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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Amazon Tagging: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I've written about tagging on Amazon a few times on this blog. Here's a link to my original post which explains what it is and how authors with books for sale on Amazon can benefit from it.

To recap briefly, Amazon now allows anyone who has ever bought a product at the store in question to apply 'tags' to any book on sale there. Potential buyers can click on the tags associated with a book to see a list of other titles which have had the same tag applied (and which presumably they might therefore be interested in as well).

Tagging may also be used by Amazon to inform their 'You might also like...' recommendations, and so forth. All this makes it potentially a very powerful promotional tool.

In recent weeks I've been paying much more attention to tagging on Amazon - not only of my own books, but those of other writers as well. It strikes me that the system is poorly understood, and also sadly under-utilized by authors and publishers. It is also, unfortunately, open to abuse.

In my travels across the Amazon (LOL) I've seen plenty of examples of bad and even ugly use of tagging. Let's start with an example of the latter. Here are the tags for Dead and Alive, Book 3 in Dean Koontz's Modern Frankenstein series...

As you can see, these tags appear to have been applied by one disgruntled reader who has taken the opportunity to protest at what he considers an unreasonable delay in releasing the book. (In fact, if you read the reviews, you will see that Dean and his publishers had a very good reason for delaying this New Orleans-set title.)

I call this ugly tagging, because it is simply one person (ab)using the system to make derogatory comments. It's very easy to see how this sort of thing could get out of hand. Amazon might then have to introduce an approval system before any tags are applied (or, more likely, scrap the system altogether).

Fortunately 'ugly' tagging isn't too widespread, but there are lots of examples of 'bad' or pointless tagging. Here are the tags of a randomly chosen example from, The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger...

Among the tags applied to this best-selling novel, you will see book, books, drama, fiction and other terms which are so vague that they are unlikely to be any help at all in telling people whether they might like the book in question. Some of the other tags, such as overrated, probably fall into the 'ugly' category.

What seems clear is that many people are confused by tagging and its purpose. Only a relatively small number of people apply tags, and an even more minuscule number do it in a worthwhile, sensible way. Paradoxically, however, this makes it a particularly powerful tool for authors and publishers, due to the general lack of competition. (Personally I see no objection to authors and publishers tagging their books, as done properly it helps readers understand the content of the book and whether or not it would appeal to them.)

So what tags should you apply to your book to help boost its sales? First and foremost, they should be specifically relevant to the book. If your novel is set in the sixties, for example, '1960s' could be a good, specific tag to apply. Your book will then appear any time someone clicks on the '1960s' tag on the pages of any other books which also have this tag. If a reader is interested in another book set in the sixties, there must be a good chance that yours will appeal to them as well.

To create such a benefit, your tags should of course be shared by other, related titles. Producing unique tags will not generate any immediate benefits for you, although it might do if people apply the tag to other books subsequently.

Ideally, of course, what you want is for your book to be linked to other, top-selling titles whose Amazon pages attract a lot of visitors. Tagging gives you an effective (and legitimate) way to achieve this, albeit at one step removed. Give your book some of the same tags to a best-selling one, and as long as the tags are specific enough to sound interesting, you will get a proportion of readers clicking on them to see related titles. Hey presto! Your own book will then appear.

Suppose that none of the tags currently on the book page you want to attract potential buyers from is relevant to your book, though? No problem! Just apply an appropriate tag to both your book and the top-selling title. Because of the small number of tags which have been applied so far, this technique currently works well even with best-sellers.

Finally, if you want to get multiple tags for your books, you could do a lot worse than join the co-operative tagging service called Tag My Book on Amazon. Members of TMBOA tag one another's books to help boost their positions (the more times a particular tag is used on a book, the higher up the list it is displayed for that tag). The TMBOA website has separate pages for and See also my earlier blog post about this site.

Good luck, and happy tagging!

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Exemplar Possessive

A reader wrote to me recently regarding the Writer's Block CD, a product from my sponsors and publishers, The WCCL Network.

"Why is the apostrophe placed in front of the 's'?" he asked me. "Surely more than one person in the history of the world has suffered from this condition?"

I understood what he meant. The normal rule with possessives is that the apostrophe comes after the relevant noun. So the boy's room refers to a room belonging to one boy, while the boys' room signifies a room occupied by two or more. I discussed this in more detail a while ago in this blog post.

Writer's block is not really an exception to this rule, more a special case. Where the question of ownership is much less important than the nature or provenance of the item, a single 'exemplar' noun is often used for the possessive. I call this the exemplar possessive - I'm not sure if it has a more 'official' name. Here are a few more examples:
  • goat's cheese
  • cow's milk
  • greengrocer's apostrophe
  • cat's eyes (reflective safety devices on roads)
  • collector's item
In some circumstances you can make a case either way, or even three different ways. Father's Day, for example, can be written in any of three ways:

Fathers Day - 'Fathers' here is seen as an adjective, like 'sports' in sports hall.
Father's Day - The exemplar possessive here signifies a day devoted to fathers and fatherhood in general.
Fathers' Day - The plural possessive here signifies a day belonging to all fathers.

None of these options is 'wrong', though each has a slightly different emphasis. If you're a dad, see whether and where an apostrophe appears on your cards on the day in question. Fun for all the family...

In other cases, however, the exemplar possessive is clearly required to avoid ambiguity. Suppose, for example, you have a recipe that includes among the ingredients six lamb's kidneys. Most people would understand this to mean that six kidneys from lambs - obviously not all from a single lamb - are required.

If, however, you wrote instead six lambs' kidneys (the plural possessive), it would be hard to avoid the conclusion that the recipe required the kidneys of six lambs, i.e. twelve kidneys in all. So in this case, using the exemplar possessive avoids any risk of confusing the cook!

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Ten Top Tips on Grammar and Punctuation

I have a particular interest in the 'nuts and bolts' of good writing. In the time I've been writing this blog I have discussed this subject on various occasions.

So in this post - written for Problogger's 31 Days To Build A Better Blog challenge - I thought I would list ten of my favorite such posts.

1. What Mr Sanders Taught Me

In one of my earliest posts, I reveal a valuable rule taught to me by my old English teacher, Mr Sanders (God rest his soul). If you're ever unsure where to place a possessive apostrophe, this rule will tell you.

2. Representing Thoughts in Fiction

This is a question that keeps arising on my writing forum. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, but there are certain guidelines to bear in mind. In this post I set out my advice.

3. There's the Problem...

Who would have though an innocuous word like 'there' could create so many problems for writers? And yet, time and again, it trips up even professional authors and journalists.

4. Question Marks in Mid-Sentence

Question marks in mid-sentence - are they grammatical or not? It's a contentious area, but in this post I try to throw a little light on the issue.

5. Tense in Fiction

Should you use past tense or present tense for your novel or short story? In this post I examine the pros and cons.

6. Sean and the Vocative Comma

Many aspiring writers are unaware of the vocative comma and the rules governing its use - but if you omit or misuse it, you may end up inadvertently giving your readers entirely the wrong message!

7. Capitalizing Names

This old post gets a lot of search engine traffic, even today. In it I discuss the rules regarding whether you should write Dad or dad, Uncle or uncle.

8. Using Trademarked Terms in Fiction

This is another of those issues that many beginning writers agonize over - probably unnecessarily in many cases, as this post reveals.

9. What's a Worn?

In this post I discuss the importance of proofreading your work before submitting it, and offer a few tips about this. What's a worn? Read the post to find out!

10. Bad Grammar in a Holiday Brochure

In this post I talk about a grammatical mistake I spotted in a holiday brochure, and go on to discuss the correct use of a number of related prepositions.

Incidentally, if you would like a complete guide to bringing your English up to a publishable standard in the shortest possible time, you might like to check out my downloadable course Essential English for Authors, available from WCCL (see banner below).

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Monday, March 23, 2009

An Easy Way to Promote Your Book on Amazon

If you have a book (or books) for sale on Amazon, here's a quick and easy way to promote it.

It's also free of charge. And don't worry, it doesn't involve submitting a five-star review under a pseudonym (which I'm sure none of my readers would do, of course...).

The technique is based around tagging, which Amazon has recently introduced as one of several ways of making its site more interactive and 'Web 2.0'.

Registered users of Amazon can apply up to seven tags to any book. The tags are meant to provide useful information on the content of the book in question. So a book about writing might be given tags including 'writing', 'creative writing', 'article writing', 'writing for money', 'screenwriting', and so on. As a matter of interest, I have copied below the tags from the listing for the popular On Writing by Stephen King.

Tags help people searching on Amazon. Someone wanting a book on writing stand-up comedy, for example, might search for all books with a tag of 'comedy writing'.

Tags improve the experience of Amazon users, so in my view it is quite legitimate for an author to apply tags to his or her own books (and I have done so). Not only will this mean that people interested in the topic of your book are more likely to find it, the tags may also help Amazon with its 'You might also enjoy...' recommendations which appear on the site and in emails it sends out. It's not clear at the moment how extensively Amazon uses data from tagging, but as the system becomes more widely known it's a good bet it will increase.

So if you have any books on sale on Amazon do take a moment to go along and tag them, and do it also on other countries' Amazon sites where they are sold (.com,, .de, .fr, and so on). It could give your sales in the coming months a very handy boost!

