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..
Sic in square brackets is an editing term used with quotations or excerpts. It means “that’s really how it appears in the original.”
It is used to point out a grammatical error, misspelling, misstatement of fact, or, as above, the unconventional spelling of a name.
For example, you might want to quote the printed introduction to a college catalog:
Maple Leaf College is well-known for it’s [sic] high academic standards.
Sic is the Latin word for “thus,” or “such.”
When John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln and jumped from the balcony to the stage of Ford’s Theatre, he is said to have shouted “Sic semper tyrannis!” He meant “that’s what tyrants get;” literally, “Thus always to tyrants.”
Another common Latin expression you might come across is sic transit gloria mundi. It means “thus passes the glory of the world.” It’s a thought that might occur as one stands by a crumbling pyramid or where the Twin Towers once stood in New York City.
Where I grew up, people who wanted a dog to attack said “sic ’em!” I’ve seen it in a dictionary spelled “sick,” as in “sick him!” This use is first recorded in 1845 and may come from a dialectal version of seek, “to look for” or “to pursue.”
[sic] in newspapers
Bernheimer wrote: “Salonen isn’t one of those conductors who pretends ( sic ) not to read criticism.” And “Salonen is not one of those lofty musicians who believes ( sic ) that art can survive in a vacuum.” — LA Times
Neither does our president. In his first tweet as POTUS — posted at 11:57 a.m. on Jan. 21 — @realDonaldTrump tweeted, “I am honered [sic] to serve you, the great American People, as your 45th President of the United States!” (He later deleted the message.) — LA Times
In the handwritten letter, Corbett writes to Bullock: “You could of (sic) had me today however you choose other people over me. I’ll be around as you know. I love you.” — USA Today
What Does [sic] Mean? - YouTube
Should You Use [sic] in Your Piece of Writing?
Since [sic] is designed to draw attention to something that may be misspelled, incorrect, or at the very least unusual, it may not always be appropriate to use it when you’re quoting someone. It depends on what you’re writing and on your relationship with the person being quoted.
If you’re writing an academic paper, then [sic] is almost always appropriate where necessary: it makes it clear that any error or mistake is not your own, or it highlights an unusual spelling that readers might otherwise assume is incorrect.
If you’re quoting someone in a newspaper report, you might consider it necessary to use [sic] to ensure that you preserve the accuracy of the quote whilst also making it clear to readers that you do, in fact, know that “would of” is ungrammatical.
In other contexts, though, you might seek an alternative to using [sic]. Perhaps you’re quoting someone you admire in a blog post, and you don’t want to inadvertently make them look or feel bad.
Another common situation where you might use quotations is in testimonials from customers or clients. Again, you’re unlikely to want to make these people feel that you’re pointing out their mistakes.
If you’re writing something that’s fairly informal, like a chatty opinion column for a website, you might also find that the use of [sic] could come across as a little formal and stilted.
Finally, if you want to introduce a quick, brief quote that doesn’t draw attention away from your own writing, you may feel that using [sic] is a little distracting for the reader.
Alternatives to Using [sic]
In any of the above situations, or in any other instance when you’d prefer not to use [sic], good alternatives include:
Ignoring the problem altogether, and using the quotation as-is – even if something is not entirely grammatical or correct.
Omitting the problematic part of the quotation (especially if it’s relatively unimportant) by using […] to signify an omission.
Lightly editing the quotation to fix the issue, if it’s a simple spelling mistake or obvious grammatical error.
Contacting the person you’re quoting to let them know that there’s a small mistake in a piece of their writing (if you’re quoting from a website, ebook, or something else that’s easy for them to fix). You could do this in conjunction with any of the above methods, if you want to use the quotation immediately.
Ultimately, there is no rule that you must use [sic] – so consider whether it’s appropriate for your context and purposes.
Also, of course, if you are going to use [sic] when quoting someone or sharing an excerpt of a piece of writing, do be very careful that you have the correct facts (or correct spelling). If you use [sic] because you’ve misunderstood an unusual word or a point of grammar, then that could look a little silly.
Using [sic] Correctly
Select the appropriate place for [sic] to go in each of these (fictitious) quotations:
1. “The childrens were playing on the slide.”
At the end of the sentence
2. “On a better day, I would of liked to help.”
3. “There are no trains on mondays or at weekends.”
Commas can be a particularly tricky punctuation mark. There are some cases where you know you should use a comma – such as when separating items in a list – but there are other times when you might be unsure whether or not a comma is needed.
While there’s some degree of flexibility in how commas are used, it’s important to have a clear grasp of the rules.
Seven Places Where You SHOULD Use Commas
Rule #1: Use Commas to Separate Items in a List
This probably the first use of commas you learned in school: separating items in a list of three or more things.
Here’s an example:
The cake mix requires flour, sugar, eggs, and butter.
Note that some style guides would not add the comma after the word “eggs”. For more on this, see Rule #8.
Rule #2: Use a Comma After an Introductory Word or Phrase
On the other hand, it might be best to wait until next week.
Rule #3: Use a Comma Before a Quotation
You should always put a comma immediately before a quotation:
He said, “It’s warm today.”
John Smith told us, “You can’t come in after ten o’clock.”
Rule #4: Use a Comma to Separate a Dependent Clause That Comes BEFORE the Independent Clause
A dependent clause, or subordinate clause, is one that can’t stand alone as a whole sentence. It should be separated from the independent clause that follows it using a comma:
If you can’t make it, please call me.
After the race, John was exhausted.
However, it’s normally not necessary to use a comma if the independent clause comes first:
Please call me if you can’t make it.
John was exhausted after the race.
For more on this, plus an example of an instance where a comma is required after the independent clause, take a look at Subordinate Clauses and Commas.
Rule #5: Use a Comma to Join Two Long Independent Clauses
Normally, you should put a comma between two complete sentences that are joined with a coordinating conjunction (and, or, but, for, nor, so, yet) that creates a single sentence with two independent clauses:
Sue didn’t know whether she had enough money in her account to pay for the groceries, so she went to an ATM to check her balance.
John was determined to get the unicorn slime his daughter wanted, but all the shops had sold out.
You don’t need a comma if both the independent clauses are relatively short and similar in meaning:
Sue went to the shops and John went home.
Rule #6: Use Commas to Set Off an Nonessential Element within a Sentence
Sometimes, you might want to include extra information within a sentence that isn’t essential to its meaning. You should set this information off using a comma before and a comma after it:
John went for a jog, which took half an hour, before having a long hot shower.
Writing a book, if I haven’t put you off already, is one of the most rewarding things you can do.
The sections in bold could be removed from the sentences completely and it would still make perfectly good sense. You could also use dashes in this context:
John went for a jog – which took half an hour – before having a long hot shower.
