Category Archives: Writing Advice

Secrets and Lies

Intrigue is the root of so much great storytelling. I think the trick to writing it well is to give enough clues for the reader to have a few guesses at what secret is held by the mysterious aristocrat/creepy housekeeper/any character who gives cryptic answers to simple questions while gazing with a troubled frown into the middle distance. Yet don’t let your audience get too close to the truth- perhaps pop in a few red herrings; a surprise ending is always a treat! Or, it can be great fun to drum up a bit of dramatic irony- let your audience  in on the secret and let the anticipation for the fall out build!

I recently read the absolutely brilliant Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Bradden. The eponymous protagonist lacks a credible back story, refuses to see certain guests and giggles awkwardly before becoming deathly pale far too often to be innocent. The reader is brilliantly fooled along with the characters up until the final dénouement: more twists than a curly-wurly on a helter skelter.

Many of the best secrets are hidden in attics (see Dorian Gray) but Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester hides a whole wife up there. It is an undeniable classic by Charlotte Brontë; secrecy and foreboding are cleverly maintained throughout.

Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations has a greatly unexpected reveal- who’s funding Pip? Probably one of the eccentric wealthy people in the novel…or perhaps not!

In The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Misselthwaite Manor is host to many secrets behind locked doors, in addition to the magical garden. Even a child, Colin, is hidden away. It is a master class in that timeless literary technique of implying something’s wrong with the use of shifty servants.

A complex web of secrets is found in Daniel Deronda by George Eliot. The biggest secret is who the title character really is. Is he the illegitimate son of the chap that he suspects is his father? Moreover, everyone else is hiding something: affairs, secret children, the fact that they’ve found out someone else’s secret but aren’t willing to tell them. The whole thing becomes an ‘I know something you don’t know’ to the power of ‘I know something you think I don’t know but actually, I do’.

Also, the device is used in practically every Shakespeare play:

Romeo and Juliet: ‘I just met you, and this is crazy, but how about we get married and keep it a secret from our families?’

Hamlet: ‘I killed your father to marry your mother.’ and, ‘I’m not actually mad. Or am I?’

Julius Caesar: ‘We’re going to kill the chap in charge, and yep, Brutus is coming too.’

Merchant of Venice: ‘I’m a woman dressed as a man.’

Twelfth Night: ‘I’m a woman dressed as a man.’

The Merry Wives of Windsor: ‘I’m a man dressed as a woman.’ (Just for a touch of variety…)

What do you think of my list? Do any other brilliant fictional secrets spring to mind? Please share in the comments!

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Active and Passive Voice

Choosing to use the active or passive voice can change the tone and emphasis of a sentence considerably. Active is usually more direct.

When using the active voice, the noun relates to the verb directly:

Stop! Grammar Time

‘MC Hammer wore incredible trousers.’

In the passive voice, the subject follows the object:

‘Incredible trousers were worn by MC Hammer.’

The active voice is used far more commonly in creative and journalistic writing. The passive voice is often used in business materials and formal writing. Also, the passive voice can be useful in creative writing if the writer is making a point of distance or detachment between the subject and the object or the action. Additionally, it can be used to avoid repetition of ‘I’ at the beginning of sentences.

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Semicolons Are Your Friends: A Quick Guide on How to Use Them

As a proofreader, I come upon semicolon issues in almost every piece of work I read. They are often seen as difficult and are frequently mis-used instead of commas or colons, or left out completely; some people are reluctant to use them for anything other than winking emoticons.  I remembering taking a while to grasp their uses when I was taught. But why do people struggle with them so? Perhaps they just aren’t taught well at school (stick that in your baccalaureate, Gove). What ever the reason, there are two simple rules that anyone can learn: 

1.  Semicolons are used to mark a break in a sentence, usually where both halves of the sentence could stand as sentences in their own right. You use a semicolon instead of a full stop to indicate that the points are closely linked.  This could mean that the second half explains or expands on the first, but semicolons should also be used when the two factors are directly contrasted. 