* My sponsors, WCCL, produce a guide called The Best-Seller Secret, which reveals a raft of other techniques you can use to drive your book into the Amazon Top 100 List. Check it out!

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

How to Format a Manuscript for a Publisher

A question that probably arises more than any other on my forum is how to set out a manuscript for a publisher.

I was going to write a post about this myself, but then I discovered this excellent article by Moira Allen, the editor of, which says everything I would have said and more.

Helpfully, Moira's article covers submitting to both US and UK publishers. I also like the way she takes a sensible, straightforward approach to some issues that cause writers to agonize unnecessarily. Here she is talking about fonts and formats:
Amazingly, people get into heated discussions over what types of fonts editors prefer. Some folks claim that all editors want manuscripts in Courier (the font that looks like your typewriter font). Lately, some editors and writers have come to prefer Arial. So what do editors really want?

The truth is, most editors really don't care, as long as the font is readable. (I can state this with confidence, having done a survey of about 500 editors; 90% expressed "no preference" with regard to font.) Very few editors will reject your manuscript because it happens to be in New Century Schoolbook, Palatino, or Times Roman. Generally, it's best to use a 12-point font size, and to choose a font that doesn't "squinch" letters together too closely.

If you're thinking of submitting a book to a publisher, I strongly recommend giving Moira's article a read. She even covers electronic submissions as well!

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Read me on the WEbook blog!

I thought perhaps you might be interested in checking out this mini-article I wrote recently for Melissa Jones's WEbook blog.

As you'll see, it's a tip that's relevant mainly to fiction writers, though there's no reason why non-fiction authors can't use it as well. Not long ago I ran a workshop on this topic for the Lichfield & District Writers, and their members were impressed by the improvement that applying this one piece of advice made to their work.

The article also gives me the opportunity to highlight WEbook again. WEbook is a collaborative writing project that gives authors the chance to work together in a wide range of writing projects centred around the WEbook website. You can read all about it in this article by Melissa Jones which I published a few weeks ago on my blog. And yes, they are still very much open to new members.

I'd also like to give a quick plug for the book I used as an example in my piece for the WEbook blog. Painter Man is the first novel by my old friend and sometime collaborator Jeff Phelps. You can hear Jeff being interviewed about his book on WritersFM, and read my blog post about it here.

Painter Man, like What Was Lost which I raved about recently in this post, is published by Tindal Street Press, a small, Birmingham-based publishing house which regularly punches above its weight in literary awards. Painter Man is quite different from What Was Lost, but both books are well observed and beautifully written, and I'm disappointed that Painter Man has not (yet) received the recognition it deserves.

Anyway, I've included links to Painter Man on Amazon (com/uk) below, in case you're interested in finding out more about this excellent novel. As ever, if you're receiving this post by email, you will need to visit my blog to see the image links.

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Friday, June 06, 2008

Guest Post: Stop Making Excuses!

Today I'm pleased to welcome a new guest author to my blog, Ruth Barringham.

Ruth is a prolific and successful author and publisher, and I'm also very pleased to count her as a friend and collaborator. Here she offers some good advice for everyone - which includes me on occasion - who claims that they don't have time to write.

Stop Making Excuses! - by Ruth Barringham

The biggest complaint of most would-be freelance writers and authors is that they don't have time to write.


Everyone has time to write. We all have the same 24 hours in every day. The difference between us all is how we spend our time.

Some people do actually manage to squeeze in a couple of hours to write during their busy day. But instead of focusing on their work, they waste their time reading unimportant emails or online articles that are irrelevant to what they should be doing.

Does this sound like you?

Well, don't worry, you're not alone.

Most writers are the same. We all say we love to write and will even spend all day thinking about it. Yet when it comes to actually sitting down and beginning to write, we'll look for other things to distract us.

But to be a successful writer you need to be able to write quickly and be as productive as possible, and you won't be able to do this if you constantly allow your attention to be diverted when you should be writing.

So here's a word that is the most important to anyone who wants to be successful in anything and everything they do. Knowing this word and having a complete understanding of its meaning can change you from a reluctant writer into a hard working and profitable writer.

And that word is - FOCUS.

When you know you should be writing, focus on it. Force yourself to apply bum-to-chair. Once you're sitting comfortably, begin the task of writing immediately. Don't check your emails or surf the net. Just sit down and begin working.

It will help you stay focused if you know exactly what you have to do. So at the end of every day make a list of the writing tasks you have to do tomorrow. That way, when you sit down you just have to check your list and you'll know where to begin.

If you find you work better in the mornings, then get up early and write. If you work better in the evening, work late when the house is quiet and the rest of the family is asleep.

Just make sure you allocate a portion of every day to write. Then focus, and don't let your mind be distracted by anything else.

Once you get into a routine of writing regularly, you'll find that focusing and writing becomes extremely easy, and will be a habit you never want to break.

Ruth Barringham is a freelance writer, author and publisher. She has two websites to help writers at and Her publishing company website is at

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Guest Article: Imagination and Inspiration

Today I have a guest article for you from member John Craggs, also known (and not only on the forum) as Gyppo. John/Gyppo describes himself as a writer, adult tutor, storyteller and all-round rogue!

Be that as it may, he is a highly experienced freelance writer, and gives his advice and support generously to other members of the forum. I particularly liked this article - which he posted last week - and thought it deserved a wider readership.


"I've just got no imagination."

Every creative writing class has one student who issues this challenge, daring the tutor to prove him wrong.

Which they obviously are. If they couldn't imagine themselves as a writer - whatever their image of a writer may be - they wouldn't be in your class.

The more timid ones hesitantly admit to a 'lack of inspiration'.

The following addresses both problems, and although it may not work for everyone I've known it produce excellent results.

If you rely on inspiration as the driving force behind your writing then you'd better learn to make yourself inspired!

Did I hear you say no-one can be inspired to order?

This isn't strictly true.


Become your own study object. Observe yourself throughout the day as you would observe someone else if you were planning to write about them.

Take note, mentally or on paper, of the things that trigger your imagination. The things that catch at your curiosity like a ragged fingernail on cloth.

Scraps of overheard conversation on a bus perhaps.

Music. I personally find music a great source of inspiration. Though the mental images rarely seem to have any direct connection with the tune.

Pictures. Some people will find great inspiration in a handful of photographs, or an art gallery.

People. Real people - despite all disclaimers to the contrary - are the raw material of so much writing. A stranger seen in a crowd can provide the basis for a character who then spawns a whole novel of supporting characters.

For example, I once saw a three year old girl, with an unearthly blonde beauty, and the blackest coldest eyes I have ever seen in my life.

The question that sprung into my subconscious was 'what will she grow up like'?

I saw an assassin, sunbathing on a rooftop until it was time to do her grisly job. A horror oriented writer may have seen her as a child of the devil.

Another writer may have seen her as the victim of some childhood trauma. Possibly leading to a psychological thriller about child abuse and its possible consequences.

Actively look for inspiration. Once you get into the habit of seeing everything about you in terms of possibilities, rather than a simple fact, you will never be short of ideas again.

Another example? You see a man leaning on a wall. So far this is just a simple recordable fact. But why is he leaning?

Is he just tired, ill, or lazy? Or perhaps clawing himself back upright after a mugging?

On a more gentle note, is he waiting for someone, or something? His wife, mistress, old flame, or a terribly mundane bus. And if the latter, where is the bus going? Is it taking him to somewhere/someone, or away from an untenable situation?.

How about an offbeat surreal view? Maybe he really is holding up the wall, instead of vice versa. (Reversing your perception of everyday events like this can be quite productive at times.)


What if he misses the bus? Will he go back and resolve his problem, or just stand there indecisively? Will his failure to arrive on time lead to further misunderstandings and more twists in the emerging plot? (If not, you're not trying hard enough!)

On the surreal note, if he really was supporting the wall (and by now you should have asked yourself why), will it fall down if he catches the bus, and if so, what will it reveal? Was that wall the empty facade of a previous life, now exposed as the sham it truly was?

Turning those ideas into stories/articles may be another set of problems, but without those initial building blocks you will not even get started.


I accept the existence of people with no sense of humour - I've worked with a few - but I sincerely believe that there is no such thing as a complete lack of imagination. It may have atrophied since childhood, but it's there in everyone.

Imagination can be compared to a motorcycle. If well maintained and regularly used it bursts into life at the first kick. But if neglected and abused half an hour's vigorous kicking will get you nowhere until you do a little repair work.

So give your imagination a service. It'll work a lot better afterwards.


If you enjoyed this article, you might like to subscribe to Gyppo's free fortnightly humour newsletter by e-mailing with 'MSD SUB' as subject (in the e-mail address, of course, change the -at- to the usual @ sign). You could also check out his three e-books, 'A Hamper of Havoc', 'British Bike Bodgers Booklet', and his latest, 'The Flying Ferret', available for sale at Gyppo says he will even pop them onto a CD for anyone who doesn't like downloads. Contact the 'gyppo1' e-mail address if you would prefer this.

Thanks again to Gyppo for allowing me to reprint his article here.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Guest Blog: Specialize, Specialist and Specialism...