Dashes are useful if you want to imply a longer pause, or draw more attention to the nonessential element of the sentence. They’re also useful if you have several other commas in the sentence, to help avoid confusion.
Rule #7: Use Commas to Separate Coordinate Adjectives
When you’re describing something with two or more adjectives, you can use a comma between them if those adjectives are coordinating. (They’re coordinating if you could place “and” between them.) You shouldn’t put a comma after the final adjective.
He’s a cheerful, kind boy.
A comma is used here, because it would also make sense to say, “He’s a cheerful and kind boy”.
There’s a blue bath towel on your bed.
Here, “bath” is acting as an adjective to modify “towel”, but it’s not coordinate with “blue”. It wouldn’t make sense to say, “There’s a blue and bath towel,” so no comma is used.
Rule #10: Don’t Separate a Compound Subject or Compound Object With Commas
If you have a compound subject or a compound object in a sentence that consists of two nouns, you shouldn’t separate the parts of it using commas.
Incorrect: The rain poured down on John, and Sue.
Correct: The rain poured down on John and Sue.
Incorrect: The rain, and the wind battered the house.
Correct: The rain and the wind battered the house.
I hope this helps you make more sense of commas. They’re a tricky punctuation mark because they’re used in so many different contexts. Many writers do struggle with them, so don’t feel bad if you find them hard to get to grips with.
If you’re finding commas particularly tricky, though, you might want to use an app like ProWritingAid (reviewed here) to help check your writing. As well as helping you ensure your writing is correct, this will make you more aware of when you’re not using commas correctly.
Whatever you write: blog posts, short stories, client pieces – I suspect that, at some point, you’ve at least considered writing a novel.
Maybe it’s something you contemplate every November, when NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) rolls around. Or maybe you’ve had an idea bubbling away for years now, but you’ve been waiting until you have more time to write.
Writing a whole novel might feel rather daunting, especially if you’ve only ever written shorter pieces before. You may well wonder where to even begin.
Whether you’ve always wanted to write a novel, ever since you started reading “chapter books” as a child … or whether it’s a more recent ambition, this post will take you step by step through what you need to do.
Step #1: Choose Your Genre
In fiction, “genre” describes different types of novel. For instance, “science fiction” is one genre and “romance” is another. Within big genres like that, there are also subgenres (e.g. compare “dystopian fiction” with “space opera”, or “steamy romance” with “Amish romance”).
Some authors know exactly what genre they want to write in: they enjoy reading, say, psychological thrillers and they want to write something similar.
Other authors aren’t sure. Perhaps they have an idea for a novel that doesn’t really fit an established genre. If that’s you, think about where your book could potentially be shelved in a bookstore. What other books are similar? What books are definitely not like it?
It’s important to pin genre down before going much further because most genres have quite specific requirements. Romance readers tend to expect short novels, for instance … and a happily ever after ending.
Step #2: Settle on an Idea
You might have a bunch of different ideas for novels, or maybe just one idea that you’ve been carrying around for a long time. Novels have all sorts of starting points – C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe stemmed from an image that Lewis had in his head of “a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.”
If you don’t currently have an idea that you’re interested in writing about, don’t force yourself to come up with something. A novel is a big commitment of time and energy – you don’t want to embark on it if you’re not feeling engaged with your idea from the very start.
Do, however, be open to ideas. They might come from anything – a hobby, a news story, a very different novel, a piece of art or music, a friend’s dilemma. Wait until your idea arrives.
If you have an idea that you’re unsure about – maybe it has mileage, maybe it doesn’t – then try writing it as a short story or a novel excerpt. See if it falls flat, or if you find that you want to continue working on it.
Step #3: Develop Your Characters and the Relationships Between Them
What’s more important, plot or character? It’s a trick question, really: you can’t separate the two. The plot of a story is driven by the characters’ actions; the characters’ growth (or “character arc”) is driven by the plot.
Personally, I find it easiest to develop characters first, then think about the ins and outs of the plot. If you’re working in a plot-focused genre (like action adventure) then you might prefer to start with the plot and then develop characters to fit it.
When you’re thinking about characters, you’ll want to work out a core cast for your novel. Don’t be tempted to throw in everyone – regardless of how “realistic” it might be. Yes, your characters probably have parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, best friends … but you don’t need to include all those unless they actually have a place in your story.
One technique for working out your characters is to get a piece of blank paper and draw a mindmap. Put each character’s name in a circle and work out how they relate to the other characters. Think about their key characteristics. (Are they cripplingly shy? Dangerously hubristic?) This is a good point to start working out which characters might come into conflict.
Your story may not have a “villain” as such, but it’s likely that there’ll be some major characters who play an antagonistic role. They could be well-meaning (e.g. a bumbling office-mate), a bit unpleasant (e.g. a glamorous and witheringly sarcastic mother-in-law) or downright nasty (e.g. a neighbour with serious anger-management issues).
Step #4: Decide How You’re Going to Tell Your Story
With novels, you’ve got some crucial choices to make about how you tell the story. You need to decide on whether you’ll write it in the first person (“I”) or the third person (“he/she”), and also whether you’ll use past or present tense.
(Technically, using the second person, “you”, is also an option, but I’ve never seen a novelist pull that off! It can work for a short story.)
There’s no “right” answer about whether to choose first or third person. With first person, present tense is fairly common (“I roll over in bed and reach for the alarm clock…”) but plenty of first person novels are written in past tense (“I rolled over in bed and reached for the alarm clock…”).
Third person present tense is seen as a slightly more unusual, literary choice (“He rolls over in bed and reaches for the alarm clock…”) but if it’s a good fit for your novel, go for it.
You’ll also want to think about how many viewpoints (also called perspectives) you want to use. With first person novels, it’s fairly normal to stick to a single viewpoint, but that’s not a hard and fast rule. With third person novels, it’s common to have more than one viewpoint, but to stick with one character’s perspective for each scene, only showing their thoughts and feelings.
If you’re not sure how best to tell the story, take a look at what other novels in your genre do.
Step #5: Think About Potential Sources of Conflict
Stories are driven by conflict – with no conflict, there wouldn’t be much story! Conflict comes in different flavours. Here are some key ones:
Internal – this is when a character’s struggles come from their own mind. For instance, they might be very anxious or shy, or they might find it very hard to connect to other people due to trauma in their past.
Interpersonal – this is conflict between characters. For instance, your character might get into a parking dispute with someone else in their block of flats.
Environmental – this is conflict that arises from an aspect of the character’s environment: for instance, it could be a physical limitation that they have, a financial problem, or a snowstorm that prevents them from getting to work.
Obviously, the different types of conflict can overlap – a financial problem might lead to interpersonal conflict (e.g. one spouse hiding difficulties from another) and to internal conflict (e.g. if the character needs to steal in order to feed their kids).
