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Some Fannish Acronyms and Nomenclature
Mary Sues and Gary Stus
On Onyx Orbs
On Grammar and Spelling
On Grown-Up Language
A Note to Aspiring Poets
A guide to fannish nomenclature, and some common errors which are best avoided.
The modern fanfiction movement began in the 1960s with Star Trek fandom, and rapidly spread to other stories and fictional worlds. Nowadays the movement has migrated to the internet, but until the early '90s fanfics were printed (often cheaply and blurrily) on paper and bound into "fanzines" or "zines" (short for "fanfiction magazines").
The first identifiable fanwriting movement in the sense in which we understand it now was in seventeenth century Spain, where there was a vigorous not-for-profit fanfiction scene based around the novel Don Quixote - which itself was a parody of sixteenth century Spanish superhero stories. Fanwriting in the sense of taking pre-established worlds and characters and then writing your own stories about them is much older, however. Anybody who writes a historical novel which centres around real historical people and events is doing what fan-writers do, except that they hope to be paid for doing it, and essentially most Arthurian tales and Mediaeval Lives of the Saints and apocryphal stories about the childhood of Jesus are fanfics. Even Shakespeare freely filched pre-existing plots, backgrounds and characters. And Mary-Sues and Gary-Stus were there from the outset. Indeed, it could be said that the smug and violent version of the child Jesus as portrayed in the apocrypha is the ultimate Gary-Stu.
Fan: in this context, somebody enthusiastically, even obsessively interested in a particular fictional story, world or character from a book, film, TV show or similar (generally, one which has been aired commercially and in public) written by someone else, or in a particular genre of story. A Science Fiction fan, for example, is a fan of the genre, while a Heinlein fan is a fan of a particular SF author. [Fans of an actor or sports-star etc. are outwith the scope of this article.]
Fen: plural of fan.
Fannish: adjectival form of fan.
Fandom: the commonwealth of all fen. But "a fandom" is the group of fen attached to one particular story or genre.
Potterverse: the fictional universe encompassed by the Harry Potter books. Similar terms will exist for other fandoms.
Con: a "convention" or weekend gathering of fen to watch films, buy books, attend discussion groups, listen to lectures, take part in costume contests, get drunk and, often, have surreptitious sex. A con may be restricted to fen of one particular series, or may be, say, for all fantasy-fen or all SF-fen. Conventions in the US are usually commercial enterprises - those in the UK are usually non-profit-making and raise money for charity. Certain conventions are communal calendar events. Here in Britain we have an annual Eastercon, for example: no other convention will be scheduled at the same time, and the location of each Eastercon is decided two years in advance by potential con-running teams submitting bids to a committee. The country and precise location of each Worldcon is decided in the same way, but Worldcons are only held iirc every three years. Conventions, especially ones which aren't already an Eastercon or Worldcon, usually have joking, punny names such as iCONic or Diffcon (in Cardiff), although over the years the well of amusing names has run pretty dry.
Room-party: a convivial gathering of fen in somebody's hotel-room at a convention, after the organised events have closed down for the night.
Gopher: an official assistant to the organisers of a convention, who "goes fer" things.
True fan: a science fiction fan whose interest is in "hard", science-based speculative science fiction rather than space opera, fantasy or TV shows or films.
Big-Name Fan or BNF: a fan of long-standing with an impressive reputation on the SF convention circuit.
Gaffiate: to "get out of fandom" or "get out of fan-fiction". Said of a formerly active fan who has ceased to be active on the fan scene, especially one who has made a conscious decision to cease to be active.
Fanfiction/fanfic: a non-profit-making story, written as a hobby and based on characters and situations in a published story, film or TV show.
Fanart: a non-profit-making artwork, produced as a hobby and based on characters and situations in a published story, film or TV show.
Fanzine/zine: "fanfiction magazine", a printed or photocopied booklet of fanfics, widely circulated among fen before the internet became readily available.
APA: "Amateur Publishing Association", a pre-internet group dedicated to producing a collaborative, anthology fanzine (or sometimes a zine dedicated to some political issue) at regular intervals, e.g. every two months. Each member of the APA had to submit a certain number of fanfics, essays or fanart per year, which were then printed and bound with the other members' contributions and circulated round the group.
Story-exchange: a sort of internet-based fanfic game where members of a group submit details of stories they would like other members to write for them, and then pick up story-requests by other members and write them, usually anonymously.
WIP: "work in progress", a multipart fanfiction which has been made available to readers but which is not yet complete.
Ficlet: a fanfic of less than 1,000 words.
Flash fic: a fanfic of less than 500 words. All flash fics are ficlets, but not all ficlets are flash fics.
Drabble: a fanfic of exactly 100 words. All drabbles are flash fics, but not all flash fics are drabbles. The Save the Drabble blog lists various fine gradations of nomenclature - for example a "sesquidrabble" is 150 words.