Today I'm pleased to publish a guest post by my friend and colleague Dr Suzanne Harris. A little while ago I wrote an article on Suzie's blog about five things I wish I'd known when I was starting out as a freelance writer. Suzie's article, below, is a good example of two of the things I mentioned in particular. One of these is the value to a freelance of specializing and becoming an 'expert' in your field. And the other is the importance of enthusiasm, a quality that Suzie has in abundance! I hope you enjoy reading her piece...

When I started out as a freelance writer, some seven years ago now, I had no idea what to actually write about. I had the passion and the drive, but I didn't think I knew enough to write a full length book. Frustrated, I sat down with a pen and paper and brainstormed. After around half an hour I had a pretty impressive list of things I knew something about, or could research. Top of my list was health. As a long-term sufferer of a debilitating illness, I knew more than most about coping with chronic pain, prescription medication, alternative therapies and other methods of fighting the ill effects of nature-gone-bad. A health writer was born.

Steadily, I created the persona I needed to sell articles and, ultimately, my book. I was so excited to be the author of a real how-to book on alternative health and I really felt as though I could make a difference. But as time passed I became restless in my niche. However, it was to be another four years before I finally found the courage to reinvent myself. I knew the importance of specialising; I already had a lucrative career as an alternative health writer, making it hard to decide to change direction. Then, quite by accident, I started to get work come to me in the form of finance writing. I almost turned it away thinking it was beyond my knowledge, but I didn't and I found I was comfortable working with the topic.

After doing a few paid jobs I decided I would like to be a finance writer alongside my health writing - after all, two specialties are better than one. It sounds easy, but specialising is actually a challenge. Before people accept you as a writer on a topic you need to be viewed as an 'expert' and to be an expert you need experience; the good old catch22 had reared its ugly head. Not to be put off, I asked a few colleagues, Nick being one of them, about how to go about establishing myself in another area. The advice I got from them proved to be sound and soon I had deleted all my old blogs, set up new ones to reflect my change of attitude, and approached some companies with ideas. Before long the work was pouring in. I secured a regular column with a B2B print magazine, creating content on Bankruptcy for and negotiating with a finance publisher on a number of book ideas. In a short space of time I managed to become an expert.

Achieving these new positions wasn't easy and a few times I had to rely on charm and a few exaggerations of the truth, but in the end it paid off. Most of them asked what experience I had. Luckily running my own writing consultancy gave me a heads-up, and I also dropped into emails that my book idea, The 30 Day Money Diet for Women: The Only Book That Helps You Gain Pounds!, was under consideration by a publisher (and still is). From there, as the odd job came in, I simply added it to the list I gave to prospective employers, so that by the time I approached some of the bigger companies my experience list was impressive. Now all I have to do is write it all!

To keep up with me and what I'm up to you can always check out my blog or find me on My Writers Circle.

Before I go there is one piece of advice I want to share that was given to me when I started out and that is to believe in yourself even when the rejection letters are flooding in because one day someone will say yes. And it's true. If someone had told me ten years ago I would end up as a published author and freelance writer I would have laughed, but through perseverance and hard work that's exactly what I am doing. And to prove anything is possible, I trained my husband, Mark, to be a freelance writer, and he is now successful in his own right. He now works for the New York Times company as their MP3 guide !

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Bad Grammar on Sky News

On my recent holiday in Cyprus I found myself watching Sky News quite a bit. I'm not a regular viewer of this station normally, but it was one of the few English language channels available on the TV in our hotel room.

While it was nice to have a lifeline to what was going on in the world over Christmas, one thing that quite surprised me was the number of grammatical errors made by Sky's presenters. Here's just one example I jotted down:

"The future of democratic elections hang in the balance..."

The story in question concerned the appalling assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and in no way do I wish to trivialise this. But hearing the presenter mangle the sentence in this way did succeed in distracting me from the story itself.

Of course, 'hang' in this sentence should be 'hangs'. The subject of the sentence is 'the future'. This is a singular noun and therefore requires a singular verb.

What seems to have happened is that the presenter - or whoever wrote his script - was distracted by the plural noun 'elections' directly preceding the verb, and therefore assumed that a plural verb was needed. 'Elections' is NOT the subject of the sentence, however. It is simply part of the adjectival phrase 'of democratic elections'. This is therefore an example of faulty subject-verb agreement.

I might excuse this if it was an isolated mistake, but in fact it was one of a number of such errors I heard. In addition, because Sky News is a rolling news channel, stories get repeated every twenty minutes or so. I waited hopefully for someone to have a word in the presenter's ear and get him to correct the mistake, but sad to say it didn't happen while I was viewing!

Anyway, I don't suppose the bosses at Sky News will lose too much sleep over this, but I'm afraid it diminished their channel's authority in my eyes. I was left with the feeling that if their presenters couldn't get their basic grammar right, how much faith could I have in their reporting of the facts? Perhaps it's time Sky News appointed a grammar czar? In the meantime, I've gone back to BBC News - where I've never heard this particular error committed at least - with some relief!

* Just in case you're interested, there is a whole module on subject-verb agreement in my brand new course Essential English for Authors.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Representing Thoughts in Fiction

One of those queries that crops up regularly on my forum is how you should represent a character's thoughts in fiction. Here's my take on the subject...

First of all, this is a stylistic matter, not one of grammar. There is no single "correct" way to punctuate or otherwise represent a character's thoughts. Some authors put them in quotation marks, others use italics. I've even seen thoughts put in parentheses or ALL CAPS, though I certainly don't recommend that!

In fact, the most common approach nowadays is to avoid using any special punctuation or formatting to represent thoughts, and that is the style I would strongly recommend.

A crucial point here is that most stories today are written in scenes portrayed through the eyes of a single viewpoint character, whether first person (I) or third person (he/she). In such cases there is no need for any extra punctuation to signify a character's thoughts. The whole scene is, in effect, the thoughts and perceptions of the 'viewpoint' character. The example below - written in a third-person limited viewpoint - may illustrate why extra punctuation for thoughts is usually unnecessary.

"What time is it?" Julia asked.
That's the third time you've asked me in the last twenty minutes, John thought. Still, he checked his watch. "Five to eight," he said.
"Why aren't they here?" Julia asked. She stared at him. "Do you think they've been in an accident?"
"I doubt it," John replied. "Probably they just got held up in the traffic." Unless Pete's car has broken down again, he thought to himself.

If you tried putting quotation marks around the thoughts in this passage, you would end up with almost everything in quotes, and total confusion over whether the character was speaking or thinking. In general, the problem with using inverted commas around a character's thoughts is (a) it makes the text look cluttered, and (b) it invites confusion with speech.

So what about the alternative of using italics for thoughts? Yes, you can do this, but as mentioned above, when a scene is written from a limited viewpoint anyway (as is usually the case in modern fiction), there is no need to represent thoughts any differently from the rest of the text. And if it's unnecessary, why do it?

Using italics to represent thoughts also has a number of drawbacks. You are likely to waste a lot of time agonising over whether a particular line is a thought or a description. You will end up with much of your text in italics, which looks ugly and distracting. And finally, you will lose the option of using italics when, for some dramatic reason, extra emphasis is required.

So my advice is clear. NEVER use quotation marks for thoughts. If it's absolutely necessary to indicate thoughts in a special way, use italics (but mostly this shouldn't be required). And keep italics for their proper purpose, which is providing extra emphasis.

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Friday, November 23, 2007

Essential English for Authors Launched!

I'm delighted to reveal that my latest downloadable course for writers, Essential English for Authors, has just been launched by my publishers, WCCL.

As the name indicates, Essential English for Authors is intended for anyone who would like to write for publication but fears their written English might let them down.

As regular members of my forum will know, grammar and punctuation are something of a passion of mine. It's a subject I often post about in the forum in response to member queries, and I've really enjoyed having this opportunity to put all my advice together in a single, modestly priced guide.

In twelve concise but information-packed modules, Essential English for Authors takes you through all the common problem areas for new writers: from the basics of grammatical sentence and paragraph construction, through the principles of capitalization and punctuation, to "minefield" topics such as subject/verb agreement and how to set out and punctuate dialogue. I have tried to explain everything in simple, easy-to-grasp terms, with lots of examples to illustrate the points made.

It's not just the basics, however. A long module titled "Putting on the Style" covers a range of matters that, while they may not all be essential to achieving publication, will help bring your written English up to the highest professional standards. The topics discussed in this module include parallel construction, active v. passive voice, use of the subjunctive in modern English, when to use "who" or "whom", and many more. There are also self-study tests you can complete to check your understanding of the material covered.

The course assumes no previous knowledge (beyond a basic familiarity with English), and is ideal for beginners and people for whom English is not their first language. It is, however, equally suitable for established writers who want to brush up on their knowledge of grammar, spelling and punctuation. And for aspiring self-publishers - especially if they won't be engaging a professional editor - it's an essential reference to ensure that your book isn't laughed out of court by critics and reviewers.

And even if you don't aspire to write for publication but just want to bring your written English up to the best possible standard in the shortest possible time, Essential English for Authors is ideal for you too!