Look at your main character(s) and figure out what conflict you could throw in their path. Who might they end up arguing (or even fighting) with? What internal struggles are they trying to overcome? Is there anything in their environment that could make their life harder?
Step #6: Work Out a Rough Plot
Some authors write highly detailed outlines in advance … I’m not one of them! I do think it’s important to have a rough plot in mind, though; otherwise, you risk writing pages and pages that simply go nowhere.
Here are some good questions to ask yourself at this stage:
Where does your story begin? What kicks off the action? How do things get worse for your protagonist? How does it all end?
You can be as detailed (or not!) with your plans as you like. Keep in mind that you may find you want to change things as you go along, especially if this is your first novel – so don’t spend so long on planning that you’ll resist making necessary changes.
This is a pretty big step! You might be surprised that it comes so far down the list – but there’s no point starting your first draft without any idea about your characters and plot.
Some authors like to write their first draft by jumping around between different scenes: they write whatever inspires them on a particular day, then they piece it all together at the end. I don’t think that’s a great approach for most novelists – it can lead to you leaving all the hardest scenes till last, for instance (and running out of steam altogether), and it makes it really tricky to have a natural flow of action and of character development.
So I’d recommend tackling your novel from beginning to end, drafting each scene as best as you can – whilst remembering that it is a draft that you’ll later be able to edit. Don’t aim for perfection at this stage.
Finishing your first draft will almost certainly take several months, and quite possibly a year or more. It’s easy to lose momentum partway, especially if this is your first attempt at a novel. If you’re struggling to keep going, there are some tips at the end of this article that will hopefully help.
Step #8: Read Through Your Whole Draft
Once you’ve finished your first draft, give yourself a huge pat on the back! This is the point in a novel where I like to break out some sparkling wine and celebrate having reached “the end”.
Of course, there’s still more work to do, but take a few days off first – not just for your sake, but also to give yourself the chance to return to your novel with fresh eyes.
After a break, read through your whole draft novel. I like to do this on my Kindle (you can send a Word document to your Kindle by following Amazon’s instructions here) – but you might want to print out your manuscript or even get it bound into a book by a print-on-demand service like Lulu. However you choose to read your novel, I’d suggest avoiding reading it in the same software in which you wrote it – you want to try to see it from a reader’s, rather than a writer’s, perspective.
As you read through the draft, jot down notes about any major changes that you think you need: chapters you might delete, scenes you might add, characters who aren’t really working, and so on. Don’t worry too much about little details at this stage – a clunky sentence here, a wordy bit of dialogue there. These might well get changed or cut during your revisions anyway, and you’ll do a close edit at a later stage.
Step #9: Redraft Your Novel
Redrafting is sometimes called “revising” which means “re-seeing” – this is your opportunity to see your novel afresh and shape it accordingly. You may well find that you need to make major changes – like cutting out big chunks of your story, fixing plot holes, removing or adding characters, and so on.
I know how frustrating it can be to cut thousands of words that you spent hours and hours working on – but ultimately, if those words are making your novel weaker rather than stronger, they need to go. The words you cut out aren’t wasted: they were an important part of the writing process, and they helped you get to this point.
(It’s very normal for novelists, even highly experienced ones, to make major changes at this point. Novels are complex, messy things!)
As with drafting, I like to approach redrafting sequentially: I start on page one and work forward. This means that I can incorporate major changes (like the removal of a character) throughout as I tweak other things, and I can make sure that the pacing and flow of the story still works.
Step #10: Do a Close Edit of Your Novel
The final step is to do a line by line edit of your novel. By this stage, you should be happy with all the major building blocks of your novel: your characters, the scenes, the key points in your plot. During this step, you’re not making major changes, just little tweaks.
As you edit your novel, line by line, look out for things like:
Awkward dialogue – maybe it sounds stilted, or it goes on too long.
Clunky sentences (you might want to read aloud to listen for ones that sound off).
Anything that doesn’t fit with your revisions – e.g. maybe you changed a character so they were much more decisive than before, but you have a couple of paragraphs where they’re dithering about a course of action.
Mistakes and typos – obviously check anything that your spell-checker has flagged up, but don’t trust it to have necessarily spotted all the mistakes. (Conversely, don’t blindly obey the spell-checker – sometimes its suggestions are wrong!)
Whew! You should now have – after probably a year or more – a finished, polished novel. This is the stage at which you could start thinking about submitting it to literary agents, or looking into self-publishing it.
I wanted to finish, though, with some key tips that fit across several of the different steps – I hope these will help you stay on track and produce the best novel you can.
Five Key Tips for Writing a Novel
Tip #1: Set Aside Regular Time for Your Novel
Whichever step of the plan you’re working on, you need to put time aside for it. (Even planning takes time – sometimes a surprising amount of it.) You don’t need to work on your novel every day, but if you want to see steady progress, I’d suggest finding 3 – 4 hours per week for it. That might mean 30 minutes a day or 2 hours every Monday and Thursday evening.
Tip #2: Get Feedback and Support
Most towns will have a local writers’ group (or several) – ask around! If nothing exists, talk to your local library about starting something up. A supportive group of writers will be invaluable in so many ways: you’ll meet likeminded people who “get” writing, and you’ll be able to get feedback from them on your work in progress.
Tip #3: If You’re Self-Publishing, Hire an Editor
If you plan to self-publish your novel, I’d strongly recommend hiring a professional editor. This won’t come cheap (you’re probably looking at $1,000 or more to edit a whole novel manuscript) – but it’s an essential part of publishing something of a professional standard. If you can’t afford to get your whole novel edited, at least pay for an editor to read and review your first few chapters – any issues they spot with those might well be repeated elsewhere in your novel.
Tip #4: Each Scene Should Have a Point
Every scene — in fact, every sentence! — in your novel should have a point. Avoid scenes where characters sit around drinking coffee and chatting, or even scenes where they bicker – unless there’s an actual purpose to it. It’s worth asking yourself, as you edit, “Does this scene advance the plot?” (If a scene reveals character, that’s important too – but there’s not much point showing us more about a particular character unless something is happening as a result.)
Tip #5: Keep a Writing Journal or Record
Every time you finish a writing session, make a quick note of what you achieved (or not)! This could be as simple as logging your wordcount for the day – but you might want to go further and include notes on how you felt about it (e.g. how focused you were, how much you enjoyed writing that scene) as well as anything you want to remember later on in the novel (e.g. that you’ve established a character has a brother, for instance).
Writing a novel is a major undertaking, but one that I hope you’ll find very rewarding. I think it’s something that every writer should attempt at least once. Work through the steps above, and this time next year, you could have a finished draft … and perhaps even a complete, edited novel. Best of luck!
