The Secret Life of Pronouns by James W. Pennebaker

Pennebaker

James Pennebaker studies computational linguistics, a field which could only exist in the modern world. He uses the abundance of online content and the power of computing to count the frequency of words. It sounds dry, especially since he focuses on the most forgettable words: pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and other “function” words. What can the frequency and patterns of these words possibly tell us about someone? A lot, in fact. Words like I, he, you, that, in, the, with, and but are used around 30 percent of the time, yet we barely notice them. But these “hidden” words can reveal more than nouns and verbs do.

By simply ignoring content and counting the function words, Pennebaker discovered that men and women use language very differently. So do elders and youngsters, truth tellers and liars, and sad or happy or angry people. Use of pronouns can show when a leader is preparing for war or when a couple is in love. For example, honest people use “I” at a higher rate than liars. They own their stories. Sad people tend to use words indicating past tense while angry people focus on the here and now.

The most surprising finding is about those of high versus low status. People of high status use more nouns. People of lower status use more verbs and pronouns, especially the word “I.” You’d expect just the opposite, but upon reflection, it makes sense. Those in power pay attention to the task at hand. Those who are less secure in their position self-consciously focus on themselves. Pennebaker reprints a pair of emails he wrote, one to a student and one to his boss, showing how his use of first person pronouns shot up when he wrote to someone of higher status.

Everyone who wants to write realistic characters should study THE SECRET LIFE OF PRONOUNS. Readers may not be able to pinpoint exactly why, but they’ll complain if your honest character sounds like a liar, or your grandmother sounds like a teenager. However, the best writers instinctively know this stuff. Shakespeare and Dickens didn’t have a computer to count words or access to Pennebaker’s vast database. They just knew how real people talk. Pennebaker gives an example from the beginning of KING LEAR and from the end. Lear’s use of function words changes dramatically as he falls from power. You can see an equally huge change in Ebenezer Scrooge from powerful and angry at the beginning of A CHRISTMAS CAROL to humble and optimistic at the end.

As you can see here and here, I love popular science books that use hard data and real research to come to unexpected conclusions. In the case of THE SECRET LIFE OF PRONOUNS, that research is something I will turn to again and again for the rest of my career.

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THE SECRET LIFE OF PRONOUNS can be found here.

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Rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: advanced writers

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I recommend this book.

Cut to the Chase edited by Linda Venis

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CUT TO THE CHASE is an anthology put together by the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Each chapter is written by a different screenwriter. Editor Linda Venis has organized the fifteen chapters so one progresses to another in a logical way, from outline to first draft to rewrites. The advice is surprisingly harmonious, without anyone contradicting anyone else. The result feels like a chorus of experts gently guiding the novice writer and cheering her success.

The chapters are meaty, around twenty pages each. These aren’t little blog posts tossed off the top of the someone’s head. These are well-developed lessons taught by writers who have thought deeply about their chosen topics.

My favorite chapter was called “The Art and Craft of Dialog Writing” by Karl Iglesias. Good dialog is what people want in a book or movie, and it’s the hardest to get right. Iglesias’ tips will help even the most tone-deaf writer improve. Another standout was “Polish Workshop: Making Your Best Even Better” by Michael Weiss. Weiss’ takes the murky, terrifying process of rewriting and makes it clear and easy. He breaks it down step by step into simple but powerful advice that anyone can follow. Even though I’m a novelist, not a screenwriter, I’m going to refer to Weiss’ chapter when putting the final touches on my next manuscript. But it’s not just these two chapters: every bit of CUT TO THE CHASE is bursting with useful advice for both screenwriters and novelists.

CUT TO THE CHASE concludes with a few chapters on the business of selling a screenplay, detailing all the ins and outs of Hollywood. It’s the shortest section of the book since the authors are more focused on the craft of writing. They have separated the Hollywood hype from the real work of creating a great story. And it is work. None of the writers sugarcoat it, but they clearly love what they do and are happy to teach new writers everything they know.

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CUT TO THE CHASE can be found here.