Essential English for Authors is intended to be suitable for anyone in the world. It's written in US English, but British English is referred to throughout (I'm a Brit myself, of course).

For more information and to order Essential English for Authors, just click any of the links in this post to go through to my publisher's sales page. Alternatively, if you would like to read a short extract from the course first, please click here to go to the relevant page on my website.

Finally, I should mention that Essential English for Authors is currently on offer at a low launch price. After the launch period is over, this will certainly rise - so if you'd like to take advantage of the current special offer, please don't hesitate too long.

Good luck, and happy writing!

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Stephen King's Top Seven Tips for Writers

...That's the title of an article I saw the other day on The Positivity Blog by Henrik Edberg, a 26 year old student from Sweden.

In his article, Henrik has set out seven pieces of advice for writers gleaned from horror writer Stephen King's book
On Writing - which I highly recommend, by the way. Here's the first (and shortest) of the seven items:

1. Get to the point.

Don't waste your reader's time with too much back-story, long intros or longer anecdotes about your life. Reduce the noise. Reduce the babbling. In On Writing King gets to his points quickly. Get to your point quickly too before your reader loses patience and moves on.

The other tips in this article on The Positivity Blog are all well worth reading too. OK, none are Earth-shattering, but it's all solid stuff, and relevant to all types of writing, not just novels and short stories. Check it out!

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Friday, October 19, 2007

How to Use Apostrophes

Apostrophes are an endless source of confusion for writers. So I thought you might enjoy watching this short video on the subject from the popular Videojug website:

VideoJug: How To Use Apostrophes

If you have received this post by email, you will need to visit my blog to see the video. Incidentally, if you click on 'How to Use Apostrophes' directly under the video player, it will take you to the relevant Videojug web page, where there is a complete transcript of the script as well.


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Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Decline of the Hyphen

An interesting article was posted on the BBC News website today titled Small Object of Grammatical Desire.

The article concerns the decline in recent years in the use of hyphens. Apparently the new, sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has knocked the hyphens out of 16,000 words, many of them two-word compound nouns. According to the article, "Fig-leaf is now fig leaf, pot-belly is now pot belly, pigeon-hole has finally achieved one word status as pigeonhole and leap-frog is feeling whole again as leapfrog."

It's interesting to see some of the other words that have lost their hyphens in the latest edition of this widely respected reference guide. The following are now shown as two separate words: fig leaf, hobby horse, ice cream, pin money, pot belly, test tube. By contrast, the following, which previously contained hyphens, are now shown as single words: bumblebee, chickpea, crybaby, leapfrog, logjam.

The article suggests that the Internet may be partly responsible for the decline of the hyphen, with people rushing to send their e-mails (or, more likely nowadays, emails), and rejecting hyphens as just too time consuming.

In any event, one thing the article does illustrate is that the English language is constantly changing, and no-one can afford to be too dogmatic about whether hyphens are or are not required in any particular case. The best that writers and editors can hope to achieve is consistency, and this is often best achieved by referring to a reference book such as the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary or the The Chicago Manual of Style and following its recommendations. Many publishers nowadays produce their own house style guides, or require editors to follow a particular guide such as those mentioned above. Again, this is done not to ensure grammatical correctness (there is no final arbiter on what is "correct" in the English language) but consistency.

On a totally different note, thank you to those readers who have expressed concern that this blog hasn't been updated for a while. No, I wasn't ill, just enjoying a much-needed holiday in Greece. Normal service - as normal as it ever gets - will now be resumed!

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Friday, August 24, 2007

WhiteSmoke Creative Writing Version for $1!

OK, I do mean just a dollar more than the standard version! But that still makes for a very substantial discount on the normal price for the Creative Writing version of WhiteSmoke (which is definitely the one that any serious writer should have). The discount is available until Sunday 26 August under WhiteSmoke's special 'Back to School' promotion.

To remind you, WhiteSmoke is a program that aims to help its users produce better-written documents. It does this by analyzing the spelling, punctuation and grammar in any document, and then suggesting corrections and possible improvements. If you missed it, you can read my full review of WhiteSmoke's software here (though note that this does not mention some of the new features added recently, such as the built-in dictionary).

For more info, or to order, click on the banner below or in my review, and click on the 'Back to School' banner on the WhiteSmoke website. As mentioned, this special promotion only goes on till Sunday, so don't leave it too long to order if you are interested.

GOOD NEWS! WhiteSmoke have just announced that the 'Back to School' promotion is being extended to Sunday September 2nd.

WhiteSmoke Writing Tool

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Question Marks in Mid-Sentence

An interesting question cropped up on my forum the other day. In this thread a member wrote:

I'm trying to write the following sentence, but I'm not sure how to punctuate it.

Have we displeased the gods, Eysha thought.

Should I have a question mark after gods, or even at all?
Here's an expanded version of the answer I gave...

There is no one correct answer to this. Personally I prefer the sentence as written:

Have we displeased the gods, Eysha thought.

An alternative (suggested by another member) would be to put the first part of the sentence in italics and give it a question mark:

Have we displeased the gods? Eysha thought.

I'm not a big fan of this approach, though. For one thing you can get into problems if your novel includes lots of thoughts, which it will if (as in most modern novels) you are writing in scenes portrayed from a single character's viewpoint. You don't want to end up with half your novel in italics and the other half in normal type. I would only use this method in a short story (and probably not even then).

Similar objections apply to the suggestion of using inverted commas (quotation marks) for thoughts:

'Have we displeased the gods?' Eysha thought.

One problem here is that we assume that a character is speaking, and it is only when we get to the end of the sentence we realise that they are actually thinking. Using inverted commas for thoughts also makes the text look cluttered. This approach was quite popular in the past, but nowadays it is seldom used by good writers.

Some writers would simply put a question mark after gods:

Have we displeased the gods? Eysha thought.

This isn't wrong - a question mark can serve as either a comma or a full stop. To most people's eyes, however, putting a question mark in mid-sentence - without any other punctuation - looks a little odd. In this case, also, there is a risk that the reader will think that 'Eysha thought' marks the start of a new sentence. I wouldn't write it that way myself, therefore.

One thing that would definitely be wrong is putting a question mark at the end of the sentence.

Have we displeased the gods, Eysha thought?

This sentence taken as a whole is not a question, so it cannot end with a question mark.

In summary, question marks in mid-sentence are a contentious area. Of course, where you have a spoken question followed by a speech tag, it's no problem:

"What shall we do now?" he asked.

But when you are writing a character's thoughts, there is probably no ideal solution in these cases, apart from rewriting the sentence so that the problem doesn't arise!

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Makes an ASS of U and ME...

In case you haven't worked it out, the title of this post comes from a line of business advice, "Never assume. ASSUME makes an ASS of U and ME." I first saw this quoted by a character in Stephen King's novel Cell, but since then I have seen it reproduced in various places.

In any event, I think it's very good advice for writers, or indeed anyone who is self-employed. Assuming that you know what your client wants without checking is fraught with peril.

I've been in this writing business for a long time now, but I still fall into this trap myself from time to time. Most recently, I was commissioned by my regular publishers WCCL to write some articles to help promote their range of self-help software. The articles, as you might expect, were to include links to the products and services in question. These tend to follow a similar pattern - so, for example, the website for WCCL's Subliminal Studio software, which enables users to create their own subliminal CDs, is at

I was actually writing about another WCCL self-development product. I won't say which one it was, as it's not relevant to this story. But I assumed the website URL would follow the usual pattern, so I entered the product name separated by hyphens and with a .com suffix into my browser to check. Sure enough, the familiar WCCL product web page appeared, so I assumed the URL must be correct without further checking and entered it into my article.

It was only when I heard back from my client that I realised I'd got it wrong. The domain in question actually belonged to an affiliate of WCCL, who had set it up so that visitors were automatically forwarded to the correct WCCL site with his affiliate link (thus generating sales commission for himself). Of course, the affiliate hadn't done anything wrong, but if my article had been published as it stood, all sales arising from it would have generated 40% commission for that affiliate (and cost WCCL a good deal of money).

Anyway, my client was very good about it, but it was an embarrassing slip to make. Not least, I was afraid it might appear that I had been trying to boost my fee by sneaking my own (or an associate's) affiliate links into the article! As it happens, because I've done a lot of work with WCCL over the years, they understood that it was a genuine mistake. But if it had been a new client, it could have been an expensive slip-up for me. And all because I assumed that a URL was correct without checking properly with my client.

The 'never assume' principle is a very important one. I regularly get emails from new and new-ish writers who have been given a commission and aren't sure about some aspect of it. The instructions they've received from their client aren't clear, and they want my advice on how they ought to approach the job.

My answer is always the same - get back to your client and ask them to clarify. No client should be offended by this (if they are, you don't want to be working for them, trust me). On the contrary, they will be impressed by your professionalism in ensuring that every aspect of the job meets their needs.

The worst thing you can do is ASSUME you know what your client wants and go ahead on that basis. The chances are your assumptions will be wrong. You will then have wasted your time and effort, and the client will be annoyed because he hasn't got what he required. In the best case, you will have to revisit the job, making it less profitable for you. In the worst case, the client will go elsewhere, and your chances of getting paid for the work done (or getting any more work from that source in future) will be minuscule.