The terms metaphor and simile are slung around as if they meant exactly the same thing.
A simile is a metaphor, but not all metaphors are similes.
Metaphor is the broader term. In a literary sense metaphor is a rhetorical device that transfers the sense or aspects of one word to another. For example:
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas. — “The Highwayman,” Alfred Noyes
Here the moon is being compared to a sailing ship. The clouds are being compared to ocean waves. This is an apt comparison because sometimes banks of clouds shuttling past the moon cause the moon to appear to be moving and roiling clouds resemble churning water.
A simile is a type of metaphor in which the comparison is made with the use of the word like or its equivalent:
My love is like a red, red rose. — Robert Burns
This simile conveys some of the attributes of a rose to a woman: ruddy complexion, velvety skin, and fragrant scent.
She sat like Patience on a Monument, smiling at Grief. — Twelfth Night William Shakespeare
Here a woman is being compared to the allegorical statue on a tomb. The comparison evokes unhappiness, immobility, and gracefulness of posture and dress.
Some metaphors are apt. Some are not. The conscientious writer strives to come up with fresh metaphors.
A common fault of writing is to mix metaphors.
Before Uncle Jesse (Dukes of Hazzard) did it, some WWII general is reputed to have mixed the metaphor Don’t burn your bridges, meaning “Don’t alienate people who have been useful to you,” with Don’t cross that bridge before you come to it, meaning “Don’t worry about what might happen until it happens” to create the mixed metaphor: Don’t burn your bridges before you come to them.
Many metaphors are used so often that they have become cliché. We use them in speech, but the careful writer avoids them: hungry as a horse, as big as a house, hard as nails, as good as gold.
Some metaphors have been used so frequently as to lose their metaphorical qualities altogether. These are “dead metaphors.”
In our own time we have seen the word war slip into the state of a dead metaphor: the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on AIDS. In these uses the word means little more than “efforts to get rid of” and not, as the OED has it:
Hostile contention by means of armed forces, carried on between nations, states, or rulers, or between parties in the same nation or state; the employment of armed forces against a foreign power, or against an opposing party in the state.
In a sense, all language is metaphor because words are simply labels for things that exist in the world. We call something “a table” because we have to call it something, but the word is not the thing it names.
A simile is only one of dozens of specific types of metaphor. For a long and entertaining list of them, see the Wikipedia article on “Figure of Speech.”
Are All Cliches Metaphors?
No. Many metaphors (some of which are similes) have become clichés through overuse – think of things like “dead as a doornail”, “blue sky thinking”, “plenty more fish in the sea”, and “he has his tail between his legs”.
So many clichés are metaphors. But there are also some clichéd phrases that aren’t metaphors at all, such as:
Should You Use Similes and Metaphors in Your Writing?
All types of metaphor, including similes, can be appropriate in writing.
Even clichés can be used in some circumstances – for instance, you might use them in dialog when writing fiction, either to help give the impression of realistic speech, or to assist in characterisation (perhaps one of your characters has a tendency to speak in clichés).
When you’re using similes and metaphors, you should:
Pay careful attention to any worn or tired phrasings you use. Phrases like “fishing for compliments” or “bubbly personality” are metaphors that you might barely notice. They’re fine if you’re chatting to a friend, but not necessarily appropriate in formal writing.
Be careful with extended metaphors. While these can be used to great literary effect, they may come across as overdone or forced in modern writing. (An extended metaphor is one that runs with the comparison over several sentences, e.g. Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.” From As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII.
Check you haven’t mixed two different metaphors. Again, this is easy to do with metaphors that have become part of everyday language. However, you’ll want to avoid writing sentences like “We need to think outside the box and sow the seeds to drive us forward” or “It might feel like we’re out of the frying pan and into the fire, but once we’ve crossed the next bridge, we’ll be able to get a bird’s eye view of the situation.”
“Metaphor” and “simile” don’t mean quite the same thing. A “metaphor” is a rhetorical device that transfers the sense or aspects of one word to another. A “simile” is a type of metaphor that uses “like” or an equivalent word.
You should avoid mixing metaphors (unless you’re intentionally striving for a humorous effect).
You should also avoid using clichés, except in dialog. In some cases, dead metaphors (such as “war on…”) will be appropriate shorthand – particularly in journalism or in informal writing.
This article contains every common preposition in the English language. Isn’t it nice to know that you can learn them all? A list of every common verb or every common noun would be very long…
Prepositional phrases usually begin with a preposition and end with an object. For example, in the prepositional phrase under the hill, under is the preposition and the hill is the object.
A prepositional phrase serves as an adjective or adverb; that is, it modifies a noun or a verb. In the sentence “He left after lunch,” the prepositional phrase after lunch is used as an adverb to modify the verb left. It tells us when he left, as do “He left earlier” or “He left later.” There is no adverb in English that says, “He left post-lunch-ly.”
The object of a preposition is a noun (after the meal), or at least some kind of a noun, such as a gerund (after eating), pronoun (after him), or a noun clause (after what he ate).
Some writers tie their writing into knots to keep from breaking a supposed rule against ending a sentence with a preposition. When criticized for doing that, Winston Churchill is supposed to have replied,
This is the type of errant pedantry up with which I will not put.
His point was that it would be clearer to say, “I will not put up with that type of errant pedantry.”
Maybe your sentence would be clearer without any preposition. Earlier we’ve given you five ways to minimize prepositional phrases. Prepositions such as of and by are sometimes clues that the sentence could be made shorter or more direct. For example:
An occurrence of sneezing is sometimes considered a sign of disease by over-cautious parents.
Remove two prepositions and it’s shorter and better:
Over-cautious parents sometimes fear that sneezing can signal a disease.
List of Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases Examples
Aboard: I was aboard the Titanic but escaped on an life raft.
About: Kids are crazy about playing Fortnite.
Above: There was a cat meowing above me in a tree.
Across: I have sailed across the Atlantic Ocean.
After: After I finish school, I have always planned to be a dermatologist.
Against: It’s the Bulls against the Lakers for the basketball championship.
Along: The pirate came along the aft side, threw a line over the rail, and boarded the ship with a sword in his teeth.
Amid: Amid the cheering crowd, she walked to the platform to receive her medal.
Among: After the battle, I grieved to see that among the bodies lay friends and foes.
Around: My grandfather put his arm around me and promised to buy me a pocket knife.
At: At the football game, freckled teenagers sold sodas to raise money for their club.
Before: Wash your hands before supper, and after supper too, in your case.
Behind: Behind the barn, I imagine there’s an old Lamborghini tractor or two.
Below: That chipmunk must live below the ground because he disappeared into a hole yesterday.
Beneath: Caves can extend miles beneath the surface of the earth.
Beside: She sat beside me and said that her ring had just slipped down the drain.