‘He loved the video of a kitten playing the piano on YouTube;  she preferred recordings of Glee-themed flash mobs.’

It would also be technically correct in this instance to use a full stop; the relationship between the two is more neatly expressed using a semicolon.

Another example: if I were to write out the lyrics to David Guetta’s ‘Titanium’, it would look like this: 

‘You shoot me down, but I won’t fall; I am titanium.’ 

You could use a full stop in between, but a semicolon nicely demonstrates the causality between the two assertions.

2. Semicolons can also be used to separate items in a list where they consist of more than one word. The list should be introduced with a colon and the items separated by semicolons.

‘He enjoyed a variety of other videos: the panda falling out of a hammock; squirrels spinning like whirligigs on bird-feeders or washing lines; that dog that does the lambada; and anything featuring Benedict Cumberbatch on a day off.’  

That’s it; there are just two uses. You can do it!

Have a go at punctuating these: 

‘All passengers have been informed that they must not carry sharp objects that random spot-checks can be expected that longer than usual delays are possible’

‘She couldn’t dance in her favourite ballroom it was being renovated’

Let me know how you get on in the comments! 

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Advice for Students: The Wisdom of Graduates!

I think the best advice comes from experience, so  I asked my friends, acquaintances and the lovely people of the Internet how they coped with university life and what advice they would give to current undergrads. Here is their collective wisdom! Thanks everyone!

(p.s. Please add yours in the comments!)

New addition from Sorcha: ‘YOU ARE NOT A NUMBER!  Now is the time to start developing your own personality. If you want to party every night – fine! If you don’t – fine! Live on the edge of your comfort zone – it’s the best time to find out what your comfort zone is – but don’t live beyond it. You are the only person you have to live with for the rest of your life so you are (in the end) the only person you have to answer to – that, and the police!

Reading/essay writing? Read as many essays as you write. Twain, Swift, any of the modern essay writers – you get to see how the good, the bad and the ugly write essays, so get to see how it (should not) be done.’ I think that’s such excellent advice- thank you for your contribution!

Ricky wrote: ‘My advice would be to use your first year wisely. It doesn’t count towards your degree, so is the perfect opportunity to find your own style with which you’re comfortable, to make mistakes and learn about university expectations for when it really counts.’ I’m not sure if this is true of all universities, but is certainly the case at many. It’s definitely worth using this time well  and gaining the skills that will make subsequent years more manageable.  

Peter says: ‘The things I learnt, sometimes the hard way, was to leave yourself plenty of time, research something you

Honey on toast will make your essays better. FACT.

find interesting / relevant and get a friend or proofreader to read through it as well. This was my survival guide to third year!’ Great advice, and very on message! 

Sara has 3 excellent points: ‘1- the thinking is the most important bit-spend a few hours with research books closed,

computer off and just a piece of paper and pen to doodle out your ideas.

2-tell people what you’re going to say over and over again. It’s an essay, not a James Patterson, so while it is important it is engaging, cliffhangers and plot twists should be avoided in favour of clarity

3-honey on toast.’ The perfect blend of sugar, carbs and comfort to keep you going! 

Clare gives this vital advice: ‘When you’re researching and you find something useful, always write down where it came from – there’s nothing worse than reading that perfect quote in your notes and not being able to reference it!’

From Holly: ‘Always give yourself at least 24 hours before the deadline to print your essay — I don’t know about anyone

WWOD? What Would Orpheus Do?

else but our uni printers were a mare. Also, once it’s printed, channel the mythical lyre-player Orpheus when he was given the chance to save his beloved Eurydice from Hades: don’t look back. Just hand it in.’ This was absolutely true for my uni too, I’m pretty sure physical fights broke out over printers on deadline day! Also, what a reference! If in doubt, I always think what would Orpheus do?  