Never assume, then. If in any doubt, ASK. And never, ever believe that just because a particular URL leads to your client's website, it is automatically the correct one!

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Friday, July 13, 2007

Using Trademarked Terms in Fiction

A question that arises quite regularly on my forum is whether it's OK for writers to use trademarked terms in novels and short stories. In this topic posted the other day a member wanted to know if it would be OK to use the term Frisbee in her novel.

Meaning no disrespect to forum members, I have to say it's absurd to suggest that writers can never use trademarked terms. If that was the case, spies could never drive Aston Martins - they would have to use sports convertibles. And you could never have your hero popping into his local Macdonalds - it would have to be the Happy Burger Emporium, or some other made-up name.

Of course, I'm no lawyer. But if you look at some publishers' guidelines, you can gauge their views on the matter. To begin, here's a quote from the guidelines of Pearson Education:

"Use of a trademark in the text of a book that discusses or describes the product sold under the mark is considered a form of fair use and permission is not required."

And here's a quote from the University of Colorado Style Guide:

"Many words and names are legally trademarked and should appear with initial capitals to acknowledge that fact. Also owners of such trademarks have a legal right to restrict the use of those trademarked terms to their specific product. As a result, avoid using trademarked names, like Kleenex and Xerox, as generic terms. Instead, use facial tissue and photocopier, unless you intend to refer to the trademarked brand name. A good dictionary will tell you whether commonly used words are trademarked and will also indicate if a trademarked term should be capitalized."

As these quotes indicate, there is generally no objection to using a trademarked term to describe an item in your book. You would need to give it an initial capital, and not use the term generically (e.g. in the case of Frisbee, mentioned earlier, as though it describes any flying plastic disk). As the first of the quotes above states, simply using a trademarked term descriptively in this way is regarded legally as "fair use".

Of course, if you are speaking disparagingly about a particular product or service, you may need to take care that you do not fall foul of the libel laws. However, in most instances that is unlikely, and if you do need to describe a badly designed product (say) in your novel, it might be prudent to give it an imaginary name or keep the manufacturer vague. Even so, a novel is quite different from a non-fiction book. If it is essential to your artistic vision for your hero to suffer a bout of food poisoning after visiting his local Macdonalds, you should not be afraid of writing it this way.

This matter of trademarks seems to worry many new authors, but in my view it's really not such a big deal. I can't think of a single actual case where an author has been prosecuted just for using a trademarked term. Bear in mind, too, that publishers have editors and legal departments whose job it is to worry about these matters. If they think there is a serious concern with what you have written, they will tell you (and ask for changes). And in the highly unlikely event that the company in question decides to sue, they will target the publisher rather than the author (they know most authors don't have any money!).

As writers, I believe it's important that we portray the world as realistically as possible. Part of that involves giving sharp, precise descriptions, and using trademarked terms is sometimes necessary to achieve this. As long as it is done in that spirit and the basic guidelines I have mentioned above are followed, I think it is highly unlikely you will encounter any problems.

Finally, if you want an example of a novel where the author uses trademarked terms with total abandon, take a look at Jennifer Government by the Australian author Max Barry. In this satirical, dystopian science fiction novel, the world is in the control of large corporations such as Adidas, and workers take on the surnames of the company that employs them. One of the key characters in the book, Hack Nike, is told by his employer that as part of his job he must shoot a number of teenagers, to generate hysterical news coverage about the company's new line of trainers.

OK, I am still faintly amazed that Barry and his publishers got away with this, but he has a nice disclaimer at the start of the book which concludes, "Any resemblance to actual people is coincidental and the use of real company and product names is for literary effect only and definitely without permission." So that's all right then!

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Tense in Fiction

One thing all fiction writers try to achieve is a sense in the reader that the events described are taking place as he or she reads about them.

So it's a bit of a paradox that most novels and short stories are written in the past rather than the present tense. And yet, for reasons that go back to the origins of storytelling, past tense sounds more natural to us when reading or listening to a story. We don't notice the tense and - with a well-written tale - simply become immersed in the events unfolding.

You can, of course, write a story in the present tense. Because this is less familiar to readers, however, they may feel less comfortable with it, and there is a risk they will notice the unusual style rather than becoming engrossed in your story. Stories written in the present tense can also look mannered and self-conscious.

Of course, good writers can and do write short stories, and even novels, in the present tense. The US writer Alison Lurie's novel Foreign Affairs begins as follows:
On a cold, blowy February morning a woman is boarding the ten a.m. flight to London, followed by an invisible dog. The woman's name is Virginia Miner: she is fifty-four years old, small, plain and unmarried - the sort of person that no one ever notices, though she is an Ivy League college professor who has published several books and has a well-established reputation in the expanding field of children's literature.
And the whole novel continues in the present tense. It's an unusual approach, yet as a reader you quickly get used to it (it helps that Ms Lurie is a highly accomplished author, of course). I'd be hard put to say exactly why the author chose to write the book in the present tense or whether it would be any the worse if written more conventionally in the past. It does certainly give the novel a distinctive "voice", however.

Even so, I'd always advise a new writer, and especially a new novelist, to write in the past tense. Apart from anything else it's what publishers are accustomed to, and if you write in the present tense you are giving yourself an additional obstacle to overcome to get your work accepted.

Another problem with writing in the present tense is that it's fatally easy to stray into the past tense by accident. As I mentioned above, we're all so used to past tense narration, it's easy to fall into it without even noticing. A story that switches to past tense in the middle (unless for a very good reason) then switches back to the present again is likely to be returned to the author in short order.

And finally, if you write in the present tense, you need to be very careful when referring to events that occurred in the characters' past. In ordinary, past-tense narration, we use the pluperfect tense to introduce such "flashbacks":
Mary smiled and sipped her tea, remembering when they first met. It had been a cold November morning...
If using the present tense, however, you need to use the simple past tense instead:
Mary sighs and sips her tea, remembering when they first met. It was a cold November morning...
It would be perilously easy to write "It had been" in the second example as well, yet this would be incorrect, or at least very poor style. If you are writing in the present tense, when referring to events in your characters' past, you should use the simple past tense rather than the pluperfect (past participle with "had").

To sum up, then, I highly recommend sticking to the past tense in your fiction. But if you want to experiment with writing in the present tense, be very careful you don't switch to the wrong tense at some point in the narrative. It's possible to make this mistake when writing in the past tense, of course, but it's much, much easier to get your tenses in a twist when writing in the present!

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Help With Apostrophes

The apostrophe - whether and where to use it - is a topic that seems to cause endless confusion. I've even had publishers phoning me up for advice about it!

I did write a while ago in this blog about a rule taught to me by my old English teacher Mr Sanders, which is great for checking where you should put the apostrophe in possessive expressions such as the children's ward and the boys' bedroom. However, I admit it doesn't cover every possible use of apostrophes.

So I was pleased to discover the other day a very useful Squidoo website (or lens, to use the Squidoo jargon) on this subject. It's called The Care and Feeding of Apostrophes, and it covers the correct use of apostrophes in (1) contractions, (2) possessive nouns, and (3) nested quotations (i.e. quotes within quotes). Personally I wouldn't really regard the latter as apostrophes - in my view they are single inverted commas or quotation marks - but I suppose they do look the same as apostrophes!

The site also discusses two common scenarios where apostrophes are NOT required but often get used incorrectly. These are plural nouns (e.g. potato's and banana's) and possessive pronouns such as its (which when used in the possessive sense does NOT take an apostrophe). Even experienced writers sometimes slip up here.

One thing I particularly like about The Care and Feeding of Apostrophes is the use of illustrations to support the points made. There are also some entertaining "What's wrong with this picture?" quizzes. These depict shop signs or menus where an apostrophe has been incorrectly used or omitted. You can check the answer by hovering your cursor over the photo or scrolling down to the foot of the page. Some of the mistakes are actually a bit hard to see, but that's just a problem with reproducing the photos and not really the site creator's fault.

There is also a gallery where you can submit your own photograph of incorrectly used apostrophes, and links to an interactive quiz about apostrophes on the website of Lynne Truss (the author of the best-selling guide to punctuation Eats, Shoots and Leaves ).

Overall, The Care and Feeding of Apostrophes is an informative and entertaining site, and a useful resource if you are ever in any doubt about this punctuation mark. It's also a good example of how anyone can create their own attractive website on Squidoo without necessarily knowing anything about HTML. See my recent post about Squidoo for more information about this, including links to a couple of Squidoo sites (not as good as the one described in this post) that I've created myself!

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Fifty Tools Which Can Help You in Writing

Fifty Tools Which Can Help You in Writing is a set of articles on how to improve your writing published on the website. I discovered them recently with a little help from my StumbleUpon toolbar.

The articles are written by Roy Peter Clark from the Poynter Institute. They are aimed primarily at journalists, but any writer could benefit from studying them, and many are relevant to fiction writers as well. To give you some idea of the quality, here's an extract from Writing Tool #6: Play With Words:

Play with words, even in serious stories. Choose words the average writer avoids but the average reader understands.

Just as the sculptor works with clay, the writer shapes a world with words. In fact, the earliest English poets were called "shapers," artists who molded the stuff of language to create stories the way that God, the Great Shaper, formed heaven and earth.