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rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.

Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth by James Scott Bell

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I’ve always enjoyed James Scott Bell’s blog and was happy to find a collection of his posts on writing.  Sometimes essay collections can be uneven or repetitive, but these were carefully selected to cover a wide range of topics without repeating any. WRITING FICTION FOR ALL YOU’RE WORTH is an inspirational book, but it’s not all empty cheerleading. Bell is so absolutely convinced that you can write that soon you’ll believe it too. More importantly, he’s going to show you how.

Bell says writers should push themselves, committing to never-ending self-improvement. He shows writers how to set up a schedule, how to study other books, and how to stay focused. He recommends a weekly (rather than daily) word count goal so that one bad day doesn’t derail the whole program. He stresses the inner work a writer must do to have a long-term career. Every writer has envy and arrogance and impatience but we can’t write well until we deal with it.

In the middle section, Bell covers matters of craft like how much backstory to put in or when to use prologues or how to write a synopsis. His advice is practical and to the point. I especially liked the chapter on using smell in fiction—the forgotten sense. He includes evocative examples from Dean Koontz and Stephen King. The final section is a series of interviews with eleven of the hottest authors today, like Tess Gerritsen and Brad Thor. It’s a pleasure to read writing advice from people at the top of their game.

I always learn a lot from James Scott Bell. He has a knack of telling me what I need to hear, explained in a way I can understand. His style is so smooth that I read all of WRITING FICTION FOR ALL YOU’RE WORTH in one sitting, but it’s a book I’ll go back to again and again.

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WRITING FICTION FOR ALL YOU’RE WORTH can be found here.

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rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

Finding Your Voice by Les Edgerton

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Voice is something writers and readers love to talk about. Many editors say that voice is everything, but when you ask them to define it, they shrug and say, “I know it when I see it.” These same people often insist that voice can’t be developed: a writer either has it or she doesn’t. Edgerton knows this is a lie. FINDING YOUR VOICE shows a writer how to develop her unique voice, mostly by regaining her original style, diction, and word choice.

The trick is to get out of your own way. We all write with a head full of well-meaning advice from teachers, parents, editors, and the ghosts of famous writers. Edgerton provides exercises to kick them all out, because trying to please everyone will result in bland, beige writing. The examples in FINDING YOUR VOICE show how some writers turn stiff and heavy the moment they become the least bit unsure of their writing. The writers think that formal language and big words make them sound like they know their stuff, but it often has the opposite effect. Edgerton isn’t saying that you can get away with ungrammatical, sloppy writing. But you can write well while also writing like yourself.

Once a writer regains her true, authentic voice, Edgerton tackles the four elements of voice: tone, vocabulary, imagery, and rhythm. Every chapter of FINDING YOUR VOICE has exercises to make sure you’re staying in your voice. Edgerton cautions writers to be especially careful while editing. It’s too easy to edit your voice right out of your work.

FINDING YOUR VOICE ends with a disclaimer. How-to books are great, but nobody is the final authority, not even Edgerton himself. The major part of an authentic voice is trusting your own instincts. Learn from other writers, Edgerton says, but have the confidence to let your true voice come through.

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FINDING YOUR VOICE can be found here.

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rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate to advanced writers

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I recommend this book.

Save the Cat Strikes Back by Blake Snyder

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After the publication of SAVE THE CAT in 2005, Blake Snyder thought he’d said everything he needed to say about screenwriting. After all, the subtitle of SAVE THE CAT is “The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need.”  So why did Snyder write SAVE THE CAT STRIKES BACK four years later? Because he started teaching. In Snyder’s writing workshops, students came with questions. They challenged his assumptions. They called him out when his explanations weren’t clear enough. SAVE THE CAT STRIKES BACK was born directly out of those workshops. The result is a book that’s even better than SAVE THE CAT, and believe me, the original was already amazing.