Plot-bunny: an idea for a story, especially one which jumps up and down in your mind, demanding to be written.
Canon: the details about a story, world or character which are contained in the published material, or in associated authoritative statements by the author of that material.
Fanon: details about a published story, world or character which are invented by the fen, and then become widely accepted in the fandom as true. Sometimes these merely fill in gaps in the published material: sometimes they actually contradict the published material, especially when fen get a fixed idea of a character early in a series, and then stick rigidly to that idea in the face of subsequent canon evidence. At least one is the result of attempting to follow canon whilst actually misunderstanding it: the common fanon idea that Snape is some kind of High Grand Master of the art of potion-making springs from an honest misunderstanding by American fen of the British term "master", a male schoolteacher.
Canon-compliant or canon-compatible: a story which as far as possible accurately reflects the known details of the characters, background and plot of the story the fandom is based on, and then weaves new tales around that framework, generally by filling in new incidents which might have happened before, after, in between or in another location from those scenes which are portrayed in canon. It may introduce new background details and characters as well, but these should not conflict with the ones established in canon.
AU: "alternate universe", said when the characters in a fanfic resemble their originals but the setting is strikingly different. This can range from preserving the world and background of a story but changing the outcome of significant events in order to start up a different time-line, all the way up to re-setting The Avengers in ancient Athens.
Crossover: a fanfic which combines characters and worlds from different major fandoms. A brief, peripheral cameo appearance by Sherlock Holmes in a story which is set in 1890s London isn't really a crossover - Holmes playing a starring rôle at Hogwarts or Legolas on the Enterprise is.
Canon-shafted: a fanfic which was written partway through a published series and which was canon-compliant at the point when it was written, but which is AU relative to the later episodes of the series. A common example is when a canon character has no filled-in background, so a fanwriter invents a background for them, and then a later episode or book gives them a quite different canon history.
IC: "in character", said of a character in a fanfic who closely resembles the published character they are based on, or at least attempts to do so.
OoC: "out of character", said of a character in a fanfiction who is distinctly different in behaviour and personality from the published character they are based on. If you know that the character you are writing is OoC it is normal to put a warning in the story-summary or in notes above the title, so readers can choose whether they want to go ahead or not.
OC: "original character", one invented by the author rather than taken from canon. Confusingly, OC is sometimes also used intead of OoC, to mean "out of character".
OFC: "original female character".
OMC: "original male character".
Self-insert: an original character who resembles the author and through whom the author imagines themselves within their story.
Mary-Sue/Marty-Stu/Gary-Stu: a sickeningly twee, improbably idealised, annoying original character through whom the author imagines themselves as they would like to be. See below.
Ship: a sexual relationship between a particular pair of characters, also used as a verb: "to ship" a particular pair of characters is to write a story in which they are lovers. Occasionally also used to refer to a story about a strong platonic friendship or mentorship. In Harry Potter fandom it is common to cut the characters' names together, viz. Dramione is the Draco/Hermione ship, Snupin is Snape/Lupin etc.. Snape/Hermione is known as either Snamione or Snermione.
OTP: "one true pairing" - a ship you feel is so perfectly suited that the characters could never go as well with anyone else but each other.
Het: a story about a heterosexual sexual relationship.
Slash: usually refers to a male homosexual ship. It's derived from the Trek fandom custom of writing Kirk/Spock ship stories and refering to them as K/S, but the habit of writing the initials of the characters in a ship on either side of a virgule extends to het stories as well, and these are occasionally also referred to as slash. HG/SS for example is a Hermione Granger/Severus Snape ship story, also called a Snermione, Snamione or HGSS. The AB/CD format is sometimes also used for stories about non-sexual close friendships or mentoring. Male homosexual slash fics (nearly always written by straight women) are possibly the commonest, most dominant type of fanfiction, and typically portray characters as gay or bi without regard to their sexuality in the original story. In the Potterverse, for example, Dumbledore is definitely gay; Sirius may well be, despite the girlie posters on his wall (he appears not to notice a girl making eyes at him, which suggests he may not be very sexually aware of females, and his main emotional connection is his bromance with James); Harry is probably bisexual (he constantly assesses other males in terms of how handsome they are - in fact because he's the viewpoint character of a straight woman); and Snape appears to be entirely straight (he was quite possessive of Lily and there's a definite sense of sexual frisson between him and Narcissa, and none with any of the male characters, not even when he fights with the beautiful Lockhart, or is embraced by Slughorn). Yet fanfiction typically portrays Snape and Harry as both exclusively gay.
Femmeslash: a lesbian ship story.
Gen: a "general" story which does not center around a romantic/sexual relationship.
Lemons and limes: a lemon is a fairly explicit sex scene; a lime is a very explicit sex scene, possibly an unpleasant or perverse one. I wish also to propose the use of the word "plum" for an explicit sex-scene written in Painfully Purple Prose.