Jonathan adds this: ‘from someone who has 3 college degrees and wrote more 20 page papers than should be allowed, I have one tip that was not brought up yet when writing a paper. Write it as if  you were going to tell a story. Know your beginning, know your ending and figure out how you are going to get from A to Z. Use plenty of examples, quote, use APA style, and use examples. However, the most important thing? Read-understand what is asked of you. Understand the assignment. Lastly, when possible, choose topics you enjoy, that interest you. My grad school thesis was “parental rage in youth sports” I looked at the many examples of parents who became violent because of their child playing sport and I concluded that there are 2 main causes… My thesis was 76 pages…but you don’t have to worry about that till you get to grad school!’ Marvellous points: I especially agree that you must make sure you fully understand what is being asked of you and keep to that brief. 

I’m afraid for want of space I have to paraphrase the quality, extensive advice from Rachel: ‘First if you’re a psych, nursing, or anything to do with APA use, use and use!  Even just in your citation every bit counts! 
As to more general tips.

1. Please don’t be like my friend (well a few of the friends I have had throughout the years) and edit every single sentence or paragraph as you write. Wait until the very end! If you do you’ll get nothing done.
2. Don’t let a teacher influence the writing. I held my writing up and I didn’t want to do it or wasn’t as motivated because I hated my teacher, bad idea: nearly failed the class.
3. Essays actually take time, more time and even more time. don’t wait till the night before! Do it as soon as you can, because you’ll regret cramming it in to a space of a few hours! 
4. Research a somewhat popular topic. I am very known for searching stuff there is no research for, or else very little.

So you think flip flops are better than sandals? Prove it!

also, a bad idea, especially in APA when they ask for only peer reviewed journals. 
5. Make your intros interesting, and don’t put a note there telling people you’re going to screw with their heads. If you plan to great but don’t tell them. We read an essay in class like that last semester and after that we had no interest really in reading it any more.  But about intros, start with a good topic sentence, lead, hook, whatever you want to call it. but you want one so we don’t all fall asleep! 
6. REVISION! The most crucial part of writing! Make sure you edit edit edit after you write. the most important thing to writing is editing, and it is the most important and takes the longest in the writing process, read it aloud, have someone else read your paper aloud, have a friend edit it, wait a day till you can edit and catch mistakes, use spellcheck, whatever!
7 Evidence! make sure you have evidence in your paper don’t just say stuff without backing it up. If you think sandals are better then tennis shoes and tennis shoes are better then flip flops, great! write it down and prove it to us, with some research!

8. THESIS! If you write a paper, somewhere in that paper you need some sort of claim summary sentence to tell us what it’s about!
9. Conciseness is key! 
10. Conclude! that’s important, while your favourite sci-fi action horror comedy can get away with a cliff hanger, you can’t!  End it. Summarize it, put some sort of closing statement that lets people’s minds rest!
11. Some things to avoid at all costs in academic writing: writing your paper like this post, it’s not okay for ‘!’ to appear in your paper: don’t do it! You’ll either sound, overly angry, angsty, upset, or something like that! Don’t ask your readers questions throughout your paper and don’t talk directly to them. Stricter academic writers don’t like you even using contractions. So don’t. Don’t write like you are speaking and don’t use text chat.
12. Plagiarism is NOT okay! Also cite correctly, use in-text citations, put everything that are another person’s exact words in quotes, don’t quote too large of a bit otherwise it would sound like you’re filling space, and irrelevant. 
13. Don’t mimic.’ See the full version here.

Thanks so much to everyone who shared their brilliant thoughts! If any of you would like me to put in links to your blogs or anything, do get in touch. Is there anything we haven’t covered? Tell us in the comments or send me a message!  The more contributions the better!

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Advice for Students: How to Write Your First University Essay

Whether you’re coming to it from A Levels or the world of work, writing your first academic essay is a daunting task. The first thing to do is choose a topic, ideally a few weeks before the deadline so you have time to really think about it and avoid a last-minute panic! Make sure you go for something that interests you, ideally something that you attended the lecture and seminars on. The more you like a subject, the less of a chore the work will feel; you’ll spend more time on it and get a better result.