Between: This suspicion between us is damaging our careers in espionage.
Beyond: The size of the universe is beyond imagination.
But: Everyone but Mom ate jalapeno ice pops.
By: Our next poem was written by Robert Frost.
Concerning: I speak to you today concerning the great opportunity before us.
Considering: The racehorse kept up a good pace, considering her age.
Despite: Despite her potato heart, Veggie-Girl faced the forces of evil daily.
Down: Look down the foaming river before you decide to dive in.
During: I cried during the whole movie after my drink spilled in my lap.
Except: I would make cookies except I have no flour.
Following: Read the next chapter, then answer the questions following the map section.
For: This present is for you, Jimmy, so be thankful.
From: I came from the future!
In: Help, my foot’s stuck in the fence.
Inside: Three dogs live inside one big doghouse.
Into: Look into the crystal ball and see your future.
Like: I love my suntan even though I look like a burnt chicken nugget.
Minus: The dress looks much better minus the red frill.
Near: The flagpole near the pine tree is almost as tall.
Next to: Put the Chaucer on the bookshelf next to the Caedmon.
Of: The life of a millionaire is amazing: the cars, the money, the taxes.
Off: The paint will not come off my shoes.
On: Snow fell on my head when I sledded under a tree.
Onto: He drove off the main highway and onto a gravel road.
Opposite: She lived in the cottage opposite the pond.
Out: Look out the window at the beautiful sunset.
Outside: It’s dry here, but I hear it’s raining outside of town.
Over: Okay, can you jump over a traffic cone on a skateboard?
Past: The football flew past the car and into a tree.
Plus: The vacation included a week on the island plus the cruise to the island.
Regarding: I speak to you today regarding the great opportunity before us.
Since: I’ve felt depressed ever since my grandfather died.
Through: The baseball flew past the tree and through the window.
Throughout: Throughout history, there have always been compassionate people.
To: Send this sword to Sir Raymond of the Palms.
Toward: Hit the ball toward the sky and get out of the way.
Under: I dug under the ground and found a gopher hole.
Underneath: I just realized there’s quicksand underneath me.
Unlike: The northern moors are treacherous and isolated, unlike the southern moors, which attract tourists.
Until: Don’t wake me until eight o’clock Christmas morning.
Up: Uncle George went up on the roof to get the rocket back.
Upon: I bestow upon you this gift of armor.
Versus: Traveling by dogsled can be cold, versus traveling by train.
With: With the weather outside so sunny, I think I should ride my bike.
Within: There’s no gas station within 100 miles.
Without: Without food or water, we could not survive.
Prepositional Phrase Quiz
Choose the answer that reflects the prepositional phrase in each sentence.
1. The northern moors are treacherous and isolated, unlike the southern moors, which attract tourists.
unlike the southern moors
which attract tourists
2. Look into the crystal ball and see your future.
into the crystal ball
3. With the weather outside so sunny, I think I should ride my bike.
With the weather outside so sunny
I think I should ride my bike
4. At the football game, freckled teenagers sold sodas to raise money for their club.
Let’s say you’re writing a story that involves a character who’s smart, funny, gorgeous, and beloved by almost everyone.
They sound great, right?
Well, they might be. Or you might be inadvertently creating a “Mary Sue”.
So what’s a Mary Sue … and why should you avoid using one in your story?
Mary Sue Defined
A Mary Sue is a character who is way too good to be true. She’s often exceptionally talented for her age; love interests throw themselves at her feet; and she can pretty much get away with murder.
Mary Sue characters don’t have to be female, either. Male Mary Sues exist too (sometimes they’re called “Marty Sue” or “Gary Sue”, but most people just use “Mary Sue” to describe this type of character – whatever the gender).
There’s no one universally agreed-upon definition of a Mary Sue, but here are a couple that give you a good idea of what to look for:
[A Mary Sue] is what happens when a hero is too heroic—to pure, too powerful, too overwhelmingly good.
A Mary Sue is an over-idealized and seemingly-flawless fictional character, one often recognized as either a self-insertion character for the author, or a vessel for wish fulfillment.
These characters are often physically beautiful, exceptionally skilled, and universally admired—but only within the confines of the story.
(From The Problem with Perfect Characters: Mary Sues, Gary Stus, and Other Abominations, Jacob Mohr)
The most basic definition of “Mary Sue” is an original female character in fanfiction — which is largely about established characters and worlds — who is often close to perfect. Like, too perfect. Very good at her job, very desirable romantically or sexually, and sometimes very emotionally moving when she dies, tragically, and the other characters mourn her. The story usually centers around her, often warping established characterization in the process.
Mary Sue characters can appear in almost any type of writing, including published novels and popular TV shows. (The often-criticised Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation is a frequently cited example, as is Bella Swan from the Twilight series.)
They’re particularly common, though, in fanfiction.
Here’s a quick litmus test to check whether your character is a Mary Sue:
If the answer to all these questions is “yes”, you very likely have a Mary Sue on your hands:
Is the character an idealised version of you? (Be honest!)
Are they popular with pretty much everyone?
Are they a bit “too good to be true”?
Do they have a surprising range of skills / expertise?
Have they advanced a long way in their career despite being very young?
If the answer to all these questions is “no”, you very likely have a Mary Sue on your hands:
Does the character have any real flaws? (“Clumsy” or “poor at math” are not flaws.)
Do they ever fail at anything, in a significant way, in your story?
Do they change in some way (for better or for worse) during the course of the story?
These (common) things alone do not make a character a Mary Sue:
The character is a powerful female. You can (and should!) write strong female characters. They only tip over into Mary Sue territory when they’re exceptionally skilled in multiple areas in an improbable or unexplained way. (E.g. if your character has been studying karate since she was five, it makes sense that she’s good at fighting – but if you never mention any type of training and have her effortlessly defeat three armed assassins, it’s going to seem ridiculous.)
The character has wacky coloured hair or eyes. While this can be a trait of a certain type of Mary Sue character, it’s also something you might well be using for other reasons – perhaps just because you like that hair / eye colour (which isn’t such a terrible reason to include it!), or perhaps because it has a particular plot relevance.
The character has multiple love interests. In certain stories, it’s normal and even expected for your main character to have more than one love interest. (Think of all the mainstream romance novels and films that involve – usually – a woman choosing between two men.) In some sub-genres, like reverse harem romances, the whole point of a story is about a character having several love interests at once. Even if the story isn’t a romance at all, it’s still perfectly plausible that a character might have more than one love interest.
They’re based on the author. While “Mary Sue” is sometimes seen as synonymous with “author insert”, it’s not necessarily the case that characters based on the author are Mary Sues. Some writers would argue that all their characters are based on them to some degree: after all, who else’s thoughts and feelings do we have direct access to? Just because a character shares some characteristics with the author doesn’t make them a Mary Sue.