PWP: a story which centres around an explicit sex scene with very little lead-in or other action. Said to stand either for "porn without plot" or "Plot? What plot?"
EWE: "Epilogue, what epilogue?" This acronym, peculiar to Harry Potter fandom, refers to a story which is canon-compliant up to the last proper chapter of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows but ignores the details of the characters' future lives as given in the Epilogue. Usually this is done so that Snape can be rescued alive from the Shrieking Shack - but it can also be done in order to e.g. have the characters marry different people.
Mpreg: a story in which a man becomes pregnant.
H/C: "hurt/comfort", a story in which a character is injured or otherwise traumatised, and other characters have to rescue and/or nurse and/or support them, leading to an intense emotional connection. See below.
Darkfic: a story which is deliberately depressing, tragic or horrific - whether in the ghost-story or the gore-fest sense.
Challenge Fic: this is a fanfic which is written in response to a "challenge" in which somebody sets out a basic plot - e.g. "Harry is sexually abused by the Dursleys and Snape rescues him" - and then writers write their own takes on this theme. Some common Potterverse ones are listed below.
Marriage Law Challenge: owing to a falling birthrate the Ministry of Magic passes a law which will force many single witches and wizards, including Hermione, to marry or leave the wizarding world. She is in danger of being forced to wed an enemy so Snape marries her instead, as a practical measure (or sometimes it is Snape who is being forced to marry an enemy, and Hermione who comes to his aid). After many vicissitudes they eventually fall in love. Often, it is only Muggle-borns who are affected by the Marriage Law, being ordered to marry pure-bloods or half-bloods in order to strengthen the wizarding world's genetic stock.
Hollow Man Challenge: various former Death Eaters including Snape are stripped of their souls, turned into automata and sold as slaves. Hermione buys Snape to protect him, and then has to work out how to retrieve and restore his soul.
Severitus Challenge: Harry is really Snape's son, artificially made to look like James. He begins to revert and to look more and more like Snape, until All is Revealed.
Sevitus: a story in which Snape is either Harry's biological father or a father-figure to him, but which does not conform to all the details of the Severitus Challenge.
Much has been written on the subject of Mary Sues, which (who?) are often confused with self-inserts (and are named after a character in a memorably bad early Star Trek fanfic).
A self-insert is an OC (original character) who bears some resemblance to the author and/or is the author's alter ego, through whom they imagine themselves into the story. Done right, and assuming that the author has a reasonably interesting personality, there is in fact nothing wrong with this. A high proportion of all central characters in literature are at least partial self-inserts - Jane Austen's heroines, for example - and JK Rowling has admitted that Hermione is a self-insert.
The problem with Mary Sues is not that they are self-inserts but that they aren't; for they are not the author as she is but as she wishes she was. [I say "she", but there is a male equivalent, often called a Gary Stu or Marty Stu.] A typical Mary Sue is unrealistically multi-talented and beautiful; is described in a way which pays excessive, florid attention to just how talented and beautiful she is; takes centre-stage to the point of eclipsing the other characters; saves the day in a way which makes the other characters look like mere backdrop; and usually seduces one or more of the regular characters, regardless of whether she is really the sort of person they would be likely to like. The reader too is expected to like her just because the author says so, regardless of whether she is actually likeable. If she has physical or mental flaws, they tend to be either romantic ones (blindness, for example) or have rather obviously been added on just so the writer can claim she isn't a Sue. Her background is often melodramatic, and she (and her author) rarely has much sense of humour.
They exist in regular literature too, of course. Van Helsing, for example, is a flagrant Gary Stu.
Sister Fidelma, the heroine of Peter Tremayne's mystery stories set in seventh century Ireland (a fascinating series as regards the cultural background and plotting, but rather lame when it comes to characterization), is likewise something of a Mary Sue, and also highlights another problem which is often seen with such characters, and in bad writing generally. We are told that "her pale, fresh face and piercing green eyes [cut] hardly concealed a bubbling vitality and sense of humour", but when we actually see her actions and words we see precious little sign of vitality and none at all of any sense of humour, other than an irritating tendency to smirk to herself at random moments. It is not enough to simply state that your character has this or this attractive characteristic: you need to actually show them having it. And it is a bad idea to endow your character with a characteristic, especially humour, which you yourself don't have and can't fake. Provided you aren't totally thick you can if necessary fake high intelligence in a character by having them understand the same things you understand, only faster; but it's almost impossible to write humour, maturity or sophistication convincingly if you don't have them yourself. This is why fanfiction is littered with adult characters acting like fifteen-year-olds.
It is a very bad sign if the story pays too much attention to how good-looking the character is, especially on the first page. It is inadvisable to harp on too much about the character's looks on any page, unless they are particularly relevant to the plot. It is a particularly bad sign if the story opens with the character gazing at themselves in a mirror, unless a) they are somebody whose looks are their stock in trade, such as a glamorous actress; or b) they are preparing for a big date or audition; or c) their vanity is a major plot-point; or d) they are counting their spots, or similar.