Like the original, SAVE THE CAT STRIKES BACK is about story structure. Because long-form story structure doesn’t change much from medium to medium, all of Snyder’s advice works just as well for novels as it does for screenplays. Using what Snyder calls the “beat sheet,” a writer can easily see the big turning points of the story and where they fit on the story arc. The writer has to know, from the moment he sets pen to paper, how the hero will change and the best way to show that change. Snyder gives many pointers on how to keep the spine of the story straight so that the audience happily goes along, perhaps surprised but never confused.

But structure does not mean formula. To Snyder, these are not formulas, but universal storytelling rules, as unbreakable as the laws of physics. Telling a story in a certain way, with scenes in a certain order, simply enhances the reader’s experience. Those who don’t believe it should read the original SAVE THE CAT where Snyder demonstrates how movies as diverse as “Jaws” and “Sister Act” have the same turning points at the same places in the show.

Snyder also devotes considerable time to handling rewrites, especially rewrites at the request of movie executives (novelists can substitute editors or beta readers, here). His 50-point checklist for revision is the best I’ve seen anywhere. Again, it’s not unique to screenplays. There are ways to make every story better and Snyder knows how.

Of all the books I’ve read, the SAVE THE CAT series has taught me the most about story structure. If I had to pare down my overflowing bookshelves to just a handful of volumes, SAVE THE CAT STRIKES BACK would easily make the short list. I can’t imagine writing a novel without it.

And you shouldn’t, either.

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SAVE THE CAT STRIKES BACK can be found here.

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rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate to advanced writers

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I recommend this book.

Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

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SWITCH is a bit outside my usual niche of how-to books for writers. However, this book is full of good lessons for writers, for business people (which many writers consider themselves) and for families, so I decided to review it anyway. It also has information that isn’t in every other how-to book out there, and all of it is backed up by solid research and useful examples.

SWITCH is about change. It’s hard to change, even when we know we need to, but there are some surprisingly simple things that make change easier. Most writers want to change something about their writing life, whether it’s working with a different publishing house, trying a different genre, or simply turning off the internet and putting butt-in-chair. Heath and Heath divide our capacity for change into three distinct areas they call the rider, the elephant, and the path. People can achieve remarkable changes by working on just one of these, but achieve lasting success by using all three.

The rider is the intellectual part of us, the part that knows we have to change. It’s the planner, not the doer. Writers are thinkers, so most of us have no problem coming up with amazing plans for change. The problem is carrying out those plans. That’s where the elephant comes in. The elephant is the energy, the motivation, and most importantly, the emotion. If you don’t feel the need for change deep in your gut, the change will be short-lived. Heath and Heath provide numerous strategies for getting your elephant moving. But of course, without a path, an elephant and a rider will go in circles. If every change seems like two steps forward, one step back, then the path might be the problem. There are ways to change the environment to make things easier.

I loved the examples in SWITCH. Many how-to books, especially those written for business people, pad the book with repetitive, irrelevant and barely plausible stories. Heath and Heath’s examples are wide-ranging. They discuss everything from nutrition programs in Vietnam to merchandising at Target, yet none it seemed contrived.

SWITCH appealed to my rider with solid how-to advice. It appealed to my elephant with its examples. And now that I’ve read the book, I know how to shape the path to make any change I want to.

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SWITCH can be found here.

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rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: all writers

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I recommend this book

The Liar’s Companion by Lawrence Block

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THE LIAR’S COMPANION is a collection of columns Lawrence Block wrote for Writer’s Digest magazine from 1987 to 1990. This was before Block was a Grand Master of the mystery genre, so they’re written from the point of view of someone who is a full-time writer, but not a household name. Although the columns are old, they feel fresh. Block tackles enduring subjects with solid advice and a kind tone.

Most of the columns are about craft matters–how much research to do, how ideas become plot, the danger of writing in present tense, and how to write three-dimensional characters. Block covers beginnings, middles, and ends in three short chapters that are as good as entire books on the topic. He often addresses his fictional students by name, and lets them ask questions as proxies for the reader. Some people might find this too cute by half, but I loved it. It made me wish I could sit in that imaginary classroom and be Mr. Block’s student.

