Other terms on the list also reflect current events and reactions to them. The phrase “big dick energy,” for example, pertains to an outsize confidence that suggests that the person in question (generally, a celebrity) has such an attitude because he is genitally well endowed, though the term is applied to charismatic women, too (and the idea is not to be confused with toxic masculinity, though someone with BDE may be a toxic person).
The term gaslighting, referring to psychological manipulation to undermine a person’s confidence or sanity, is inspired by the title and plot device of the 1938 stage play Gas Light and its subsequent film, television, and radio adaptations (the titles of which treated the phrase as a closed compound), in which a man surreptitiously dims the gas-fueled lighting in the home he shares with his wife and then insists to her that the lights are as bright as usual, among other tactics, to drive her insane.
Incel is a truncation of the phrase “involuntary celibate,” describing a man whose difficulty forming healthy relationships with women (or even obtaining dates with them) leads to sexual and emotional frustration that escalates to hostility toward not only women but also the men incels resent for being successful in sexual and romantic pursuits. The term applies especially to virtual communities of men who commiserate with each other in online forums, which, as closed (and therefore toxic) environments, amplify the condition.
Orbiting, meanwhile, is when someone no longer communicates directly with another person through social media but still keeps track of that person online; the term, suggesting someone periodically looming over someone else, is a loose synonym for lurking (though lurkers usually leave no trace of their visit) and differs from ghosting—the term for a sudden, complete cessation of contact, generally from someone one has been dating—in that an orbiter leaves evidence of a continuing (and perhaps toxic) interest.
The concept of the deleterious effects of excessive numbers of travelers to a vacation destination, including damage to historical sites and the local environment as well as negative impacts on the location’s residents, is called overtourism.
Finally, techlash describes negative and hostile attitudes toward large technology companies because of the pervasive influence on society of their products, erosion of privacy for people who use them, and their inability to prevent identify theft. The term is a construction based on backlash, which means “adverse reaction” (or “sudden backward movement”), from the notion of a whip or rope inflicting pain or damage as it unexpectedly strikes someone or something when one uses the whip or rope.
For centuries, writers and critics have tried to put stories into basic categories. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut described eight of them: Man in Hole, Boy Meets Girl, From Bad to Worse, Which Way is Up?, Creation Story, Old Testament, New Testament, and Cinderella. He argued that stories have beautiful shapes which can be drawn on graph paper or fed into computers, rising and falling emotionally over time on a horizontal B-E axis (Beginning/End) and a vertical G-I axis (Good Fortune/Ill Fortune). Vonnegut explained his theory many times and you can watch his explanations online, both the short version and the long version.
Six Basic Story Shapes
Inspired by Vonnegut’s ideas, researchers at the the University of Vermont’s Computational Story Laboratory and others used various tools, including one they call the Hedonometer. Based on what Vonnegut called “emotional arc,” this online tool compares each part of a story by tracking what kind of words dominate it: either words such as “awful punishment poor blame afraid cried hate” or else “happy father garden faith home great laugh.” Graphing the “shapes” of 1,327 books from Project Gutenberg, they found six basic plots.
Rags to Riches (rise): A poor boy owns nothing but a cat, but it eventually makes him a rich man and Lord Mayor of London (Dick Whittington). SV1 or Mode 1, core emotional arc 1 Examples: The Importance of Being Earnest, The Jungle Book, The Call of the Wild, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus
Tragedy, or Riches to Rags (fall): The king’s advisor hopes to gain power by having his rival executed, but his conspiracy fails and he himself is executed by the king (Haman). -SV1 or Mode 1 negative, core emotional arc 2 Examples: The Picture of Dorian Gray, Beowulf, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Heart of Darkness, The Time Machine, Pygmalion
Man in a Hole (fall then rise): Targeted by more powerful gangsters, members of an organized crime family are shot, assassinated, and exiled, but in the end, they make an offer that the other gangsters can’t refuse (The Godfather). SV2, core emotional arc 3 Examples: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Through the Looking-Glass, The Prince and the Pauper, The Secret Garden
Icarus (rise then fall): An inventor makes wings of wax and feathers and learns to fly with them, but his son rises too close to the sun and then falls. -SV2, core emotional arc 4 Examples: A Christmas Carol, Paradise Lost, Three Men in a Boat, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, The Pilgrim’s Progress (though some of those have happy endings)
Cinderella (rise then fall then rise): A poor girl meets the prince at a ball, but she loses her slipper when fleeing at the stroke of midnight. Back home, serving her wicked stepmother again, a royal messenger asks her to try on the lost slipper, and when it fits, the prince marries her. SV3, core emotional arc 5 Examples: Treasure Island, King Solomon’s Mines, Love and Freindship (Jane Austen), The Merchant of Venice
Oedipus (fall then rise then fall): An infant prince is found by shepherds on a mountainside, becomes a king, but ends his life as a blind wanderer. (I won’t give away the whole story of Oedipus – it’s complex). -SV3, core emotional arc 6 Examples: Frankenstein, A Study in Scarlet (Sherlock Holmes), The Mysterious Affair at Styles (Agatha Christie), The War of the Worlds, The Turn of the Screw, The Red Badge of Courage
Lessons from Story Research
Arcs have curves, not jagged lines.