It is also a bad sign if the character has a very flowery, romantic name. This is a little difficult in Harry Potter stories because some of the canon characters have flowery names and that is a part of their culture; but even in the Potterverse, it's a good idea to avoid names which sound soppy or too obviously made-up. Made-up, fancy names like Melodia or Megan-Storm do exist in Britain, but are generally seen as proof that the person is of very low social class.
It's perfectly permissible to have a character who is talented and able, but they shouldn't be good at absolutely everything unless there is a very good, plot-central reason for it. [I'm thinking here of the multi-talented, athletic and handsome Dr Bashir in Deep Space Nine, who turned out to have been genetically modified to make him that way, and who had a nasty feeling that his parents had thereby murdered the learning-impaired child he was born to be.]
If the character is going to turn out to be especially good at some skill which will save the day, there should be some established reason why they are likely to have that skill. If the character is introduced as a martial arts teacher from Day One, for example, it's reasonable for them to turn out to be an aikido expert; if they're a waitress and they suddenly produce this amazing skill without it having been mentioned before, that's Suey. JK Rowling herself committed a flagrant Gary Stuism in Deathly Hallows by having Ron Weasley suddenly able to reproduce Harry's use of Parselmouth from memory, with very little prior indiction that he's a good mimic.
The canon characters should be as competent and pro-active as they are in canon. Even if the OC makes a significant contribution, the canon characters should not just sit around going "Gosh, we don't know how we would have managed without you," unless they are lazy and feckless in canon too.
If you take my own OC Lynsey, for example, she's reasonably clever and able, but no more so than is common among British Science Fiction fen. She's in her early forties; her appearance is never described or even commented on, other than that she is tallish, fairly heavily built and not actively revolting and owns a disentangling comb (which suggests her hair is long or curly or both); and although her character is fleshed out enough to be interesting, she exists mainly as a foil for the canon characters and a viewpoint through which to observe them, and there is never any doubt that the story is primarily about the canon characters rather than about her.
Even if they are highly intelligent, teenage OCs should not in general turn out to be more mature and wise than most of the adult characters, unless it's been established that they have an unusual degree of life experience for one so young (e.g. they grew up in a war zone, or they have been caring for their disabled mother since they were nine, or similar).
Do not forget that teenagers of both sexes usually have spots, and teenage boys have facial hair (unless they belong to one of the less hairy ethnic groups) and randomly squeaky voices.
If the OC is going to seduce one of the canon characters, care should be put into making the OC be the sort of person that canon character is likely to prefer, or at least be intrigued by, or at least not actively run screaming from.
The character should have realistic flaws and foibles. Nobody is perfect - and if they were, they'd be boring. Take a look at JK Rowling's writing, as she is a past-mistress at inventing characters who are basically good but who also have real people-type flaws. Consider Molly Weasley: kind, loving, generous, also shrill, domineering and inclined to treat her children as extensions of her own ambitions. Or the inimitable Professor Snape: brave, brilliant, honourable, dedicated, witty, also petty, vindictive, childish, tactless and sulky.
On the subject of Snape, fanon generally assumes that the term "Potions master" means that he holds some specific professional qualification in Potions. In fact "master" is a slightly old-fashioned general term for any male teacher at a British school (the female equivalent being "mistress"). If JKR meant that he was an acknowledged master of his art the way fanon assumes, he'd be called a Master Potioneer, not a Potions master. A Master Carpenter is a carpenter who is acknowledged to be of the highest professional standard: a Carpenty master is a bloke who teaches Woodwork in a school.
On the other hand, the wizarding world doesn't always use such terms the same way the real or Muggle world does. In the real world, a professor is usually a senior lecturer at a university, but Hogwarts uses it of any teacher of an academic subject. Since the only teachers (other than the Headmaster and Deputy Headmistress) who are referred to as "master" in the books are Snape, Slughorn and Flitwick, whilst the other male teachers are just called teachers, it may be that in this case the term indicates a teacher with higher academic or managerial status than the bog-standard level, but it is extremely unlikely that it represents the sort of ultra-high-level, "only five Potions Masters in Europe" sort of achievement which is often assumed in fanfiction.
Of course, Snape may have a qualification in Potions independent of his being a schoolmaster, equivalent to a Bachelor's or Master's degree or even a Doctorate. If he has a Master's degree in it he might, again, be called a Master Potioneer, or a Master of Potions (MPot), Master of Magic (MMag) or Master of Philosophy (MPhil). But that would be a separate issue from his also being a Potions master, or male teacher who teaches Potions.