 It’s absolutely fine to start by reading a basic text book and online encyclopaedia articles to get an idea of the topic, but make sure you use serious, academic texts when in comes to referencing.

 The rule for referencing is if you are stating a fact or the opinion of another person, rather than your own comment or interpretation, you must use a reference. If in doubt, always reference! This doesn’t have to mean hours in the library, online journals are a quick way to find the proof of facts that you need, or search Google Books and it will show you all the texts it has on record with the phrase you’ve searched for in them.

 That said, do start with a few books from the library. Your faculty has chosen, and so implicitly recommended, many of these books; they may well be more reliable sources than you’ll find elsewhere. Take notes as you read with page numbers. You will thank yourself later when many other people are trawling back through what they’ve already read, desperate to find a reference at the eleventh hour. It’s good to have a range of references, try not to rely too heavily on one book. Six to eight is about the minimum number for a 1,000-2,000 word essay.

 Collect your notes once you’ve done your reading and decide what order you’re going to present your argument in. At university, unlike A Level, you must pick a side of the debate and argue it. You can present the alternative argument, but only to refute it with stronger evidence. Your points should follow logically and be summarised in your conclusion.

 Your introduction should say what you’re setting out to do and how you are going to do it: nothing more. For the body of the essay, make sure you start a new paragraph for every new point. Each paragraph should begin with your point, be followed by your evidence (a fact or quotation from an academic) and then finish with an explanation which specifically addresses your title. Point, Evidence, Explain.

 Don’t plagiarise: quote or use your own words and always reference. Have a read through before you submit it: some

Yes, it’s hard for you, but you only have to write one- your tutors have to read hundreds!

institutions award marks for spelling, grammar and punctuation, but whether yours does or not, your tutors will be more pleasantly disposed towards you if your work is well written and easy to read, it might just earn you a few extra marks!

 Before you submit it get someone else to have a read, perhaps a family member, course friend or a professional proofreader: anyone who will give you helpful, honest advice and check for the typos you’ve missed. Click here to see how I can help! 

 Then print it off! At my uni there was always a fight for the printers on deadline day so get in early, use your own or bribe a well-equipped friend! Hand it in (ideally with a bit of time to spare) and treat yourself to a drink, some food and a lie-down!

 Try not to stress about it too much, just read a few books, stick to the word count and get it in on time and you’ll be doing better than a lot of freshers! Relax and enjoy learning about something new: its surprising the things you’ll become an expert on in your uni years! 

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At the end of the day, when can you use a cliché?

Clichés are overused, stereotyped expressions that have lost their force and impact.  If I come across a cliché in an otherwise original and well-written piece of work, I find that it can jar. It just reminds me of awkward post-match interviews and phatic communion on public transport. The overuse of one of these phrases causes the sentiment to be lost as they can seem impersonal and insincere. Additionally, they can indicate a lack of vocabulary or careful thought and are not always exactly appropriate. They come in five main types:

As sick as John Cleese’s Parrot.

1. Clichés can take the form of similes, for example, ‘sick as a parrot’ or ‘as bold as brass’. I would recommend avoiding these in your writing because they are so well-used.

2. They can also be metaphors: ‘the long arm of the law’; ‘a baptism of fire’ and ‘he’s got an ace up his sleeve’.

3. Some proverbs and quotations have become clichés from overuse, including, ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ and ‘the blind leading the blind’.

4. Phrases and idioms can also become perhaps too widely repeated: ‘last but not least’, ‘age before beauty’ and ‘adding insult to injury’.

5. Also beware of excessive use of common adjective-noun pairings, for example, ‘timeless classic’, ‘burning question’ and ‘graphic description’.