Events, circumstances, and cardboard people can change quickly, but real people change gradually. If a character changes suddenly and inexplicably, it isn’t believable and it isn’t satisfying. When a character is rescued by outside forces, we want him or her to be ready for it, if not to deserve it. We don’t want it to happen too quickly or too lightly. We all have problems, so we relate to characters with problems like our own. Even ancient Greeks criticized the overuse of the “deus ex machina” effect, where just when we are dying to know how they are going to solve their problems, a god is lowered onto the stage with a crane to solve them all for them.
The most successful plots may not be the most likable.
Professor Ganna Pogrebna from the University of Birmingham determined that the most profitable films, such as The Godfather, have the “man in a hole” shape. But the most profitable films are not necessarily the most liked (most people don’t like bloody murders), but rather the most discussed (as Michael Corleone’s family rises out a professional hole, he falls into a moral hole).
More arcs may be more interesting.
The Computational Story Laboratory researchers examined the number of downloads of each book to see which type of story was most popular. The winners included “Icarus,” “Cinderella,” and “Oedipus,” but one of the most downloaded types didn’t even have a name: “two sequential ‘Man in a hole’ arcs (SV 4).” That’s “fall rise fall rise,” a pattern that fits fewer books but more popular ones, such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Peter Pan, and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. But successful books can be more complex than that: Jane Austen’s Persuasion has the shape of “rise fall rise fall rise fall rise” (SV7), as does Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. And when I look at Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on the Hedonometer, I see “rise fall rise fall rise fall rise fall rise.” In Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, I see “rise fall rise fall rise fall rise fall rise fall rise.”
It never rains all the time.
It’s called an emotional arc for a reason: sometimes it’s up, sometimes it’s down. The emotional tone gets pretty low near the end of Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, when Faustus is dragged off to Hell. (I suspect the Hedonometer’s rise at the end is a false positive.) Yet the play includes comic scenes. Critics used to think they couldn’t have been written by Marlowe, but now they think otherwise. Marlowe knew that no audience can stand unabated gloom.
However young or old you are, writing can be so rewarding. For some writers, it’s a fun hobby and a creative outlet; for others, it’s a dream career. When you’re just getting started, you might feel excited but also a little daunted – where should you begin? What do you need to know and learn?
The great thing about writing is that whatever stage you’re at, you can keep growing your skills and honing your craft. This applies whether you’re a total beginner or a best-selling author: there’s always something new to learn or try.
In your early months (or even years) as a writer, these eight tips should help you on your way
Tip #1: Try Lots of Different Types of Writing
When you’re just starting out, you might not know what you want to write – you just want to write! Or, you might have a firm idea of the type of writing you’d like to do (maybe you want to be a novelist or a poet, for instance).
As a beginner, you’re in a great position to try out lots of different types of writing, without needing to commit to one in particular: no-one’s (yet!) demanding your next book. So have a go at a wide range of genres and styles – you might surprise yourself with what you enjoy. I never set out to be a freelancer (my writing dreams were all about being a novelist) … but ten years into freelancing, I still love it, and I’ve written and published three novels too.
Tip #2: Read Some Good Writing Blogs or Books … But Not Too Many
There are some brilliant books and blogs out there that’ll teach you the basics of writing (and much more): Daily Writing Tips is a great place to begin, of course! For fiction-writers, I always recommend K.M. Weiland’s blog Helping Writers Become Authors, and Nigel Watts’ book Get Started in … Writing a Novel; for non-fiction writers, the Copyblogger blog is a great read, as is Joanna Penn’s book How to Write Non-Fiction.