Good writers play with language, even when the topic is about death:

"Do not go gentle into that good night," wrote Welsh poet Dylan Thomas to his dying father, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Play and death may seem at odds, but the writer finds the path that connects them. To express his grief, the poet fiddles with language, prefers 'gentle' to 'gently,' chooses 'night' to rhyme with 'light,' and repeats the word 'rage.' Later in the poem, he will even pun about those "grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight." The double meaning of 'grave men' leads straight to the oxymoron 'blinding sight.' Word-play.

One thing I particularly like about Fifty Tools Which Can Help You in Writing is the way that every 'tool' is illustrated with good examples of its use. I'll be surprised if you don't find something here that can help improve your own writing.

Incidentally, as mentioned above, I discovered this site with the help of the StumbleUpon toolbar, which I started using quite recently. This is a free toolbar you can download for the Internet Explorer or Firefox browsers. Once you have the toolbar installed, you can vote up sites you like and vote down sites you don't. You can also click on the Stumble icon and will be taken to a random website others have voted for, and which - based on how you have voted in the past - you are likely to enjoy.

I recommend StumbleUpon as a great way of discovering new and interesting websites. If you install the toolbar, don't forget to vote for this blog and my forum, to help spread the word among other writers!

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Review: Copywriting for the Web

Copywriting for the Web is a new mini-guide by professional copywriter Mario De la Cruz. It is one of the growing number of low-price $7 guides that has hit the web recently, largely as a result of Jonathan Leger's Seven Dollar Secrets e-book and script that I reviewed in this blog a few months ago.

Copywriting for the Web is a 39-page e-book in the standard PDF format. You can download it immediately from the website. The content is divided into 15 short chapters, as follows:

Chapter 1 - Why Writing Copy for the Web is Different
Chapter 2 - Visitors Are Important to You
Chapter 3 - Plan in Order to Succeed
Chapter 4 - How to Write Effective Copy for theWeb
Chapter 5 - How to Find Effective Keywords and Keyword Phrases
Chapter 6 - Keep it Short and Sweet
Chapter 7 - Other Essential Components for GoodCopywriting
Chapter 8 - Get a Headline that Grabs
Chapter 9 - How to Go About Writing a Headline
Chapter 10 - Test the Tone of Your Headlines
Chapter 11 - Make Your Text Links Look the Same
Chapter 12 - Be Positive from Beginning to End
Chapter 13 - Adding Value with Copywriting Articles
Chapter 14 - Make Money with This Report

The guide is aimed principally at entrepreneurs and Internet marketers who need to write copy for their own websites, but most of the advice would also be relevant to writers who wish to branch out into copywriting.

Although it is a concise guide, there is plenty of useful information here. The author is a successful website copywriter, and he clearly has a good grasp of what does and doesn't work online. I thought the advice on how to format website copy was particularly useful, and the chapter about the importance of giving your text links a consistent look is something every website designer and copywriter should be compelled to read!

Do I have any criticisms? Well, a few. One is that the author assumes that the reader will have some basic knowledge of website building. If you don't know what meta-tags are, for example, you will need to seek elsewhere for this information. Mario does discuss meta-tags, alternate text tags, heading tags, and so on from a copywriting perspective, but he doesn't explain what they are or where in your website HTML you would expect to find them.

In addition, the guide suffers from a severe lack of examples. Obviously in a $7 product you shouldn't expect too much, but it would have been nice to see a few examples of good and bad website copywriting. Some illustrations wouldn't have gone amiss either.

If you are starting out as a website copywriter, this guide will give you some useful tips. It's a long way from being comprehensive, but at least it sets out the main points to aim for and points to avoid. There are also links within the guide to other useful resources for copywriters.

Finally, in common with most of the $7 guides, Copywriting for the Web includes an affiliate program paying 100% commission. In other words, once you have bought the guide, you can if you wish sell it via your own website and keep 100% of the purchase price. Note that you will need to have a Paypal account before you can do this.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Syd Field Interview on WritersFM

As previewed recently in this blog, Hollywood screenwriting guru Syd Field has just been interviewed on WritersFM.

As usual on WritersFM, the interviewer is Karl Moore. He asks Syd a range of questions, some of which were sent in by members of my forum. I was pleased that I also got two of my own questions answered!

Syd comes up with with some great advice for would-be screenwriters. One thing that particularly interested me is where (quite early on in the interview) he talks about the most common mistake made by aspiring screenwriters. This may not be what you think, and it really is essential knowledge for screenwriters.

Listeners also get to hear some very interesting information about trends in the movie-writing business - in particular, how these days several writers are often engaged to produce their own versions of a movie script before yet another writer is engaged to cobble the best bits together to create the final 'Frankenstein script'. I'm not sure if the latter is an official term or not, but it might explain the variable quality of some recent Hollywood releases!

The whole interview is about half an hour long. The sound quality isn't quite as good as some other recent WritersFM interviews, but as Syd himself points out, he and Karl were about 5,000 miles apart at the time. It's still perfectly listenable, and you can either wait for it to be broadcast on the station's normal rotation, download it as a podcast, or (probably the easiest option) stream it from the Podcasts page.

If you would like to find out more about Syd, the best place is his web page at Finally, if you're interested in screenwriting, don't forget that WCCL produce the unique 'Write a Movie in a Month' course. More info about this, including how you can get a $20 discount and three extra bonus items from me, can be obtained from this post on my blog.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Two Essential Blogs for Screenwriters

If you're interested in screenwriting for TV or film, here are two blogs you really ought to have on your Favorites list...

As you might guess, is the blog of Hollywood scriptwriter John August. In it John answers questions about working as a movie scriptwriter (and occasionally covers other topics as well). In a recent post, he talked about how to introduce a character. Here's a brief extract to illustrate the quality of advice on offer:

Just how early can you tell a script isn't going to work? To me, it's as the first few characters are introduced. If character introductions are not done artfully, the odds of anything else in the script being great are slim.

The visitor sits beside the bed and Ripley finally notices him. He is thirtyish and handsome, in a suit that looks executive or legal, the tie loosened with studied casualness. A smile referred to as 'winning.'


Nice room. I'm Burke. Carter Burke.
I work for the company, but other
than that I'm an okay guy.
Glad to see you're feeling better.

That's James Cameron's terrific script for Aliens, page 3, the introduction of Paul Reiser's character. Even before Burke speaks, let's look at what Mr. Cameron told us:

Burke's rough age.
That he's decent-looking.
He's a "suit," but trying not to look like a suit.
He seems friendly - but there's something possibly false about it.

Burke's first lines of dialogue reinforce our expectation from the character description. "Yes, I work for the company, but I want you to think I'm on your side."

Apologies that the script sample I've reproduced above isn't as neatly formatted as on Mr August's blog, but I'm sure you get the idea. Please see the post in question for the full, properly set out version!

If TV scriptwriting is more your thing, Jane Espenson's blog should be high on your list. Jane has written episodes for many top-rated US TV series, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Gilmore Girls, Ellen, The O.C., Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Dinosaurs, Andy Barker PI, and so on.

Jane says that her blog is intended 'to help new writers tackle the job of writing those all-important spec scripts - from picking the right show to spec, to developing an idea, to getting that dialogue exactly right, to giving the script that professional look.'

Here she is talking about writing specimen scripts:

Your spec script, even if it is for a show that is predominately arc-driven, will need to have at least some stand-alone elements. In fact, it should probably have as many stand-alone elements as you can get away with. So when you're looking at produced scripts, using them to try to put together a template for the structure of your spec, try to use stand-alone episodes as your examples as much as possible. If you're purchasing your scripts and can only afford a few, make them the most highly regarded episodes plus the stand-alone episodes.
As with John August's blog, Jane Espenson's is packed with helpful advice for aspiring screenwriters. Not only that, you even get to find out what she had for lunch each day!

Finally, just a quick reminder that if you're interested in screenwriting, my special offer on WCCL's Write a Movie in a Month course is still open. Not only do you get 20 dollars off the normal price, you also get three unique bonus items from me that are unavailable elsewhere. Just click on this link for full details.

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Dash it all...

Recently I was re-reading a novel called To Die in Italbar by one of my favourite SF authors, the late, great Roger Zelazny.

There are many reasons I love Zelazny's work, and I'll talk more about this another time. Today I wanted to highlight a relatively minor aspect of his technique but (in my view) an interesting one for writers. It's the way Zelazny uses dashes to indicate a sudden change of direction in mid-speech. Here are a couple of examples from the book above, though I appreciate that taken out of context they may not make much sense:

"You're sure you won't take my money?"
"No, thanks. - May I go to the upper deck again after lunch, to see the volcano?"


"There was no record of him with us either, though. - Look at that flare-up, will you?"

I've seen this device used by other writers as well, but re-reading Zelazny's book recently reminded me of it. I'm not saying it's an essential technique for writers, but used appropriately, and in moderation, it can help make your dialogue sound more life-like.

Of course, dashes are useful punctuation marks for other purposes as well. In pairs they can be used parenthetically, as an alternative to commas or brackets.

Here's an example - not an especially inspired one - of the parenthetical use of pairs of dashes.