They can be an effective device when used in particular ways. Most obviously, a well-used cliché can create a familiar, shared image that your readers can relate to, ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ for example. They can also be used in direct speech; which clichés they use can tell the reader a lot about a character.

There’s a section in Julie Burchill’s Sugar Rush where clichés are used cleverly as the characters of Saint and Kim, two smoking, swearing fifteen year olds ironically observe of younger teens, ‘Kids today, eh?’ and make each other laugh by employing adopted phrases such as ‘rites of passage’ and ‘when you need me, call me!’.

Clichés can be great for humour. I personally enjoy it when the literal meaning makes its metaphorical use nonsensical: ‘If they make bungee jumping illegal, they’ll drive it underground’. Another favourite of mine is ‘so I turned around and said to him’; when used repeatedly, I can’t help but imagine the speaker pirouetting continually!

A lot of jokes are based on subverting the expected wording to a cliché with word play. A chicken crossing the road: poultry in motion! When you’ve seen one shopping centre, you’ve seen a mall!

If you’re unsure whether to use a cliché, I recommend instead coming up with your own original metaphor or simile for the phenomenon. By creating a new, accurate expression you will give the reader a satisfying and delightful feeling of recognition. Having the imagination and vocabulary to describe something in an original, yet instantly relatable way is a great skill to develop as an author.

I’ll leave you on a final joke: Why did the chilly Inuits’ boat sink when they lit a fire in it? Because you can’t have your kayak and heat it too!

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All’s Well That Ends Well: Advice For Writers

It is always difficult deciding how to conclude what you’ve written; what final impression do you want to leave the reader with? Is there a message or a lesson that you want them to take away? In non-fiction writing in particular, many writers find it difficult to know when and how to stop.

 In terms of biography or autobiography, the rules are very similar to those in fiction, even though it is rather more difficult to choose an ‘ending’ point in real life. Essentially, you are telling a story. This means that the ending should resolve the main conflict that you have presented: you need to say what resulted from the key plot points or incidents. Although you don’t have to entirely resolve everything else you’ve mentioned, it’s better if you at least refer to any ongoing sub plots to give a sense of completion.

A good example of a satisfying ending can be found in Dave Gorman vs. The Rest of The World, a witty and cheerful book, I highly recommend it. This is Dave Gorman’s autobiographical account of challenging anyone and everyone to play a huge variety of games of their choosing. The ending refers back to the climax of the book as the writer overcomes a bad experience wherein he met a stranger who became violent. The last lines describe how he persuaded himself to persevere with the game-playing by remembering all the positive encounters he had had with people and didn’t allow himself to change his outlook irrevocably. Through the use of rhetorical questions, short paragraphs and truncated sentences, the reader is drawn in to Gorman’s internal monologue. By finishing on a positive note, he’s created a sort of happy moral to the story that leaves the reader with a smile.

The last line mirrors the opening of the book: ‘Do you play any games? Real life, not computer games. Would you like a game?’ This direct repetition is a lovely device that almost always makes for a satisfying ending. It’s as if it is bookending the text, or the main story is the sandwich filling and these two identical slices of bread hold it together. The same effect can be created by referring to the same event at the start and end of a text, or even just by using similar lexical choices a more subtle, almost subconscious, link can be made. By asking a direct question, Dave Gorman achieves the delicate balance of a conclusive, yet open ending, engaging the reader.

 Non-fiction texts of other genres often use similar techniques, referring back to a quotation or argument used at the start is a pleasing way to round off a text. In the sort of popular non-fiction which provides academic arguments or explanations at an accessible level, the ending must summarise the main points of the text and demonstrate the how the argument was built in order to restate it with finality and gravitas. In this sense it is similar to an essay. It is a justification of your thesis or world view, as demonstrated in Gerry Stoker’s Why Politics Matters: ‘This book has identified a challenge facing all democracies. The ideals of democracy are valued and supported by most citizens, however, the practice of democratic politics is currently a massive turn-off.’