One trap that beginner writers sometimes fall into, though, is that they read and read, trying to learn everything there is to know about writing – but they don’t actually write! So don’t get too caught up in reading: make sure you’re also setting aside time to try out writing exercises, or to develop your own ideas.
Tip #3: Start With Small Projects, Not Book-Length Works
If you’ve never written much before, launching straight into a novel probably won’t work: either you’ll run out of steam within a few chapters, or you’ll keep writing but you’ll end up with a story that needs an awful lot of work to make it publishable.
It’s better to hone your skills on smaller projects first: think short stories if you’re a fiction-writer, or short articles or blog posts if you’re a non-fiction writer. These can be a great way to explore potential ideas and topics without committing to a book-length work straight away.
Tip #4: Write Regularly So You Don’t Lose Momentum
Some writers think you should write every day: personally, I don’t think that’s very good advice. Maybe your weekdays are very busy, because you work long hours, but your weekends are clear. Or perhaps it’s the other way round: you have some time during the week while your kids are at school, but your weekends are packed with activities.
It’s fine to set a writing schedule that suits you and your life … but do make sure you’re allowing yourself time to write on a regular basis. If weeks go by without you writing anything, you’ll inevitably lose momentum. Writing at least once a week works for most people. For those who need extra help fighting procrastination, this post has many tips to beat writer’s block.
Tip #5: Use Clear, Straightforward Words
While I’m a huge fan of words, and love the sound of some more unusual ones (eclectic is one of my favourites!) … I think that as a writer, it’s normally best to keep things simple. Even if, in school, you got extra marks for showing off your impressive vocabulary, readers frankly don’t care!
You should, of course, use the word that best fits what you mean: sometimes a precise, technical word is the best choice, even if it isn’t the simplest. But in general, keep George Orwell’s advice in mind: “Never use a long word where a short one will do,” and “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”
Tip #6: (Fiction Writers) Don’t Mix Past and Present Tense
This can sometimes be tricky to get to grips with when you’re new to writing: but if you’re writing piece of fiction, you need to choose between past and present tense.
You can tell the story as though it’s already happened:
John hurried down the street. Sue ran after him, furious. “John!” she shouted. “Come back here!”
Alternatively, you can tell the story as if it’s currently happening:
John hurries down the street. Sue runs after him, furious. “John!” she shouts. “Come back here!”
What you can’t do is mix past and present:
John hurried down the street. Sue runs after him, furious…
Sometimes, there’s a place for switching from past to present tense or vice versa – but be careful that you don’t switch accidentally.
Tip #7: (Fiction Writers) Don’t Use the Same Word Too Often
If you use the same word repeatedly within a short space of time, it can start to stand out for the reader and become a distraction from your writing. This is particularly true of unusual words (I read a novel recently by an author with a particular liking for the word “stolid”).
Here’s an example:
John locked the door before opening the letter. He could hear Sue moving around in the kitchen, just outside the door. As he drew the letter from the envelope, there was a knock on the door. “John? What are you doing in there? Open the door!”
The word “door” appears four times in that paragraph, and there’s a danger of it having a slightly comic effect.
Some words are fine to repeat as often as you like, however: little ones like “a”, “the”, “and”, “he”, “she and so on. With character names, too, it’s best to just pick something to call them and stick with it. So don’t try to remove all repeated words – but do keep an eye out for words or phrases that you tend to over-use.
Tip #8: (Fiction Writers) Stick to One Character’s Perspective at a Time
Even if you’re writing in the third-person rather than the first-person, it’s a good idea to stick to just one character’s perspective in any given scene or passage – this is called “third-person limited” or sometimes “deep POV” and contrasts with the “third-person omniscient” viewpoint that’s typical of classic 19th century literature.
Readers expect this close third-person perspective, and it allows you to give the thoughts and viewpoint of one character at a time – helping the reader to identify with that person and to really understand them.
Beyond all these tips, though, there’s one thing I want to leave you with: the fact that no-one is born able to write. You may not yet have the skills you want as a writer … but you can develop those skills.
A year or so ago, my five-year-old daughter could only write a few words (and often got her letters backwards); now, it’s fascinating to watch her fledgling attempts at writing stories, messages, and even puzzles. Just like her, you could look back a year from now and be surprised at how far you’ve come.
Wherever you are right now with your writing, keep on working at it, keep enjoying it, and keep finding new things to learn as you go along. Good luck!