They’re an original female character in a fanfiction story. Admittedly, this type of character has a fairly high chance of being a Mary Sue (compared with, say, original characters in original works). One of the main issues with this type of character is that they tend to steal the spotlight from the real main characters – the established ones who fans want to read about. But original female characters are not invariably Mary Sues.
The Big Problem with Mary Sue Characters
Mary Sue characters can be a lot of fun to write … after all, there wouldn’t be so many of them otherwise. If you’re purely writing for your own enjoyment, and you don’t plan to share your work with others, then indulge in as many Mary Sues as you like. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of wish fulfilment!
The problem comes when you want other people to read – and enjoy – your work. The sad truth about Mary Sues is that, for most readers, they’re boring and annoying.
You might think that readers would enjoy a story where someone smart, talented, good looking and universally loved saves the day again and again … after all, isn’t that a kind of wish fulfilment for the reader, too?
Some readers might indeed enjoy that. But what most readers actually want is a story where characters struggle, get things wrong, fail (at least temporarily), and change and grow. That makes for a satisfying, exciting story.
Mary Sue characters tend to “break” stories, too, either by the actual rules of the world being different around them (e.g. magic works differently for them) or by effortlessly winning everything — without it ever feeling deserved or earned.
Obviously, you can write what you want … but if you want your work to be read, avoid using Mary Sue characters.
Instead, make your characters real, complex people. Give them flaws (real ones that they need to overcome) and let them fail, before they succeed. Your story will be all the more satisfying for it.
Mary Sue Quiz
The questions below will test your understanding of the character.
1. A Mary Sue character often is:
2. Does a Mary Sue character have any real flaws?
3. Mary Sue characters usually are:
4. Does a Mary Sue character changes often or strongly?
This post outlines seven general areas of grammar and syntax that writers must be familiar with to enable them to write effectively.
1. Subject-Verb Agreement
Use singular verbs for singular subjects and plural verbs with plural subjects. A verb should agree with its subject, not with an intervening modifying phrase or clause: “The box of cards is on the shelf.”
Singular verbs are appropriate with the following parts of speech:
• indefinite pronouns: “Everyone is here”
• uncountable nouns: “The rain has stopped”
• inverted subjects: “Where is the car?”
• subjects plural in form but singular in meaning: “Statistics [the academic subject] is boring,” but “Statistics [sets of data] are sometimes misleading”
• compound subjects: “Breaking and entering is different than burglary”
• the constructions “the only one of those (blank) who . . . ,” “the number of (blank) . . . ,” “every (blank) . . . ,” and “many a (blank) . . .”
• a measurement when considered as a unit: “Three months is a long time to wait”
• collective nouns: “The team is ready for the game” (but if referring to all individual members of a collective, reword for clarity, as in “The members of the team stand behind the coach’s decision”)
2. Nominative and Objective Pronouns and Reflexive Pronouns
Pronouns are sometimes used erroneously when a phrase contains more than one object. For example, although “My sister and I are coming” is correct because “My sister and I” is the subject and therefore the nominative I is appropriate, “He invited my sister and I” is wrong because “my sister” and I are the objects, and the pronoun should be in objective form (me, not I).
Reflexive pronouns, compound of a pronoun and -self, are correct only if they are associated with an antecedent pronoun, as in “I did it myself”; “Contact John or myself” is an error because there is no previous reference to the self-identifying person.
3. Dangling Participles
When a sentence begins with an incomplete phrase or clause, the person, place, or thing it modifies must immediately follow it as the subject of the main clause, or the introductory phrase or clause must be rewritten. For example, in “Rolling down the slope, my eyes beheld a curious sight,” the writer intends to express that he or she was rolling down the slope, but the subject of the sentence is “my eyes,” leading to the impression that the rolling was performed by the eyes, not the individual. To resolve the problem, amend the sentence to “Rolling down the slope, I beheld a curious sight” or “As I rolled down the slope, my eyes beheld a curious sight.”
4. Misplaced Modifiers
A modifying phrase should immediately follow the word or phrase it modifies. For example, in the sentence “I overheard that they’re getting married in the rest room,” because “in the rest room” follows “getting married,” the reader is given the impression that the nuptials will take place in the rest room. However, “in the rest room” modifies the subject, “I overheard,” so those two phrases should be adjacent: “I overheard in the rest room that they’re getting married.”
5. Incomplete Sentences
Many justifications exist for sentence fragments, but they are best used judiciously and in such a way that it is clear to the reader that the writer is deliberately writing an incomplete sentence, and not obliviously making an error.
6. Phrase and Clause Lists
In-line lists, those presented within the syntax of a sentence, should be structured to be grammatically consistent. For example, the sentence “Insights are actionable, adaptive, and help achieve the desired objectives” is erroneously constructed because are serves the first adjective and help is associated with achieve, but adaptive cannot share are with actionable unless a conjunction rather than a comma separates them: “Insights are actionable and adaptive and help achieve the desired objectives.”
If a sentence, unlike in this revision, is to remain in list form, each list element must follow parallel construction, as in the revision of “Teapots may be embellished with landscapes, scenes from paintings, historical figures, or natural elements such as orchids or bamboo” to “Teapots may be embellished with landscapes, scenes from paintings, portraits of historical figures, or depictions of natural elements such as orchids or bamboo,” where each element must refer to representations of phenomena rather than the phenomena themselves.
7. Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Phrases and Clauses
Although the use of which in a sentence such as “She prefers a job which is more stable” is technically correct in American English (and ubiquitous in British English), careful writers will help their readers by maintaining this distinction between which and that: Use the former with a nonrestrictive phrase “She prefers a job, which is more stable than freelance work” (what follows the comma and which is not essential to the sentence) and use the latter with a restrictive phrase “She prefers a job that is more stable” (“that is more stable” is an essential part of the sentence).
One of the rules of language that you almost certainly know, even if you’ve never thought about it consciously, is that subjects and verbs must agree with each other in number.
If that sounds a bit complicated or mathematical, here are a couple of very simple examples to show this in action:
The childplays at the park. (Singular)
The childrenplay at the park. (Plural)
A singular noun needs a singular verb; a plural noun needs a plural verb.
If you’re a native English speaker, you probably never think about this when you’re writing, but you know the rule, all the same.
For instance, if I showed you these sentences, you’d know instantly that they were wrong – and you’d know how to correct them:
The child play at the park.
The children plays at the park.
In these sentences, it’s very clear how to make the subject and verb “agree” – so that they match grammatically.
Sometimes, though, subject-verb agreement isn’t quite so straightforward, and it can trip up even native, fluent English writers.
