Category Archives: Writing

Auto-antonyms

An auto-antonym, also known as a contranym, is a word that has two opposing  meanings. It has a homograph (a word of the same spelling) that has a contradictory or opposite meaning. They usually result from the word, or similar sounding words, arriving in English from two separate languages and retaining both meanings. However, sometimes they are a result of a old word taking on a new colloquial meaning.

Here are some examples:

Cool can mean good or pleasant, but it can also mean less than agreeable. Compare the following:

‘The play was cool.’
‘The play received a cool reception.’

Dusting can mean removing dust or, in the case of fingerprints, applying dust.

Fast can either mean to do something quickly or not to move at all as in ‘holding fast’.

Left is another: ‘after he left she was left.’ It means both to go and to remain.

Weather as a verb has the contradictory meanings of withstanding and wearing away.

‘They weathered the storm.’
‘It was weathered by the storm.’

For your writing, it is worth being aware of auto-antonyms so that you can spot any usage that might be confusing. Additionally, you can purposefully use words with contradictory meanings to give ambiguity or intrigue to your text. This is sometimes seen in poetry.

Can you think of any other auto-antonyms or good examples of their usage? Tell me in the comments!

As always, if you have found this interesting, please do like and share.

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J K Rowling is not the first…

The Cuckoo's CallingIt has come out this week that J. K. Rowling has published The Cuckoo’s Calling as Robert Galbraith and found it ‘liberating’. Many other authors have released books under different names for various reasons. Here are a few we know about – many more remain a mystery!

Nora Roberts was a successful romance novelist who wanted to try her hand at the detective genre. Her publishers thought people would struggle with the transition, so she published her detective novels as J. D. Robb Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin, famously author of the Rebus detective series, apparently has books out under another name. Although he’s been cagey about his nom de plume, we know that he used to write pulpy airport thrillers to make ends meet!

Stephen King’s early novels were published under the name Richard Bachman. I have found various explanations for this, from his publishers believing that one novel a year was quite enough to King wanting to know if the success of his books was a result of talent or luck. And he would’ve got away with it, if it weren’t for a pesky bookseller who noticed a similarity in writing styles and began to investigate.

Louisa May Alcott - perhaps rereading one of her saucier offerings.

Louisa May Alcott – perhaps rereading one of her saucier offerings.

Louisa May Alcott, acclaimed writer of Little Women, funded herself by writing racy dark fiction under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard.

Other female authors avoided prejudice by initially publishing  under male pseudonyms before coming out as the writers of their successful works. The Brontës were the Bells, and George Eliot came out as Mary Anne Evans after the success of her first book. Can you think of any others?

Have you got one or multiple pseudonyms? How did you choose them? I’d love to know! Tell me in the comments. 

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Homonyms

A homonym is a word that is identical to another word either in sound or spelling, but differs from it in meaning. It comes from the Greek homos meaning ‘same’. Homonyms can be divided into two sub-types: homophones (from the Greek ‘same’ and phone, ‘sound’) and homograph (‘same’ and graphe,‘writing’).

These are homonyms that are also homographs; they are spelt the same but pronounced differently:

Capsule - Homonym

Capsule – Homonym

  • ‘The bandage was wound around the wound.’
  • ‘The farm was used to produce produce.’

These homonyms are also homophones; they are spelt differently but pronounced the same:

  • ‘I will die if you dye that pink.’
  • ‘Can you see that ewe by the yew?’
  • ‘That boat shop has got a sail sale on.’

Homophones can often be the root cause of common spelling errors: your and you’re, for example. They are also the basis of many glorious puns and jokes. Here are a few courtesy of my favourite joke book (Tim Vine, you are a genius!):

  • The other day I sent my girlfriend a huge pile of snow. I rang her and said, ‘did you get my drift?’
  • My dog always misinterprets things I say. I say ‘heel’ and he goes down the hospital and does what he can.
  • So I went to the cinema and saw a very sad film. The guy behind me started wailing. I got hit in the back of the head with a harpoon.
  • She said ‘I’m going to dig a hole in the ground and fill it with water.’ I thought, she means well.

Test your understanding by telling me which of the above jokes are based on homophones and which are homographs. Answers in the comments please!

Homophones

Tell me your favourite homonym-based joke in the comments!

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Making Your Dissertation First Class

Obviously, any degree is a massive achievement and you should be wildly proud of yourself for turning up and learning fascinating things, but if you happen to be a high achiever on the cusp of a top  grade, here’s what markers are looking for. (Check your mark scheme for your institution’s individual requirements.)