According to Merriam-Webster’s website, these are the ten most frequently search terms on the site—not what is trending now, but the words that consistently rank among the top searches.
This double entry is not surprising; the confusion between affect and effect is one of the most common among homophones (words that sound alike but are spelled differently) and near homophones. Merriam-Webster advises that writers can use a simple rule in mind when determining which word to use—affect is usually a verb and effect is usually a noun—but exceptions in which the reverse is true are frequent enough to render this advice scarcely useful.
Another mnemonic to help you distinguish the two is that to affect is to have an effect, and an affect leads to an effect. Affect usually means “have an effect or influence,” as in “Will not completing this assignment affect my grade?” while an effect is something that is the result of a causative phenomenon (hence the phrase “cause and effect”), as in “Will not completing this have an effect on my grade?”
But note that affect can also serve as a noun meaning “aspect of an emotion” or “evidence of an emotion.” In psychology, to say that one presents a flat affect is to express that the person exhibits little or no emotion. In addition, effect is sometimes used as a verb meaning “bring about,” as in “Our goal is to effect a change in policy.” One can also say, “Our goal is to affect a change in policy,” but that means that one merely wishes to have an impact; to effect a change is to deliberately create the change.
As a verb, affect also means “create the appearance of,” as when one affects a sophisticated manner to conceal humble origins, or “pretend,” as when one affects not to know about something that one is actually aware of. Either sense implies deception.
The adjective affective means “emotional” or “expressing emotion,” while affecting, as an adjective, means “evoking a strong emotional response.” Effective means “producing a decisive or desired effect” and pertains to being actual, operative, or ready (and rarely, as a noun, denotes one who is effective), while effectual means “producing, or able to produce, a desired effect.”
This archaic-seeming word means “even though”; one would write, for example, “The jacket was expensive, albeit a practical necessity in cold weather.” It is one in a category of compound words combined to serve as an adverb, such as notwithstanding and nevertheless, or a conjunction such as the rare word howbeit or the common term whereas.
Ambiguous means “doubtful or uncertain” or “unexplainable,” but usually it denotes something that can be understood in two distinct ways, as when one exclaims, “I’ve never seen anything like it,” which does not inform the listener about whether the speaking is commenting positively or negatively. The first element, ambi-, meaning “both” or “on both sides,” is also seen in ambivalent (with which it is often confused, though that word means “having contradictory feelings”) and ambidextrous. The noun form of ambiguous is ambiguity.
Apathetic is an adjective meaning “indifferent” or “uncaring”; the noun form, apathy, literally means “lack of feeling.” (This post discusses this and other words formed from the root pathos, meaning “feeling” or “suffering.”)
Conundrum refers to complex, difficult problems or, more informally, a mystery or puzzle (or a riddle with a punning answer). The word is, ironically, itself a mystery, with an unknown etymology, although one theory is that hundreds of years ago, an Oxford University student coined the word to parody Latin; indeed, more than one spelling among various forms used in the word’s early years began with qu-, often a sign of Latin origin.
A cynical person is one skeptical of others’ motives or convinced that people always put their own interests before those of others. The word derives from the name of a Greek school of philosophy, whose adherents were called Cynics (from the Greek term kynikos, meaning “like a dog”); one with a cynical attitude is a cynic, and the quality of being cynical is called cynicism.
Integrity is the quality of being fair and honest (said of a person) or of being complete or sound (said of an object), as in the notion of structural integrity of something constructed.
Love is the most curious entry in this list, as it is a deceptively simple word. Love, however, can—as a noun or a verb—express a passion for anything (“I love that movie!”) as well as romantic and sexual feelings or behavior, in addition to religious passion. Loving and lovable are adjectival forms, and one who loves is a lover.
Someone who has an exaggerated sense of importance or worth is pretentious; such a person is said to have pretensions, even if only one category of pretension exists, and a pretense is a deception (as in the redundant but idiomatic phrase “false pretenses”). The word is derived from the Latin verb praetendere, which literally means “stretch in front”; pre means “before,” and tendere, meaning “stretch,” is the basis of tender (as in “tender one’s resignation”) and tendon, the term for connective tissue that stretches between muscles and bones. (Tender in the sense of “sensitive” or “loving,” among other meanings, is unrelated.) By extension, the notion of literal stretching gave way to the meanings “stretching the truth” or “acting as if something not true is true,” and one who acts pretentiously is a pretender.
Something widespread is ubiquitous; the quality of something existing everywhere or being encountered often is ubiquity.