Also, fanon tended to portray Snape as an aristocrat, and got a nasty shock when HBP showed us his real background. Some fanwriters still refuse to accept that he isn't some sort of darkly brooding nobleman. But it was obvious from the first that Snape was lower middle class at best. Real aristocrats don't swish about in elegant robes being all austere and reserved and speaking in purring, silky tones, at least in the real, Muggle world; they have hard carrying cut-glass voices which can slay at thirty paces and wear old clothes covered in dog drool and get into fights in pubs, because they have an absolute cast-iron certainty that whatever they do must be the right thing to do because it's them that's doing it.
Dumbledore, with his eccentricity and his lurid clothes and his game-playing and his supposedly sub-literate, goat-fancying brother could easily be an aristocrat (although the family history given in DH suggests he may be middle-class). Snape is a working class boy who tries too hard.
There's a saying about the British class system that "The people who matter don't mind, and the people who mind don't matter". The Malfoys are problematic because their self-conscious swanking about how upper-class they are suggests that they are far less genuinely posh than the Weasleys, and yet Pottermore gives them a history dating back to the Norman conquest. But we're told in Beedle that one of the 17th C Malfoys was a newspaper proprietor - quite a low-class sort of job - so possibly they fell on hard times somewhere along the way and have had to claw their way back up.
There exists a whole category of story known as Hurt/Comfort in which somebody is injured or depressed and other people rally round to help them. Usually, the attraction of the Hurt part of the story is that it builds dramatic tension and engages the reader's sympathies very intensely with the person being hurt, making them care about them and want to help them; and then the Comfort part shows them getting that help. Such stories are often a way of breaking down the barriers surrounding a solitary character and enabling them and the people helping them, or whom they are helping, to learn to know each other much better. Not for nothing were the first fannish H/C fics written about Spock: although there exists at least one very good mainstream example from the 1920s - The Wounded Name by D.K. Broster.
Traditionally, the "comfort" part of the story predominates. For example, in the multi-chapter Potterverse story The Price We Pay by Ilmare2 Snape disappears and is presumed dead, but when the war ends he is discovered in a prison cell, traumatized, catatonic and close to death after eight months of torture. The story consists of one chapter describing what was done to him to reduce him to that state, with no more detail than is needed to give you a reasonably clear idea of why he is so shattered; one chapter describing how he is rescued and then the whole of the rest of the story is devoted to how his colleagues react to his condition, and how they gradually coax him back to something resembling normality.
There are some stories which get away with describing injury or torture in more detail without seeming gratuitous, because they genuinely have something important to say about it, or because there is a thriller element to the plot which requires the tension to be ratcheted up. For example there is a grim-but-hopeful story called Ashes of Armageddon by Emily Waters in which a series of torture scenes form a vital part of a complex plot which is about cunning and courage and fortitude and solving a mystery, not just unrelieved misery, and which are interspersed with interludes of kindness and comradeship.
However, some supposed H/C fics, as well as a lot of what are called darkfics, shade over into taking an unlovely relish in the hurt aspect, to the point of becoming "torture-porn". It's the same difference as between a murder mystery and a gore-fest. In a true H/C the initial hurt and some degree of ongoing trauma is necessary to set the scene, just as a murder, gruesome or otherwise, is necessary to set up a murder mystery; but if the gory details of the hurt or the murder start to become the main focus of the plot, then it's another kind of story altogether. If torture-porn is what you want to write, at least be aware that you are doing it; and be aware that chapter after chapter of unrelieved descriptions of torture etc. written for the sake of being dark isn't just depressing - unless exceptionally well-written it's often rather boring, and will only appeal to people who get off on torture.
Gradual coaxing back to normality is an important point. You often see stories in which characters suffer what should be a traumatic experience and either get over it almost instantly, or fall apart on the spot. Real people seldom do either of those things; they struggle to cope, but jagged bits of trauma and neurosis keep rising to the surface for months, years, sometimes for life, disrupting their mental balance. It takes time to recover from a major trauma. Even comparatively minor ones, such as not quite getting hit by a car, are likely to leave people rather shaky for weeks.
There is a peculiar sub-genre of H/C stories in which somebody is raped but it is somehow very rapidly OK, often ending up with them falling in love with the rapist. Rape attacks a person's sense of self and their sense of control over their life, so unless the victim has iron self-confidence and a very unusual mindset they will be traumatized and seriously affected, usually for several years - although probably less so if they are in some way in control of the situation, such as deliberately allowing themselves to be used as bait. This will also apply to stories in which the rapist has been in some way forced to commit the rape against their will: the victim will still be traumatized, it's just the focus of blame which shifts. And stories in which the victim falls for a rapist who committed the crime of their own free will are highly psychologically dodgy and suggest Stockholm Syndrome - a type of brainwashing sometimes seen in hostages.