 Importantly, he also recognises arguments to the contrary and potential weaknesses in his text and strongly refutes them using evidence. He defines his view of politics and its role in society. In his final paragraph he directly answers his title. Why does politics matter? ‘Politics matters because it, too, is an ingredient in what is needed for a good life.’ Using words from the title is one of my favourite techniques for rounding something off satisfactorily. I call it the Love Actually Device, because that’s one of the films where one of the characters almost manages to un-ironically work the title of the film into the dialogue. I love it when they say the title of the film in the film. It makes me want to punch the air with joy. The same applies to books and essays.

 A bit of parallel phrasing finishes off Gerry Stoker’s book beautifully, ‘Achieving mass democracy was the great triumph of the twentieth century. Learning to live with it will be the great achievement of the twenty-first.’ Glorious. 

 Basically, think about the mood you want to leave the reader in. Both these texts, though very different, finish with a common theme of hope for the future. Finishing on a positive note will leave the reader well disposed to your story or argument. Consider: why did you write this account? What do you want the reader to know? Make sure that your point is clearly stated, give the reader something to ponder on and leave a lasting impression.

 Get someone else to read it (friends, family, or a professional proofreader) and see what impression they were left with. If all else fails, just write in large, definitive lettering…THE END.

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Show and Tell: Advice for Writers

‘Show don’t tell’ is advice often given to writers, but it’s a difficult balance to strike. How do you let your readers know what’s happening if you don’t tell them? It really means that you should demonstrate information through plot, dialogue and other literary techniques, rather than stating a series of facts. This is the difference between saying, ‘Roger was angry when he got home,’ and ‘Roger stormed in, slamming the door behind him.’ The former version provides the necessary information, but the latter is arguably more engaging as it illustrates the emotion, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusion.

Showing, rather than telling, can also be instrumental in moving the plot forward. Rather than spending time describing characters, settings and events separately, they could all, for example, be introduced in a section of dialogue. This can show how the characters talk, how they feel about situations and keep the momentum of the story going. For example:

‘Please,’ said Ryan, proffering the spare scooter helmet. ‘’Simportant. Need to talk to you. Ain’t much time left.’

            ‘Why?’ Snapped Clara, ‘You goin’ some place?’

            ‘You and me both,’ murmured Ryan. ‘The right place, ’opefully.’

In this extract from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, we get a sense of the character’s attitudes, accents and relationship. By showing, the author brings the reader right into the moment; a sense of urgency is created in the dialogue. I definitely recommend this book, by the way, it’s a really good read.

There is such a thing, however, as too much showing and not enough telling. In Philip Roth’s Deception, for example, the story is told only through unattributed dialogue. The lack of authorial voice  to explain who is speaking, where they are, their relationships to each other and, frankly, why the reader should care, means that even the kindest reviewers euphemistically labelled it ‘challenging’.

Telling can ensure that key information has been made obvious to the reader. To illustrate this:

Bert White was a frail-looking, weedy, pale-faced boy, fifteen years of age and about four feet nine inches in     height…He was a pitiable spectacle of neglect and wretchedness…

Robert Tressel, in his novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, tells the reader about Bert’s physical appearance and goes on to describe the other characters in similar detail. This helps the reader to get a sense of the character; they can see what the author thinks is important for them to observe. Tressel wrote the novel to draw attention to the problem of poverty; telling allowed him to directly express the state of people he encountered and describe the conditions he experienced truthfully.

Telling can also clarify plot points. If you want the reader to know about something that happened in the past, for example, it might be more straight-forward to just tell them rather than spending time in flashbacks or long reminiscences.

Adopting the mantra ‘show, don’t tell’ will keep your stories dynamic and interesting. Avoiding a distractingly dominant authorial voice allows the reader to become immersed in the world you are creating. Nevertheless, ensure that you convey necessary information and vital plot points; enough, at least, to sign-post your reader towards what you want to show them. Now let’s see if Roger’s calmed down…

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