Tag Archives: writing advice

The Best of the Web: World Book Day

logoI have been trawling the blogs, clicking on hashtags and generally pottering around the interweb to find some great content to share with you in celebration of World Book Day. In the UK, on the first Thursday in March, every child is given a book voucher, and most go to school dressed as story characters, all to encourage a life long love of books.

Cethan Leahy encapsulates the spirit beautifully in his illustration of grown up Matilda. Leahy says, ‘In honour of World Book Day, I drew a grown up Matilda to demonstrate the happiness and health one accrues from a lifetime of reading. Enjoy!’

Grown Up Matilda by Cethan Leahy

Grown Up Matilda by Cethan Leahy

I also love this video, made by talented animator Jonathan Mckee a few years ago.

There are a plethora of excellent kids dressed up as book characters photos, but the best I’ve seen are professional photographer Abigail Fahey’s  stylish shots of her seven-year-old as The Fantastic Mr Fox.

On World Book Day, funds are raised for Book Aid International which ‘works in partnership with libraries in Africa providing books, resources and training to support an environment in which reading for pleasure, study and lifelong learning can flourish.’ Watch a book’s journey from printing press to readers.

I was also intrigued by the revelation in The Independent that, ‘The average British household contains 138 books, but over half of these have never been read…two-thirds keep books because they are emotionally attached to them, while more than one in four say they hate throwing anything away.’ Firstly, never throw away a book – donate it. Secondly, are they emotionally attached to the books they’ve never read? More research needed. Answers on a postcard please.

Enjoy this fabulous advice from Malorie Blackman on how to structure a story.

Oxford Street Waterstones have been a delight on Twitter all day.

waterstones

Those are my picks of the best things on the Internet for World Book Day. Do you have anything to add? Please comment below!

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Naming Characters: Make it Easy for Yourself and Your Readers

Anna Karenina - only dates men called Alexei.

Anna Karenina – only dates men called Alexei.

When naming your characters, there are simple ways to make life easier for you and your readers.

  1. Ideally, each character name should start with a different letter of the alphabet. I’ve seen manuscripts where writers have mistyped one similar name rather than the other. Also, a lot of readers don’t read the whole word every time, so an ‘Alice’ and an ‘Abbie’ can easily be confused. This can cause readers to miss or misunderstand details of the plot. I am of the opinion that Tolstoy’s work would be much easier to follow if he hadn’t named every third character ‘Alexei’.
  2. Choose character names that only have one spelling. It’s very easy for you as a writer to put down a manuscript for a while, come back to it and start typing ‘Anne’ rather than ‘Ann’.
  3. Uriah Heep never quite forgave his mum for that name.

    Uriah Heep never quite forgave his mum for that name.

    The same goes for last names. Be particularly wary of double letters; they’re harder to see on a read through. ‘Barrat’ and ‘Baratt’, for example, look very similar when skimming.

  4. Choose something that is easy to pronounce. Anything perplexing will put off a reader if they have to struggle through it each time it appears. This doesn’t mean it has to be a well-known name; you can make it up completely just as long as it follows standard phonetic rules. That is, every reader will ‘guess’ the pronunciation in the same way; ‘Bilbo Baggins’ would be an example of this.
  5. You can use your names to give the reader some indication of their characterisation. You don’t have to go the full Dickens and use very literal names (‘Uriah Heep’ and ‘Mr Sharp’ are very clearly antagonists in David Copperfield); consider Austen’s ‘Marianne Dashwood’: the name hints at her flighty, skittish tendencies.

Of course, the mistyping issues can be solved by a careful proofreader. Your character choice should primarily be based on what you want to call them and what you feel suits them, but do think of your reader too. 

voldemort-name-pronounce

How did you choose your character names? 

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Confessions of a Closet Groover

Today, dear reader, I’m going to tell you the secret of my (moderate) success. robot-dance-contest I’m not one to blow my own brass section, but I think I’m pretty OK at writing things. I got firsts in my dissertations and I have an ebook that sells relatively well (it’s half off at the moment – if you’re interested!). To get those results takes many hours of dedicated keyboard tapping. It can be really difficult to sit at a computer, focus and just keep typing interesting matter. The brain simply can’t deal with that level of constant concentration; that’s why I needed something else to do, for just a couple of minutes each hour: something completely different to free my thoughts, rest my eyes and avoid some sort of nasty repetitive strain issue. This is my secret weapon: The Three Minute Dance Break

"Guys? I thought you said you were all going to join in... well this is embarrassing.'

“Guys? I thought you said you were all going to join in… well this is embarrassing.’

Seriously, it works. For just three minutes every hour, stand up, do something that vaguely resembles a stretch you once saw someone do in a Fame parody, press play on your audio equipment and have a proper dance about. It relaxes your muscles, gives you a good stretch, stops you getting square eyes and allows your brain a rest ready for a new burst of creativity. This is probably best applied in the relative privacy of your own home; though come to think of it, in any library the people around will just assume that you’re the starting point of a Harlem Shake and feel obliged to disrobe atop the furniture to join in.

I know not everyone likes to freestyle so here’s my literary dancing suggestion: Dance like a mystery writer –  put in a twist at the end! 

It can be glorious for giving your brain the space to come up with new ideas – a great cure for writer’s block! For more well thought out tips on writer’s block, click here.

What do you think of The Three Minute Dance Break? Give it a try! I hear all the writers are doing it! 

If you enjoyed this, please like or share!  

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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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Using Commas Like a Winner

I’m generally on board when it comes to Ernest Hemingway: I like the books; I like the beard; I like that he uses commas sparingly. Though I do think the last two are rather hard to pull off for anyone other than the great EH.  One does need to pause for breath now and again and, if you follow the rules, well placed commas can be an asset to your writing. Here’s how to use them:

1. To separate items in a list. 

For example, the terminator’s Christmas list: ‘Clothes, boots, motorcycle.’

2. To put a section of the sentence in parenthesis.

‘Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most famous catchphrase, the one from The Terminator, hopefully doesn’t apply to his political career.’

3. To indicate divisions between clauses in  a complex sentence. 

‘Arnie might, if given the funds and opportunity, make a sequel to Total Recall, focussing on his character’s declining short term memory: Partial Recall.’

4. To separate sections of a sentence to make it a smoother read. 

‘Released in 1990, Kindergarten Cop is an indisputable triumph of the genre.’

5. To introduce or end direct speech. 

‘Your clothes,’ he demanded, ‘give them to me, now!’

Generally, try reading your sentence out loud to see where the pauses naturally fall. Then decide, based on the guidelines, whether a comma would fit there. Essentially, a part of your sentence must be a complete clause. If it isn’t, you’ve used too many commas!

It is important to get them right: a misplaced comma can entirely change the meaning of a sentence. See seals.

In terms of Oxford commas (commas before ‘and’ in a list), the convention is not to use them in British English unless their omission could cause the meaning to be misinterpreted. See below.

In creative writing, like Ernest Hemingway’s, commas can be omitted for effect to create a faster pace, but make sure that the sense of the phrase is preserved.

It’s been said that when Joseph Conrad emerged from his study one midday after a morning of writing, his wife asked what he had done. He said,  ‘I took out a comma,’  She asked the same question that evening after several hours’ more work. He said, ‘I put back the comma.’ The moral is: commas matter.

If you would like any help putting yours in the right places, do get in touch!

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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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