Originality is key. This can be in many forms. Consider a new phenomenon in terms of an old theory; do research that hasn’t Be Originalbeen done before (at least make sure no one else on your course is doing it!); dig in to one of your university’s archives for interesting materials to test your theory against; do a close analysis of a single unconventional issue. It can be hard to be ‘original’ on purpose, so read around your subject before deciding on your title and just see what thoughts come to you. At some point your brain will probably go, ‘well that’s interesting, but what if…?’ and there’s your question.

A critical evaluation of the literature. This means that beyond showing a full understanding of the research on your topic, you’ve demonstrated insight and considered the theorists critically, not just accepted their work as the truth. 

Have a clear argument that you stick to throughout. First class essays have a real sense of purpose – every sentence has a vital function which builds to prove its thesis. 

Relevance either to society or to the current debates in your academic field is always impressive. It demonstrates that you’re engaged in academia, like your lecturers are, and they may well appreciate this mature approach. It will seem to them more like the journal articles they read than just another undergrad essay. 

High quality English is mentioned in most mark schemes, with accurate spelling, grammar and punctuation. The writing should flow well with careful word choice, minimal repetition and an engaging style. 

Accurate and thorough referencing and a strong structure are also vital.  

Most importantly, give yourself plenty of time to think about it; start early if you can. All of the above would be ideal, but aren’t necessarily essential. The majority of essays and dissertations that I work on that end up being awarded firsts get the mark because the student has chosen a topic they’re interested in and their enthusiasm has come across. Some of the best dissertations I’ve read have a tight structure, fluency that makes the argument easy to follow and a conclusion that addresses the title. 

Would you like thoughtful, clear advice on your dissertation? Get in touch!

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A Good Opening Line Can Make all the Difference

Last week I opened a book and the first line was so thoroughly uninspiring that I gave a small incredulous yell and immediately closed it, forever. That line was, ‘It was Thursday and I was making soup.’ Congratulations, author who shall remain nameless, with those eight unbelievably dull short words you have put me off what may well be an excellent story. I realise this may just be my opinion, but in a ranking of days and foods, I’m pretty sure ‘Thursdays’ and ‘soup’ are the dullest. There is in fact a competition for the worst opening lines that has some fantastic examples of awfulness; a winner used the imaginatively terrible ‘He swaggered into the room with a certain Wikipedic insouciance‘.

1984The opening line of any piece of writing really matters. It is your first impression and it needs to be good. What do you want people to know about your book? A lot can be established in one line. For example, 1984 begins: ‘It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ George Orwell instantly demonstrates that we are in an alternate future where things are fundamentally reordered.

Establishing theme is a common factor in many of the most famous opening lines. Sweeping statements in the author’s voice are often best remembered: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ With parallel phrasing and a lovely contrast, Charles Dickens immediately introduces social dichotomy as a central subject of A Tale of Two Cities.  A universal declaration is also used by Tolstoy to begin Anna Karenina: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ The reader infers that what follows will be a personal drama with much pain and unhappiness.

Imperatives work well to start things off; they draw the reader directly into the action. Consider this from Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy: ‘“You will marry the boy I choose,” said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.’ The mother’s attempt to find her daughter a suitable boy to marry is the core of the story. The conflict over this is also confirmed by the use of the adverb. Using dialogue to begin can pull the reader straight into the characters’ relationships. First person can have the same impact: ‘Call me Ishmael’ works as a simple, iconic imperative in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

Beginning at the end is a device often employed. Daphne du Maurier’s rebeccaRebecca begins: ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ Using a dream perfectly expresses the significance of this place; the evenness of the syllables gives it a rhythm. We are also told that the book will be an open and deeply personal recollection.  

A real favourite is from Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: ‘The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created. This made a lot of people very angry and has widely been regarded as a bad move.’ This always gives me a laugh. The first line should prompt an immediate reaction from the reader, whether it’s amusement, interest, excitement, recognition or empathy. Don’t just start to tell the story; tell the reader something about the story.  

What do you think makes a good opening line? What’s your favourite? I’d love to know! Comment below and please do like and share! 

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Why I love ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’

Happy World Poetry Day! To celebrate, I’d like to discuss one of my favourite poems.

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven – W. B YeatsWorld Poetry Day

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

The poem begins with stunning imagery: if he owned the most precious material imaginable, he would allow his love to walk upon it. Yeats uses the most exquisite symbolism to express the fragility and preciousness of dreams. Although the poem is essentially romantic, I believe it is applicable to any relationship where care and trust is needed. In touching first person, Yeats conveys the vulnerability of sharing one’s hopes, thoughts and aspirations. Second person is only introduced in the final lines with the warning imperative to ‘tread softly’, to be mindful of feelings.