There are no hard and fast rules about this, but I feel that dashes used in this way give more emphasis to the parenthesized material than commas or brackets would. They make it stand out that bit more.

Dashes are also handy if you want to show a sentence that suddenly goes off in a surprising or unexpected direction...

I bought a new car at the weekend - then abruptly wished I hadn't.

This is somewhat similar to the usage by Zelazny that I started off discussing here, of course.

One other very important use for dashes is to indicate a sentence that is interrupted or broken off abruptly...

"I need to ask you a -"
"- Favour? Forget it!"

By contrast, ending a speech with an ellipsis indicates that it simply trails away.

"That might be the place we are looking for, but then again..."

Incidentally, one question I'm often asked about dashes is how to present them on the page. My advice is to choose a convention you are happy with, and stick to it. Americans in particular often use two hyphens side by side to indicate a dash, or you can of course use the dashes produced by default in Microsoft Word when you type a spaced hyphen. But don't get hung up about en rules, em rules and such like - these are matters for editors and typesetters to concern themselves with, not authors. Indeed, at least one publisher's house style guide I have seen asks writers to represent all dashes with hyphens, and leave it to their editors to convert them to en rules or whatever.

Finally, much as I like dashes, it's important not to over-use them, or your writing will end up looking like 'notes'. Stick to using them for the specific purposes I have set out here, and you shouldn't go too far wrong. - Happy writing!

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Writing with a Collaborator

Recently a member of my forum emailed asking if I had any advice on working collaboratively. I didn't really have time to reply to him just then, so I suggested posting a query on the forum (that's one reason I set it up!). However, it is a very interesting question, so I thought I'd post a few thoughts about the subject today.

First of all, I do like the idea of working with a collaborator. Writing can be a lonely business, so the prospect of working with someone else is attractive for the human contact aspect alone. Plus you have someone else to bounce ideas off (many of the most successful comedy writers work in duos and I'm sure this is part of the reason). And, of course, having a collaborator means that they will do some of the work instead of you!

Of course, there are drawbacks to working with a collaborator too. If you don't get on with your partner or constantly disagree with them, the savings in time and effort may easily evaporate. Instead of being entirely free to pursue your own artistic vision, you may sometimes have to compromise. And, of course, any payments resulting from your labours will have to be shared with your partner instead of all going into your own pocket...

I have worked with a writing partner on various occasions over the years. I hope he won't mind me revealing that the person I've worked with most often is my old friend, the poet Simon Pitt. One of our first collaborations was a satirical sketch show called The Naked Apricot (a skit on the book by Dr Desmond Morris "The Naked Ape"). This was performed by a local amateur theatre company, and in financial terms anyway was their most successful show ever (admittedly, it probably helped that we didn't get paid a fee for it!).

More recently I collaborated with Simon on a couple of non-fiction books: Fifty Great Ideas for Creative Writing Teaching and How to Invite Any Writer, Artist or Performer Into Your School. We are also working on another book intended for writers and artists who want to work in schools, although because of our busy schedules progress on this has been rather slow.

The way that Simon and I work is to take a project, divide it into chapters or sections, and then allocate each of these to one of us or the other. When we have completed our assigned chapters, we pass them over to the other one to read, edit and add his own input. In addition, I tend to handle the IT-related aspects, e.g. our recent experiment in self-publishing on, as I'm sure that Simon would agree that this is not his strongest suit.

One thing we don't do (or at least hardly ever) is sit down together and go through our draft manuscripts line by line, word by word. Apart from being horribly time consuming, I could imagine this putting our friendship under strain. In my experience anyway, it's easier to accept (and give) criticism in the form of a quick note rather than face to face.

My number one advice to anyone thinking of working with a collaborator is to agree how you will work together first. If your collaborator expects you to sit down and write together while you prefer to work alone and just meet for planning, marketing and so on, it's doubtful whether the partnership will succeed.

Likewise, it's important to discuss the proposed topic of your book, screenplay or whatever in detail, to ensure you don't have totally different perspectives on it. That's not to say you have to agree in advance on every point, but unless you have certain basic assumptions in common, the writing process is likely to become a test of endurance. This applies especially in fiction-writing projects.

Finally, it's worth looking into the growing range of resources on the Internet that can facilitate working collaboratively. One example is Google Documents, which lets you publish documents on the web where they can be viewed and, if you allow it, edited by other selected individuals (i.e. your writing partner/s). This means it is perfectly feasible to work collaboratively with people in other countries and even other continents. I will talk more about Google Documents in a future post, as I find it a very useful facility, even for projects where I am not working with a collaborator.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Beating Writer's Block

One question that arises regularly on my forum is how to combat writer's block. Recently a new member asked about this, so here's a revised and expanded version of my reply.

First of all, if you're 'blocked' on a particular writing project, sometimes the best thing you can do is leave it for a while. Work on something else instead, or do something completely different. With longer projects especially, it's easy to get to a point where you can't see the wood for the trees, and sometimes you need to take a step back to view your project with a sense of perspective. Often then you will see a way forward that might not have been apparent before.

Personally I find that I come up with some of my best writing ideas while mowing the lawn (we do have quite a large garden, admittedly!). Other things that might help include going for a long walk, taking a shower, going for a swim, playing squash or tennis, doing some gardening, working on your car or bike, doing some DIY, and so on. Perhaps the best sort of activities are those that keep your body active but don't require all your mental resources.

Another tip for beating writer's block would be to plan all your writing projects in advance. Break each project into small steps and set yourself deadlines for completing each one. Writing a full-length book or screenplay can appear daunting when viewed in its entirety, but if you break the task into a number of smaller steps, it suddenly looks a lot more achievable.

If you simply sit down to write a 100,000 word novel, for example, it's hardly surprising if the sheer scale of the task causes you to experience writer's block. Divide this into 100 steps of 1,000 words each, however, or even 200 of 500 words, and the task appears a lot more do-able. It's then just a matter of completing one step after another, until eventually the book is finished.

Dare I mention it, my course Write Any Book in Under 28 Days includes my unique five-step method for outlining and writing any book. This has been applied by many hundreds of purchasers to complete fiction and non-fiction books of their own...

Finally, it's worth mentioning that my publishers and sponsors WCCL produce an audio CD which is designed to help writers combat writer's block. It uses the power of 'binaural beats' to encourage the brain to resonate with the frequencies most commonly associated with the creative state. You have to listen to it through headphones to get the full benefit of the binaural effect.

I'd understand if you're a little bit sceptical about this, but it is based on proven scientific principles, and WCCL have received many testimonials from people who have found the CD helpful. I reviewed the Writer's Block CD on my blog a while ago. You can read my review by clicking here if you wish.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

A Strange Choice of Prize Winner...

I don't often venture into literary criticism on this blog. However, the recent choice of The Island by Victoria Hislop (see below) as Waterstone's Newcomer of the Year in the Galaxy British Book Awards left me both surprised and depressed.

I took this book on holiday to Greece with me last year with high expectations. The book is set in Crete and tells the story of the tiny island of Spinalonga, a now-deserted former leper colony. It sounded an intriguing tale, and as a lover of Greece and its islands myself, the setting was an added bonus for me.

However, I found it one of the worst written books I had read for many a year. Ms Hislop's prose style is flat and dull, and the dialogue is especially leaden. Characters regularly deliver slab-like paragraphs of exposition in the least life-like manner imaginable. And the writing is often lazy. For example, near the start of the book the narrator and her parents go to a Greek restaurant and order the most predictable dishes you could pick: moussaka, stifado, kalamari, needless to say accompanied by a bottle of retsina. There was a golden opportunity here to bring the scene to life by describing some of the many more interesting and unusual Greek specialities, but instead - as throughout the book - the author was content to take the easy option.

What I found hardest to take about The Island, though, was the constant switching of viewpoints from one character to another. This is something every new fiction writer is taught to avoid, and for good reason - it confuses the reader and makes it almost impossible to identify and empathise with any of the characters. Almost every modern novel is written in scenes portrayed through the eyes (and other senses) of a single viewpoint character. If you are going to ignore this convention, as Ms Hislop has, you need to understand clearly what you are doing and why. I am not at all convinced that this was the case with The Island.

I do think that Victoria Hislop, a travel writer by profession, has uncovered a fascinating story here, and as social history it is certainly worth documenting. It is just a shame that she does not have the writing skills to turn it into a decent novel. What depresses me is that The Island was given this plaudit despite being poorly written - presumably because it was an interesting story, and the author and her husband are already well known in the literary world. Meanwhile, other much better written novels by authors with lower public profiles are shamefully ignored.

Anyway, excuse my rant. I have nothing against book awards, but I do think that above all else they should recognise and reward good writing. When a book such as The Island gets feted despite all its shortcomings, it seems to me unfair on the many 'unknown' authors who could have benefited hugely from the publicity generated by this award, not to mention the many readers (myself included) who may buy this book on the back of all the hype and feel short-changed by it.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

One Way to Get an Idea for Your Next Book...