Another common idea in H/C stories with a sexual aspect is that somebody is raped, or has suffered childhood sexual abuse, and the person who is comforting them makes love to them and that is, in itself and without other complications, enough to heal them. Establishing a loving sexual relationship with somebody who's been abused is likely to do them a lot of good in the long term, but in the short term getting there is likely to be difficult. Bear in mind that initially many rape victims will freak out when they try to have sex (even if they really want to be able to do it), because being touched scares them and their subconscious thinks they are either going to hurt their partner or be hurt by them, or they associate sex with feeling dirty and powerless, or they feel that in some way their body now belongs to their abuser. Conversely, many people who have suffered long-term sexual abuse have an ingrained feeling that they have no right to refuse sex, and will go along with whatever their partner suggests out of a sort of numb resignation, without being very emotionally engaged - making it difficult for them to connect with the genuine love which their partner may be offering. These things need to be born in mind and worked around if you want to write about sexual healing.
For reasons too complex to go into here I have a theory that the reason rape damages people's sense of self so badly is that we are territorial little primates, and rape makes the victim feel that they can hold no territory, not even their own body, and therefore have no place in the group. Certainly the people who cope best with sexual abuse often seem to be those who have no sense of territory anyway (lifelong travellers), or those who have a very strong sense that they do own territory (such as farmers). It may therefore be useful, both in real life and in fanfic, to make sure that a victim of sexual assault knows that they have a place where they belong, that they own their own home etc..
It is certainly always a good idea to try to reinforce their sense of personal power instead of poor-thinging them too much. People who have been sexually assaulted or badly beaten have been made to feel powerless and like non-persons, so they need to be encouraged to assert their individuality and to see themselves as strong and independent.
One day, many moons ago, some Potterverse fan-writer decided to describe Snape as having "onyx orbs" - probably by mistake for obsidian. Since that fateful day, generations of fanwriters have slavishly followed suit. Please note: typical onyx is a greenish off-white, usually with grey-green or toffee-coloured swirls in it. Black onyx does exist, but is usually still very streaky - and if it isn't streaky, it's nearly always artificially dyed. The "black onyx" which you see made up as jewellery often isn't even onyx, dyed or otherwise, but just dyed agate. If you go to Onyx Sphere Corner you will see forty-seven spheres made in a wide variety of colours of natural onyx, only three of which are black and only one of which is a pure dense black.
Onyx is not a good stone to use to describe near-black eyes without any pale bits in them. Horace Slughorn has onyx eyes. Snape does not. If you must compare Snape's eyes to a stone, try obsidian (which comes in a range of colours, but black is the commonest) or jet.
Better still, don't. "Black eyes" is a perfectly adequate description - "midnight eyes" if you want to be fancy. And try to avoid comparing people's eyes (and lips) to anything edible, particularly if they are also described as "moist" or "glistening". All those descriptions of Hermione's "moist, chocolate-coloured eyes" are either risible or nauseating.
Also please note: only house-elves (and cats, and owls, and certain types of lemur) have orbs. Other people just have eyes. Also try to avoid referring to eyes as "optics" unless you are deliberately being funny and 1920s-ish. It's true that's one of the things "optics" means but it more commonly refers to spectacles, or to the study of the eye, rather than the eye itself.
If you think that's being harsh, bear in mind that "onyx orbs" and "glistening chocolate eyes" are among the phrases which cause some readers to hit the Back button as soon as they see them, so if you use them there's a risk your fic simply won't get read. At best, it's an indication that the writer is lazy and just repeating what they've read in someone else's story; at worst, it's as bad a sign as opening with an obvious Mary Sue.
Another thing which is a pet bugbear of mine is the fanon idea that Snape routinely sprays spittle when he is speaking angrily. People, he only did it once in seven books, it was shortly after he'd been knocked out for almost an hour by a blow to the head, and it's a known symptom of concussion. And Hermione is only described as biting her lips eight times in seven years - which is a few more than anybody else, it's true, but still never more than twice in a year, so it's a thing canon Hermione does occasionally, not in every damned conversation.
Occasional grammatical oddities or spelling errors need not spoil an otherwise good story. Lots of grammatical oddities or spelling errors will make your story hard work to read, and most people won't bother. They can also interrupt the flow of the story and make it hard for readers to lose themselves in the writing and really believe in it, because noticeable errors have an effect on the reader akin to stubbing your toe while walking fast. If you sometimes type "nad" for "and" and "teh" for "the", or have commas where you should have full stops, few people will notice because their brain knows the word is meant to be "and" and reads smoothly past it. But if you keep on writing "defiantly" when you mean "definitely", every time the reader comes to it they'll pull up and go "Eh?", as if their train of thought just went over a sudden bump, and then they'll become disconnected from the story.
Also avoid very long paragraphs, a.k.a. The Block Paragraph of Doom: they give readers spots before the eyes, and make it very hard to re-find your place if you lose it. Ditto for centre justification, which is quite dizzying except when used for poetry with fairly short lines.