I love its simplicity. Only one word has more than two syllables. The repeated words reinforce his theme. The whole poem could almost be told in those recurrent words: ‘cloths’, ‘light’, ‘dreams’, ‘feet’. The lyrical internal rhymes ‘night and light and the half-light’ are swept along with an insistent conjunction, ‘and’. Word choice throughout is precise: ‘Enwrought’ begins a line brilliantly. Poetic devices are used gently with great subtlety and skill. I like the way it starts with grand imagery and becomes more humble and personal.

To me, this is writing at its best: beautiful words, ordered with care to create a universal, timeless and moving poem.

What’s your favourite poem? Please tell me about it in the comments!

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Don’t Panic! Just Choose Your Words Carefully

“Pick your words with care” Ford Prefect warns Zaphod Beeblebrox in Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I  think that’s great advice for all writers. When you’re writing, it can be very easy to lose yourself in your fantastic plot. Your characters take on a life of their own and you’reGuide away, giving a narrative account of the thrilling happenings in their lives. Unfortunately, this can mean that word choice suffers. In the best works of literature, every word is working hard to create a precise image, an exact impression on the reader. Chilean author Isabel Allende meticulously goes through every word of English translations of her novels, making sure that they are true to her original meaning.

One of the worst consequences of failure to focus on word choice is repetition. Repeated words indicate a lack of craft to the reader; they can infer a lack of originality. ‘Said’ is a regular issue. The word ‘said’ is, in fact, saying very little. Usually the preceding or following text is in speech marks, so the reader is already fully aware that it is being ‘said’ so tell them something they don’t know! What is that character’s tone or expression? How has what they’ve shared affected the atmosphere? Consider this example from Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

“Fiscal policy. . .” he repeated, “that is what I said.”
“How can you have money,” demanded Ford, “if none of you actually produces anything? It doesn’t grow on trees you know.”
“If you would allow me to continue.. .”
Ford nodded dejectedly.
“Thank you. Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt the leaf as legal tender, we have, of course, all become immensely rich.”
Ford stared in disbelief at the crowd who were murmuring appreciatively at this and greedily fingering the wads of leaves with which their track suits were stuffed.
“But we have also,” continued the management consultant, “run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability, which means that, I gather, the current going rate has something like three deciduous forests buying one ship’s peanut.”
Murmurs of alarm came from the crowd. The management consultant waved them down.

towel

Choosing different verbs and describing reactions can give vigour and immediacy to a text. Verb choice is worth getting right and can do a great deal for characterisation and mood. Try to think exactly how your characters each walk, talk and move – what habits do they have? We can tell a lot about the impetuous and larger than life character that is Zaphod Beeblebrox  from the verbs Adams uses to describe his speech: spat, demanded, muttered, seethed, bawled. These all appear on one double page. Compare this to the nervy Arthur Dent: gibbered, asked, whispered, protested, goggled. 

If you see a word repeated often in your text, particularly close together, the first thing to do is reach for the thesaurus. Every writer should have a quality thesaurus. Looking up ‘synonyms’ on Word is okay, but a  thesaurus will provide a more thorough list and give options categorised under multiple possible meanings. A good edition will also provide a sentence for context of trickier words. If you’re considering using a word that you’re not completely familiar with, check it in a dictionary to make sure it means exactly what you intend it to. Every writer should also have a quality dictionary.

A varied vocabulary gives you greater nuance of meaning, enriching your writing to give the reader a more enjoyable and entertaining experience. Because of our history, the English language has more synonyms than any other language. Writers, you have a wealth of options from which to choose! Standard English adults have a vocabulary  of around 20,000 words – are you using yours to its full potential?

By the way, if you haven’t already, do read some Douglas Adams!

The story so far:
In the beginning the Universe was created.
This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.

Thanks for reading! I’m always fascinated to know your thoughts and do please like and share!

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Comparatives and Superlatives

Comparatives are used to compare one thing to another- they often have an ‘er’ ending. Superlatives are used to compare more than two things- they often have an ‘est’ ending. So ‘Holmes is better than Watson’ (because there are only two of them) but ‘George is the best character in the Famous Five’ (because there are more than two of them).

A common error is using the superlative when there are only two things in contention: mt

‘Of the two methods, the oldest was better’ should be ‘Of the two, the older was better.’

Double comparisons are also not acceptable in standard English:

‘She was the most greatest’ should be ‘She was the greatest’.

‘She is more faster’ should be ‘She is faster.’

Additionally, I also see ’empty comparisons’, the use of a comparative without a base:

‘Today was better.’ Than what? It should be made obvious to the reader what you are comparing.

Also, superlatives are often over-used in writing. Unless used stylistically, exaggeration can become a barrier to how much the reader will understand and trust your statements. Think of the number of times advertisers use superlatives- do we really believe that their product is ‘the best’?