Here are six key rules to be aware of:
Rule #1: A Clause Between the Subject and Verb Will Not Change the Verb
Let’s say we had a sentence like this:
The child with no friends plays at the park.
“The child” is still the subject of the sentence, and “plays” is still the verb. Although the clause “with no friends” has the plural noun “friends,” this does not change the verb – because the verb still applies to “child”.
Tip: If you’re struggling with this, read the sentence aloud without the clause between the subject and the verb, and see if it still makes sense.
Rule #2: Use a Plural Verb if Two Singular Subjects are Joined with “And”
Let’s say you have a sentence like this:
MaxandSusanplay at the park.
That sentence is correct. Although “Max” is singular and “Susan” is singular, they’re joined together with “and” – making them a compound subject, which is plural.
Rule #3: Inverted Subjects Must Still Agree With the Verb
In English, the normal sentence order is subject – verb – object. Sometimes this is inverted, though, with the verb coming before the subject … and it’s still important that the verb still agrees with the inverted subject.
Here’s an example:
There is a child on the swings. (Child is singular.)
There are five children at the park. (Children is plural.)
And here’s another:
What wasJane telling you? (“Jane” is singular.)
What wereJane and Susan telling you? (“Jane and Susan” is plural.)
Again, when you’re speaking or writing, you probably don’t have to think about this too hard. If English is your second language, though, or if you’re writing particularly complex sentences, it’s helpful to keep subject-verb agreement in mind.
Rule #4: If Two Or More Subjects Are Joined With “Or”, Use the Closest to the Verb for Agreement
Let’s say you have a sentence like this:
Either Jack or the childrenare too loud.
Is “are” the correct verb to use here, even though Jack is singular? Yes, it is, because the closest subject to the verb is “the children”.
Let’s rewrite the sentence:
Either the children or Jack is too loud.
Here, “is” is correct, because “Jack” is the closest subject to the verb.
In both of these cases, you may feel the sentence reads slightly awkwardly. If so, you might want to rewrite or reconsider the sentence so that the verb can agree with both subjects:
Either Jack or one of the childrenis too loud.
Rule #5: Indefinite Pronouns Normally Take Singular Verbs
Some indefinite pronouns, though, always take the plural form. These include few, many, several, both, all, and some, when used as pronouns.
All were impressed by what they saw.
Rule #6: Collective Nouns Can be Singular OR Plural
Collective nouns, like “committee” and “audience”, can be singular or plural depending on the context. In writing your sentence, you’ll need to consider whether the group in question is acting as a unit or as a set of individuals.
Here are some examples:
The committee asks new members to sign Form A1. (Singular subject and verb.)
The committeewere unable to reach a unanimous decision. (Plural subject and verb.)
Some writers prefer to make collective nouns plural by adding extra words, such as “Members of”:
Members of the committeewere unable to reach a unanimous decision.
Look Out For Subject-Verb Agreement When Editing
Even though you may feel that subject-verb agreement comes naturally to you, a key time to watch out for it is during the editing phase of your writing. It’s all too easy to edit half a sentence, perhaps to change a singular subject to a plural one, only to leave the second half unaltered … and hence incorrect.
Here’s an example of where rewriting part of a sentence necessitates changing several different verbs later on in the sentence:
When a writer is stuck, he stares out of the window, rearranges the pencils on his desk, and in short, does anything to avoid writing.
When writersare stuck, they stare out of the window, rearrange the pencils on their desks, and in short, do anything to avoid writing.
It’s important to make sure you check all the verbs in a long or complex sentence to ensure they all still agree with the subject.
If at any point you find you’re unsure whether your sentence is correct, try reading it aloud: this will often highlight mistakes that are harder to spot on the page. If that doesn’t work for you, consider rewriting the sentence to simplify it – or pop a comment below to see if anyone else can help!
If critics tell you that your stories have too much dialogue, maybe you should consider writing scripts. It’s different from writing ordinary prose. For one thing, a script is not the finished work of art. It’s the blueprint that the director and actors use to create the work of art. The good news about that: your words don’t have to carry all the weight. As a playwright, I like the way a stronger actor can make up for my weaker writing. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. But though a bad actor can completely misinterpret a perfectly clear line, a good actor can bring out the meaning that you were not quite able to express through words alone. Unlike a novel, there will be no great literature unless a character speaks it. An inarticulate man doesn’t change just because you have a big noble speech you want him to make.
Enter late, leave early.
Every writer needs to remove anything that doesn’t advance the story, but that’s particularly true for scriptwriters. And sometimes you don’t realize that a scene doesn’t advance the story until you try removing it and discover that it still works. William Goldman, who wrote The Princess Bride and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid said, “You always attack a movie scene as late as you possibly can. You always come into the scene at the last possible moment.”
In the same way, once you’ve made your point, don’t belabor it. Always leaving them wanting more. Otherwise, they may start wanting less and leaving the theater early. A joke works best when it’s given no extra emphasis, when all the fat has been trimmed. Alfred Hitchcock told an interviewer in 1960, “How does one describe drama? Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” Writing is a balance between saying too much and saying too little.
It’s a show: show don’t tell
The visual nature of the screen or stage makes it easier to follow the writer’s rule of “show, don’t tell.”The rule is harder to follow on radio and podcasts, because they cannot show anything visually. So a scriptwriter must turn to narration, as he might in a book, or to less-than-subtle dialogue: “Look out, he has a gun!” Early TV hadn’t found its sea legs yet as a visual medium, and perhaps depended on narrators more than necessary. But a film or play is more than a book in visual form.
In an intriguing novel (nameless here, so I don’t ruin it if you haven’t read it), friendly inhabitants take a mistrustful visitor into their home for the night. As he lies down to sleep, he slowly realizes that maybe his hosts have put on a friendly appearance only to trap him. In the television miniseries adaptation, the exposition depends on the visitor thinking out loud in bed for several minutes as his host listens. It was awkward:
What if you plan to spring on me as soon as I realize the danger?
Thank you for reminding me. I'll do that now.
Maid and butler talk on a do-it-yourself basis, since you don’t have to pay a maid or butler. No wonder the novelist found the miniseries “just boring.” This scene could easily have been adapted more cinematically, showing not telling, based on the novelist’s own words.
INT. HOST'S BEDROOM - NIGHT
The CAPTAIN is lying in bed. He glances at his HOST in the other bed. He lifts his head to look again more closely. His host's bedsheet is pulled back, revealing his hand.
CLOSE UP - the HOST'S HAND
has four fingers, with claws.
The Captain carefully rolls back the covers. He slips from bed and walks softly across the room.
Where are you going?"
For a drink of water.
But you're not thirsty.
Yes, yes, I am.
No, you're not.
FOOTSTEPS as the captain tries to run across the room.
He screams twice.
SILENCE. The TICKING of an old CLOCK.