A lot of writers, fannish or otherwise, trip up on homophones (sound-alikes) such as peak, peek and pique, rain, rein and reign and pour and pore, and spellcheckers don't notice them. Here for the record are some examples many of which I've seen otherwise good writers trip over, and a few of which come from a list of commonly confused word-pairs:
Abet = to assist somebody to do something, especially something dodgy - as in the charge of "aiding and abetting" a crime.
Albeit = similar to "despite", but used in a slightly different construction. "Albeit that X is so" equates to "Despite X being so", and both mean "Even though it is the case that X is so". ["Despite that X is so" is also a valid construction iirc, but very old-fashioned.]
Abhor = to feel horror or disgust about something. If you say, as some people do, that something "abhorred me", you are saying that that something or someone found you to be repellant, not the other way round.
Appal = to cause someone else to feel horror or disgust. If you say that something "appalled me", you are saying that you found something or someone else to be repellant.
Absolve = to clear someone of blame, or forgive them for a blame which does exist.
Absorb = to soak something up or incorporate it into the thing doing the absorbing.
Accept = to go along with something, such as when you "accept the situation", or to allow somebody into a group.
Except = defines the excepted thing as not part of the group of things you are talking about. For example if you say "Everybody in this town is an idiot, present company excepted", you're saying that everybody in the town is an idiot "except" yourself and the person you are talking to (are presently keeping company with).
Affect = have an influence on something. "Affect" used as a noun is also the conscious experience of feeling emotion, and a thing which is "affecting" is emotionally touching. As a verb it can also mean to pretend or "affect" to be something you aren't, with the intention to deceive, and a person who is "affected" (rather than affected by something) is somebody with an artificial, probably over-refined manner.
Effect = the result of the influence something has on something. If A has an influence on B, then A affects B an a way which has an effect on B. To "effect" something, used as a verb, is also to succeed in bringing it into being ("He effected an escape"), and "effects", plural, can mean a person's moveable private possessions - that is, not their business tools, or large, fixed things such as a house or shed, but their books, clothes, shaving-kit, ornaments etc..
Aisle = a kind of internal corridor within a room, such as between rows of shelves in a shop, or rows of pews in a church.
Isle = an island.
Allegiance = your loyalty or support for something or someone on a large-scale, slightly impersonal level, such as your duty to an army of which you are a member, or your support for a football club.
Elegance = the state of being attractive in a calm, minimalist, graceful way. When said of a human or other animal, usually entails being fairly slim and moving in a controlled, smooth, economical way.
Allowed = permitted.
Aloud = doing in a clearly audible (noisy) way something which could potentially be done in silence, such as e.g. speaking a word instead of just thinking it.
Allude to = to refer to or mention something.
Elude = to avoid being cornered or captured in some way: to be elusive is to be hard to pin down.
Amounted to = added up to. Sometimes used metaphorically to refer to a person's achievements in life: "He never amounted to much".
Surmounted = overcame, climbed over.
Appraise = to assess something, to measure or weigh it up - "He appraised the foundations".
Aprise = to let somebody know something - "I aprised him of the results". I got caught by this one myself.
Aquire = to come into possession of something.
Require = need or insist on having or doing something.
Arc = a single arched curve, or the progress of the story of some character or thing. In Harry Potter, for example, Harry's story arc goes from pampered baby to neglected child, to naive young student, to seasoned campaigner, to junior law officer, to chief of police.
Ark = a boat or large chest used to protect and convey something precious. By extension also used for things like seed-stores used to preserve rare plants.
Arising = an old fashioned term for rising up in a phsyical sense, but nowadays more usually used to describe problems and issues which have been brought to people's attention and need to be considered, as in the phrase "matters arising".
Arousing = something which causes people to become excited or emotionally engaged, usually in a sexual context.
Bail = money offered as security so an accused person can be temporarily released from prison, or the act of emptying water out of e.g. a flooded boat, one containerful at a time. By extension, to bail somebody out is to get them out of trouble by offering something. In the U.S. to bail or bail on a situation can also mean to abandon a commitment.
Bale = a block made of individual bits of some material, such as hay or cloth, strapped together, or the act of strapping the material together. I've also heard it used (by an Australian) of the act of backing someone or something into a corner to contain them.
Baited = having had some kind of bait added to it in order to lure in some kind of target, as in "A baited trap", or having been teased or jeered at.
Bated = short form of "abated", held back or curtailed, as in "Bated breath".
Bare = naked, bald, bleak, unadorned.
Bear = a big shaggy animal, or to endure or carry something (possibly a foetus).
Bore = to drill a hole, or the hole itself, or something tedious and uninteresting, or carried, in the past tense. "Last Easter he bore a crown".
Bored = a hole having been drilled, past tense, or the state of feeling that something is tedious and uninteresting.
Born = was given birth to.
Borne = carried or endured.
Bourne = English spelling of the Scots "burn", a stream or rivulet - also sometimes a boundary, limit or goal, such as the barrier between life and death.