Several of the collected columns aren’t about craft matters, but about a writer’s lifestyle. Block made several visits to artists’ colonies, where he stayed up to six weeks. These colonies are idyllic retreats where writers and other artists are given unstructured free time to create. Block details how heavenly an artists’ colony is when the work is going well, and how hellish it is when the work is going poorly. He also frequently mentions his novel, RANDOM WALK, which was published around that time. The novel was a departure from his earlier work (The Matthew Scudder series) and Block alternates between extraordinary pride in the book and terror at how it would be received.

THE LIAR’S COMPANION also discusses touchier issues–joining writer’s groups, dealing with agents, and the agony of reviews. Block likes critique groups in theory, although he’s never joined one. His column on agents is a bit outdated. The agent’s role has changed too much in the last twenty years for this column to be helpful. However, his take on book reviews is timeless. Then, as now, it is best to ignore them if you can. If you can’t ignore them, try not to take them personally. Reviews don’t do much to sell books anyway.

Block says that writing about writing made him a better writer. Teaching others how to apply certain techniques made him aware of how he was using them in his own books. I’m so glad that writing these monthly columns made Block the writer he is today.  I learned so much from reading Block’s collected columns that I can honestly say reading THE LIAR’S COMPANION made me a better writer, too.

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THE LIAR’S COMPANION can be found here.

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rating: 5 stars

 

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.

The Author’s Marketing Handbook by Claire Ryan

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Claire Ryan markets books for a living, so she seems the ideal person to write a how-to guide on the topic. I’ve read dozens of books about marketing for writers. THE AUTHOR’S MARKETING HANDBOOK is one of the best I’ve seen. It’s full of straightforward advice without a bit of fluff or self-praise. Too many authors of these kinds of books want to trumpet their own success as if it can be perfectly duplicated by another writer. Ryan never falls into this trap. She never gives “case studies.” She never uses her own clients as examples. She simply tells what works, and why.

Ryan’s focus is on new-media marketing. She knows that old-school methods like book signings or press releases are irrelevant today. THE AUTHOR’S MARKETING HANDBOOK is focused on what’s effective right now.

The best chapters teach authors how to set up a website or blog and how to use social media. Ryan gives practical, step-by-step instruction. She does not go into the nuts and bolts of creating a website because that information is available everywhere and it’s different for each platform. Instead, she explains the things a website should include and why. What are readers looking for when they visit your site? Are you giving it to them?

I really liked Ryan’s take on social media. Too many writers treat social media like a promotional bullhorn. Ryan’s approach is low-key all the way. Rather than spamming your friends, you should barely mention your book unless you have a special promotion going on. In other words, only mention it when there is something in it for the reader, not the author. The same thing goes for blogging and commenting on other people’s blogs. The key is to become a good citizen of the online writing community. Readers want to buy books from writers they like, not from writers who treat them as nothing more than an open wallet.

A person will need a good amount of tech smarts to implement all of Ryan’s suggestions. I’m tech-savvy and I still needed to re-read several sections. Still, with a little patience and some smart googling, a writer shouldn’t have too much trouble.

If all this seems like it takes a lot of time and effort, that’s because it does. There are no shortcuts. It’s always been difficult to market books effectively, and it’s getting harder every day. But with the help of THE AUTHOR’S MARKETING HANDBOOK, a writer can be assured that all the effort is worth it.

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THE AUTHOR’S MARKETING HANDBOOK can be found here.

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rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: advanced writers

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I recommend this book

Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty

The Writing Slices blog is a year old today. In a year of posts, I haven’t reviewed a single grammar book! It’s time to correct this oversight, so I checked out five books on the topic from the library. The only one I didn’t return right away was GRAMMAR GIRL’S QUICK AND DIRTY TIPS FOR BETTER WRITING. Mignon Fogarty, host of the “Grammar Girl” podcast, makes proper grammar, usage, and punctuation easy.