Today I wanted to share with you an interesting article I came across the other day. It's by Jimmy D. Brown, a successful e-book author and entrepreneur. His article sets out a method for coming up with new ideas for e-books, though it could just as well be used to generate ideas for conventional non-fiction books. There are some similarities with a method I set out in my course Write Any Book in Under 28 Days, but Jimmy has definitely put his own original spin on it.

The article is quite short, so I've reproduced it in full. I hope you enjoy reading it.

Idea Hangouts: Where to Find Hot Product Ideas to Use For Creating Your Next Best-Selling eBook
By Jimmy D. Brown of "Small Reports Fortune"



That's how many times I've been asked "Where can I find hot product ideas to write about in my next eBook?"

Really. I've been keeping count. :o)

OK, so it's probably not quite that many times, but you get the idea. I get asked that question a LOT. And so, I've decided to share my favorite "idea hangouts".

That's right ... "idea hangouts." It's been my experience that there are specific places where hot product ideas are always gathered. I call them "idea hangouts."

*** Idea Hangout #1 ***

One of the "idea hangouts" that I've identified is is the web's largest bookstore. It's also a community center for new product ideas. I use it as one of my top brainstorming resources. Again and again I visit this site to come up with topics to write about.

What makes so useful as a research tool for getting new ideas is their searchable database of books. There are thousands of great ideas lurking in there if you just know how to use it. And that's what I'm here for. :o)

I'm going to show you how to find hot product ideas with anytime you want.

It's really a matter of three simple steps ...

STEP 01 : >>> Decide Upon A Broad Category.

When brainstorming ideas, you must begin with a broad category to work with. Some examples might be: weight loss, marketing, dating, travel, baseball. So, you need that ahead of time. Figure out a broad subject that you know is popular (I.E. You know that losing weight is ALWAYS going to be a popular subject, as is "making money.").

As an example for this article, I'm going to choose GOLF.

STEP 02 : >>> Search Amazon's Database.

After picking your broad topic to research, it's time to visit Specifically, you're going to SEARCH their database of books they are selling.

Upon arriving at their site, locate their SEARCH form. At the time of this writing, it was in the upper left hand corner of their main page. Pull the menu down and select BOOKS from the options.

In the space provided, type in whatever broad category you chose. I'd type in "Golf". (You don't need quotation marks.)

If you did indeed start with a broad category, then hundreds (or even thousands) of book listings should appear as a result of the search.

STEP 03 : >>> Brainstorm Ideas From The Listings.

Let the brainstorming session begin! Now it's time to look at the books that are listed and write down as many possible ideas as you can find.

Look for the different TYPES of books written about the subject, identifying different THEMES, STYLES and SUBCATEGORIES.

Let's look at an example ...

When I searched for "Golf", I was able to immediately spot dozens of great ideas. Here are a handful ...

1. Becoming a better golfer. There are many golf books available in this area, covering everything from "A-Z of Golf Shots" to specific topics such as "Improving Your Short Game." There were lots of different themes from "learning to break 100" to "shaving 10 shots off your score" to "7 shots that will change your golf game forever."

2. Guides to Golf Courses. Again, we have many different ideas here. Specific golf guides like "Florida golfing", "golfing in Tennessee" and "golfing the Robert Trent Jones trail" appear, as well as books on "the best golf courses in America," "best kept secrets: great golf courses you've probably never played," and "golf vacation guides."

3. Profiting from Golf. More ideas pour in with "opening a golf repair business," "becoming a golf retailer," "learning how to caddy" and "buying & selling used golf clubs."

What about "running an online golf auction", "organizing a golf tournament for profit" or even "writing information products about golf!"

4. Golf and Business. There are millions of dollars in business deals negotiated on the golf course every single year. And there are books available to teach folks how to get it done. "How to negotiate business deals during golf outings," "Legal golf tax deductions for businesspeople," and "business seminars and golf: how to mix training and fun for maximum profit" are just a few more ideas worth exploring.

5. Golf Products. My, my, my there are so many ideas floating around in here! Everything ranging from reviews of the latest golf equipment to ratings of golf courses to discounts on golf packages. Resource guides to finding the best deals on golfing products, how to negotiate discounts, and how to find the best products for your specific golf game also come to mind as product ideas.

One Broad Category (Golf)+ Searchable Database of Books= 28 Potential Product Ideas

See how easy that was? I found TWENTY-EIGHT potential new product ideas (and there were MANY MORE that I didn't mention in this article) from a simple brainstorming exercise using ONE "idea hangout."

There's got to be a best-seller in that bunch somewhere.

And certainly with a little "mix -n- match" I can come up with a hit product with these ideas.

Not bad, eh?

So, now it's YOUR turn. It's a simple system for coming up with product ideas anytime you want. Like right now.

Jimmy D. Brown is the author of "Small Reports Fortune" - if you can write 7-15 page small reports, you can earn a living online working just a few hours each week from your home. Look for his EXCLUSIVE formula "Creating A Six-Figure Income With Small Reports" at

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Plot Devices in Agatha Christie's Novels

I am grateful to my colleague (and devoted Agatha Christie fan) Karl Moore for drawing my attention to the excellent Wikipedia article by the above title.

I should perhaps warn you, though, that the article (and this post) describes plot devices and twist endings used in many of Ms Christie's novels, so if you are planning to read a Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot story shortly, you might want to look away now!

Here is an example plot device from the article:

The murder proves to be an opportunistic crime complicating a complex one

In Murder on the Links most of the confusing elements of the crime are discovered to have been part of an elaborate plan by the victim to stage his own death and disappear. It is when he is happened upon by the real murderer that the final elements are added to the puzzle.

Similarly, in 'The Mystery of the Spanish Chest' the victim himself plans to hide in the chest and catch his wife with the man that he suspects of being her lover. The murderer kills him while he is in the chest, resulting in a more complex situation to be solved than might otherwise have arisen.
As the opening paragraph of the Wikipedia article says, Agatha Christie's reputation as 'The Queen of Crime' was built by the large number of classic plot devices that she introduced, or for which she provided the most famous example. In my view, any would-be crime writer could not fail to be inspired by reading this article.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Review: WhiteSmoke Writing Software

Recently the good folk at WhiteSmoke sent me a copy of their writing software to evaluate. So here's my review of this popular tool for writers...

For those who don't know, WhiteSmoke is a program that aims to help its users produce better-written documents. It does this by analyzing the spelling, punctuation and grammar in any document, and then suggesting corrections and possible improvements. WhiteSmoke is compatible with Microsoft Windows ME, Windows2000, Windows XP and Windows Vista. It will work in almost any text-based application, including word processors, email programs, web-based forms, and so on.

Once WhiteSmoke is installed on your PC, you use it as follows. First, you create your text in your chosen application (e.g. Microsoft Word). Select the text you want to analyze by highlighting it in the normal way, then press the WhiteSmoke shortcut key. This is set by default to F2, though you can change it if you like. In Word a separate "Enrichment" button is created on the toolbar, and you can click on this as an alternative to pressing the shortcut key.

WhiteSmoke will then open in a new window, with your selected text in a box in the middle. Spelling mistakes are highlighted in red and grammar mistakes in green. When you move the cursor over any item, suggested corrections (a range of them) appear in a box at the foot of the screen. You can accept or reject any correction just by clicking on it.

Perhaps the most interesting feature for writers, however, is the enrichment function. The WhiteSmoke software analyzes your writing and looks for ways it could be improved, e.g. by using an alternate word or phrase (thesaurus function), or by adding extra words. All candidates for enrichment are highlighted in blue in the WhiteSmoke window, and suggested additions and alternatives are shown in the boxes below. Again, you are at liberty to accept or reject any change. Once you have gone through all the program's suggestions, just save the changes and close WhiteSmoke, and the corrected and "enriched" version will automatically appear in the original application.

Overall, I was impressed with how easy WhiteSmoke was to use, and its effectiveness. Obviously Word does have its own spelling and grammar checkers, but WhiteSmoke's appear to work better. This is especially so with the grammar checker, which is far more user-friendly than Word's. The "Enrichment" function is particularly good for revealing ways in which text can be improved. Obviously not all the changes the software suggests will be appropriate, but simply seeing the suggested alternatives can jolt you out of using the same old words and expressions, and give your writing a new, fresher feel.

The version of WhiteSmoke I evaluated was the standard one, which is really aimed at business users. It would still be useful for writers, but WhiteSmoke also offer a version of the software specially tailored for use by creative writers. If you're a novelist or short story writer, this would probably be the version to go for. It has a larger vocabulary than the standard version, and is less likely to suggest inserting business-related terms such as inventory and turnover into your sensitive description of a woodland sunset...

Are there any drawbacks to WhiteSmoke? Well, a possible one for some users is that you need to have an Internet connection open while you are using it. WhiteSmoke say this is because the program's database is constantly updated via the web. For most users this is unlikely to present problems, but if you regularly use your computer off-line, it might be a bit frustrating.

WhiteSmoke is probably ideally suited for writers who are buzzing with ideas but know that they have a few shortcomings in grammar, punctuation, and so on. Even if you're reasonably confident in these areas, however, WhiteSmoke can give you a fresh perspective, and suggestions for improving passages of text you may have become "bogged down" on.

For more information about WhiteSmoke, click on any of the links in this article to visit their sales site. Watch out for their regular special offers!

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