Not all multi-syllable adjectives take ‘er’ and ‘est’. This is where ‘more’ or ‘most’ is used before the adjective.

For example ‘The sofa was the most comfortable seat in the room’.

I hope that’s helped. Let me know what you think or if there’s anything else you’d like explained or discussed. As always,  I’d very much appreciate if you could share or like this if you found it useful! Thanks!

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‘It’s’ or ‘Its’?

These two are commonly confused. Here are the rules:

‘It’s’ is short for ‘it is’ or ‘it has’.

Darth

‘It’s been a long time coming.’

‘It’s not you, it’s me.’

‘It’s a massive hot air balloon shaped like Darth Vader’s head.’

‘It’s rather intimidating.’

‘Its’ is used as the possessive: when something belongs to the ‘it’ in question.

s-BAD-IRON-MAN-COSTUME-large‘The jury has reached its decision: the guy in all the sellotape is not the real Iron Man.’ 

‘The dog chased its tail.’

‘Its colour was unexpected.’

‘The group changed its name.’

 

Could you put ‘it is’ in the sentence instead? Then use ‘it’s’. Could you put ‘him’/’her’ in the sentence? Use ‘Its’.

I’d love to hear from you if you have a good way of remembering this, any questions or good examples!

 

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Writer’s Block

A guest post by the fantastic author, C.H. Aalberry

My best ideas never seem to make it down onto paper. I walk home with my head full of pictures and witty dialogues, but as soon as I sit down to capture them, they evaporate. Getting ideas onto paper is hard, and that blank sheet can be intimidating. There may be rare times when words pour out faster than you can get them down, but what about the times when you sit in front of your computer and can’t think of what to do next? 

Don’t misunderestimate your own potential: if George can make it to the Whitehouse, you can write a novel.

Don’t misunderestimate your own potential: if George can make it to the White House, you can write a novel.

Writer’s block. It affects all writers eventually, particularly during first drafts. Writing is an act of creation that is easily derailed. So, what can be done to solve this dilemma? Here are eight tips I use when I get stuck:

1)      Start somewhere, start anywhere. Write what comes easiest. It doesn’t have to be the next chapter or even the next paragraph in the story, because as long as you are writing you are making progress. If you have any ideas floating around that you know you want to include, nail them down and put them in order later. I write a few key chapters first, which gives me some idea of where the story is going. Maybe start with a description of a character or a place: it may not be included in the final product, but it could start you off.

 2)      Don’t panic if it’s not perfect. You write a few lines. They are rubbish. You want to give up. Don’t. The point of a first draft is that you are creating the raw material for your second draft, so don’t worry if it seems rough.

I bet that even the Bard had poor writing days, and he turned out OK.

I bet that even the Bard had poor writing days, and he turned out OK.

3)      Change the scene. Try writing at your local library or cafe. A change of location can nudge you into action. Load everything onto an online drop box and you can carry on from wherever you are in the world (except for North Korea).

4)      Talk it out. I find talking about my work out loud helps me work out a direction and a few key phrases to get me started. No one to talk to? No worries! Talk aloud to yourself- all the creative types does it (note: best avoid mixing this step with step 3).

 5)      Put some pressure on. Tell your pal or your partner or your parrot that you will have five hundred words written by the end of the day… it’s an incentive to get started because if you don’t that parrot will judge you forever. 

Parrots: beautiful, but surprisingly judgemental.

Parrots: beautiful, but surprisingly judgemental

 6)      Take some pressure off. Go for a walk. It may not help your writing, but at least you’ll be getting some exercise. Also, inspiration is more likely to strike when you are relaxed, so get out there and smell the roses.

7)      Still struggling? Get inspired. If you are spending hours in front of your computer but not producing anything then it’s time for a break! Think of it as sharpening the axe. Go to an art gallery. Look at pictures of wildlife on the internet. Learn a little something about the world. Read a short story or two (shameless plug: ‘The Origami Dragon And Other Tales’ is full of short stories guaranteed* to inspire you). Sometimes all it takes is a change of mood.

8)      Persist! Persistence is a key ingredient to writing, so keep calm and keep writing. After all, slow progress is still progress.

I hope that helps. If you have any ideas about beating writer’s block, post them in the comments, I would love to see them. Finally, remember that writer’s block is normal, but don’t let it stop you from doing what you love!

*I lie; there are no guarantees when it comes to inspiration. But the book does contain a story about tiny elephants.

C. H. Aalberry is the author of the fantasy novel ‘Wish’ and ‘The Origami Dragon And Other Tales’, a collection of short stories. 

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