This book was actually fun to read. I learned things I never knew. I discovered some things I’ve been writing incorrectly. I saw other things that I’ve been writing correctly, but not for the reasons I’d assumed. Fogarty’s lessons were eye-opening, even for someone with a very good grasp of English grammar.

Fogarty sorts out easily confused words like who’s and whose. She teaches proper punctuation, shows when to use upper case letters, and explains all those tricky pronouns. She’s more about usage than grammar rules. In other words, it does you no good to know what subjunctive tense is. You just have to know when to use was and when to use were. It would be easy to get overwhelmed with rules, but Fogarty gives plenty of entertaining examples and mnemonics.

GRAMMAR GIRL’S QUICK AND DIRTY TIPS FOR BETTER WRITING is a very modern book, discussing rules for email and Twitter, how to punctuate URLs, and the proper way to cite websites in news articles or papers. Also, Fogarty is okay with using their as a singular pronoun instead of his or her. It’s acceptable to write “a student should always have a pen in their backpack” because English lacks a gender-neutral pronoun and people are already using “their” anyway.

I don’t agree with everything Fogarty says. For example, she states that internet and web (as in World Wide Web) should be capitalized, while website should not. I insist on using lowercase for all three words. Happily, Fogarty gives leeway for personal style. It’s more important to be consistent. In fact, many rules aren’t absolute. Therefore, a personal or corporate style is a must.

This library book is approaching its due date, and I’m having trouble returning it. There is too much useful information here. I keep flipping through the book, hoping to absorb one more grammar rule or learn one more mnemonic. I will simply have to buy my own copy of GRAMMAR GIRL’S QUICK AND DIRTY TIPS FOR BETTER WRITING. It will be the perfect present for my blog’s first birthday.

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rating: 5 stars

 

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias

The bookstore shelves sag with the weight of screenwriting books. Most of them teach only structure, which is the most basic aspect of storytelling and also the easiest to learn. There are many excellent books that tell you how long each act should be and where the story beats go. There are few that dare to tackle the one thing that makes a story worth telling: emotion.

WRITING FOR EMOTIONAL IMPACT assumes a base knowledge of the three-act structure and story arc. As essential as that knowledge is, it’s not enough. Iglesias cautions that screenplays can be technically flawless, yet lack the depth of feeling that will move audiences. He isn’t talking about manipulating emotions in a shallow and cynical way. Rather, he shows how to use tools at your disposal to make sure that the audience feels the genuine emotion you intended to convey. After all, there is nothing worse than writing what you thought was a heartbreaking scene only to have your readers laugh; or worse, feel nothing at all.

The bulk of the book is a detailed discussion of how concept, theme, character, structure, description, and dialogue all work together to evoke emotion in the reader. Yes, I said reader. Although WRITING FOR EMOTIONAL IMPACT is a screenwriting book, Iglesias explains why the words on the page are as important as any visual effect on the screen. Each element gets its own chapter, which is full of solid technique, not fluffy theory. Every chapter is loaded with concrete examples from movies and television shows. As a result, I was able to apply the techniques to my own work right away.

My favorite was the chapter on dialogue. I learned more from this 50-page chapter than I’ve learned from entire books on the subject. Iglesias shows how powerful dialogue is. It can reveal character, emotion, and motivation. It can foreshadow, convey information, and so much more. It would be easy to get overwhelmed here, but Iglesias gives many examples of dialogue that works. He also shows how to avoid common pitfalls like meaningless small talk or dialogue that is stilted, predictable, or too “on the nose.”

WRITING FOR EMOTIONAL IMPACT is a complement to–not a substitute for–the other how-to books on the shelves. For someone who has already mastered the basics of story structure, this book is a rocket booster. Although it’s a book for screenwriters, I would recommend it to novelists and short-story writers too. All forms of fiction are emotion-delivery vehicles, and Iglesias shows you exactly how to give readers the experience you want them to have.

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WRITING FOR EMOTIONAL IMPACT can be found here.

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rating: 5 stars

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this book is best for: advanced writers

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I recommend this book.