People don’t need to say exactly what they mean.
In real life, people don’t say, “I asked you how you were doing because I wanted you to ask me how I was doing, since I wanted to talk with you so that you would feel comfortable enough with me to say Yes when I asked you out on a date.” Real life is more subtle. Behind the text, there is the subtext – the thoughts that motivate the character to speak. When a scene has too little subtext or subtlety, people say it is “too on the nose.” We don’t need everything spelled out, and it isn’t as much fun. You don’t want a mystery writer to spell everything out, do you, except perhaps at the end. We can tell if someone is romantically interested in someone else by the way they say, “How are you doing?”
A script leaves less to the audience’s imagination.
Many authors make a point not to describe their character’s appearance too precisely, to make it easier for diverse readers to relate to the story. But when you see The Hunger Games on the screen, now you know what Katniss Everdeen looks like, and can no longer easily imagine that she looks like you. Unless you happen to look like Jennifer Lawrence. However, the writer can only suggest visual details. He or she cannot mandate that the movie be filmed in New Zealand and co-star Kevin Bacon, much as the writer may visualize the story just that way.
Proper format shows professionalism.
If you submit your novel to a publisher, and it isn’t double-spaced with a one-inch margin (with only one space after a period), you will appear inexperienced and possibly inept, which you don’t want to be. But a script has even more complex formatting requirements, with lots of white space, specific indents, and particular capitalization conventions. A script is written in present tense, with no more than two or three lines per paragraph – dialogue too.
Twist your plot, then twist it again.
Sure, publishers would love to get their hands on “the Harry Potter of the 2020’s” but not if it’s exactly like Harry Potter. They don’t want potential readers to say, “I already have a book about an Indian boy who spends 227 days in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. I don’t need another one.” You might have come up with that brilliant plot device all on your own, without the inspiration of somebody else, but if it happens to have already been used by somebody else, your chance for a sale just went way down. Ironically, to create a truly original story, you have to become very familiar with other people’s stories, to make sure that yours is sufficiently different from them.
Good writing must include the unexpected. So when you come up with one good idea, keep coming up with more. If you don’t have enough good ideas, try browsing through the standard plot types. But you can build twists yourself. You could summarize The Silence of the Lambs in a brief logline, as follows:
An F.B.I. agent tracks down a serial killer.
Other stories have had that same premise. How about adding to it?
A young F.B.I. cadet must confide in an incarcerated and manipulative killer to receive his help in catching another serial killer.
Now that is getting more interesting. But don’t stop yet.
A young F.B.I. cadet tracks down an elusive serial killer as she develops his psychological profile, reluctantly confiding in a manipulative psychologist who has been locked up for years after committing a series of similar murders.
Instead of an ordinary F.B.I. agent, now there is a particularly vulnerable one, mismatched for the task. Because instead of one murderer, now there are two murderers, both clever, and one is stalking the other from behind bars. Satisfied? With that kind of carefully planning, your script could win an Academy Award, as The Silence of the Lambs‘s script did. The original novel sold 11 million copies.
Every company is in the business of communication, and now that our society is well into the digital age, and businesses deliver their messages across multiple forms of media, it behooves them to do so with high professional standards. Two significant factors are brand identity and content quality, which are discussed in this post.
The importance of brand identity is nothing new. Companies that market products have long been aware that having a consistent presentation strengthens consumer association with those products. Just as a company’s line of tangible products, whether automobile or cleaning products, is consistent in terms of specifications such as appearance and labeling, so, too, should the presentation of various forms of media from a business be. Websites, YouTube channels, online and real-world slide shows, and all other forms of familiarizing current and prospective customers and clients with products and services, should present a consistent look in terms of logos, typefaces, color schemes, and so on.
Many businesses, especially large, complex corporations, employ a style guide as a resource that enables employees to produce marketing materials and other information that supports brand identity. This guide is similar to (and generally incorporates) the traditional editorial style guide, which will be described below, but it includes more than that.
An effective style guide includes a brand-identity section. Here, employees (and contractors who provide support services such as graphic design and copywriting) will find practical and technical information about logos and trademarks, fonts and other design specifications, and brand and product names. This resource includes everything from the appropriate size for logos (whether in English or metric units or in pixels) to the exact wording of names of products and services.
This information detail specifications about various types of content: the company website, internal and external blogs, videos and slide shows, commercials (television, radio, and online), print advertising (not just in publications, but also on billboards and at mass-transit facilities and stops and on mass-transit vehicles), and so on. Also included should be specifications about conference and convention materials, including the look and feel of booths and their components (banners, panels, tabletop or countertop marketing collateral, and so on), and any other forms of presentation
The level of detail should extend to how one invites recipients of an email message to reply. Sample guide text might read, “Always include the following text in an email message: ‘For more information, contact John Smith at email@example.com, or call him at 123.456.7890.’ Always include one’s name as well as one’s email address in the sentence, write the email address in all lowercase letters, and set the parts of the phone number off with periods, not parentheses and hyphens.”
The style guide will also include a discussion of voice and tone. Here, the company dictates how employees should express themselves—what degree of formality or informality is appropriate when communicating in any media. Does the company wish to convey a traditional gravitas, or a hip, conversational sensibility? Should written (or spoken) advertising content be straightforward, or is a lighter approach, perhaps one that allows for sarcasm or self-deprecation, appropriate? The style guide should make it clear how employees should communicate to customers or clients.
Terminology is also an important part of the company’s style guide. Besides trademarks, brand names, and taglines, what is the vocabulary of the business? What is the jargon? Words and phrases (and acronyms and initialisms) likely to be employed in marketing efforts should be listed and defined. Those in the company who offer or exchange information, whether on the phone or in email messages, or whether in print advertising or on the home page of the company’s website, should know how they are expected to do so to most effectively reach their audience.
Finally, the section should contain an editorial style guide that provides guidance on grammar, usage, and style. The branding and terminology sections will inform employees and contractors about capitalization of branding terms and industry-specific vocabulary, but the style guide will serve to remind people about whether text should include serial commas, inform them of the few exceptions when prefixes are hyphenated, admonish them to avoid scare quotes and clichés, and so on.
In addition, the style guide should emphasize the importance of meticulous attention to quality of content. In my experience, websites and other media produced by large corporations often are often superior in this respect to books and journalistic content in general, which is as it should be: In commerce, as in publishing, high content standards are integral in maintaining an authoritative reputation.
You don’t have to be a corporate marketing director or communications manager to appreciate the importance of compiling and employing a style guide that details brand identity and champions content quality. People who operate a home business, and even bloggers and vloggers (video bloggers) can at a scaled-down level benefit from having such a resource at hand to encourage them to maintain consistency in the presentation of materials they offer to consumers and followers.