Beach = a wide strip of sand or pebbles along the edge of the sea, or sometimes of a body of fresh water.
Beech = a type of deciduous tree, or the wood of that tree.
Belie = to show that a thing which someone has presented as being so is not so, i.e. that it is a lie. The statement "The mayor's words belied his fascist agenda" would mean that the mayor claimed to have a fascist agenda (perhaps in e.g. 1930s Italy, Germany or Spain), but his words showed that his heart wasn't really in it. You could also say "The mayor's words gave the lie to his fascist agenda", and that would mean the same thing.
Betray = to let someone or something down very badly, especially by handing some advantage over them to an enemy; to show that a thing is so which someone has been trying to hide. The statement "The mayor's words betrayed his fascist agenda" would mean that the mayor had been claiming not to be a fascist, but his words showed that really he was one.
Blanch = to turn pale. Can be said of a person becoming white in the face, but also of the act of briefly boiling some plant-based food, such as potatoes or almonds, so that they become paler and are partially cooked
Blench = to manifest a flinching or tightening facial expression which indicates fear or disgust. Often but not always includes blanching.
Blond = a male with very fair hair.
Blonde = a female with very fair hair.
Breach = a gap in a barrier, or some sort of gap in or failure to comply with an expected situation, such as a breach of etiquette.
Breech = an aperture in a gun-stock for inserting a bullet, or half of a pair of knee-length shorts (breeches).
Broach = open a container, such as a beer-barrel, especially when opening it for the first time and making a first inroad on the contents; or to break through the surface of a liquid, such as when a dolphin leaps out of the water; or to raise a new topic of conversation, especially one you feel uncomfortable about raising.
Brooch = a piece of ornamental jewellery which is pinned onto your clothes.
Callous = uncaring, heedless of others' distress (this one was on the BBC website). Can also be a rare variant spelling for callus, q.v..
Callow = young and generally inexperienced, as in the phrase "a callow youth".
Callus = a thickened, roughened area of skin.
Capital = a CAPITAL LETTER, or a sum of money required to undertake some enterprise. If you're being a bit old-fashioned, "Capital!" can also mean "That's great!"
Capitol = the principal city or town of a region, from which it is governed.
Catalytic = a thing which facilitates some event or change (often a chemical reaction), without itself being changed or used up, is a "catalyst", and its action is "catalysis", and its nature is "catalytic".
Catastrophic = disastrous, with far-reaching and severely negative consequences.
Paralytic = falling-down-and-passing-out drunk.
Cite = to refer to an identified quotation or example.
Sight = the ability to see, or an object or scene whose visual appearance is noteworthy.
Site = where something is located.
Climactic = coming to a climax.
Climatic = having to do with the climate (in the weather sense).
Cloches = open-bottomed plastic or glass covers used to protect plants in cold weather, often bell-shaped and placed over an individual plant. By analogy, a cloche hat is a close-fitting, skull-hugging, bell-shaped women's hat, a bit like a swimming cap only not waterproof and usually made of felt or crocheted.
Galoshes = waterproof rubber over-shoes slipped on over your regular shoes. Occasionally slang for a condom, although this is old-fashioned and I haven't heard it for decades.
Complement = to go well with, to accessorize, as one might say that a particular wine complements a chicken salad. A "full complement" means having all the bits of something; it can be said of people, if you have all the staff needed to perform a particular task. If a school has no staff vacancies, for example, and no need for any, it has a full complement of teachers.
Compliment = to praise or flatter a person to their face.
Comprised = made up of different parts which between them "comprise" the group or object being discussed, e.g. "The West Country comprises Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset".
Compromised = a person who has compromised has agreed to a position which falls in between two or more arguments or points of view, satisfying both of them partially and neither of them wholly. Also, if you say that a person or thing has been compromised, it means that they or their position have been undermined. If a person's health has been compromised, their health is more fragile than usual; if they themselves haved been compromised, they have been implicated in something illegal and/or in something which undermines their moral authority on a particular question. Child-abusers, for example, sometimes force their older victims to join in in abusing youinger ones, in order to "compromise" them - meaning that they will be afraid to report the abuse to the police in case they find themselves tarred with the same brush as their abusers. If a machine has been compromised, it's been damaged or weakened.
Condemn = heavily criticise a thing, or mark it to be destroyed.
Condone = allow, accept or make excuses for something.
Confirmation = information which adds to (confirms) the evidence that something is the case; also a ceremony in which Catholic children, nowadays generally between ten and fifteen depending on the congregation, affirm their Catholic faith and are given a ceremonial blessing by the priest.
Conformation = the shape and proportions of something, usually of an animal. The conformation of a horse for example is its bulk, proportions, stance etc..
Contend = to argue or compete; to assert that something is the case.
Content = pronounced con-TENT, the state of feeling happy with how things are.
Content = pronounced CON-tent, the collection of things which are inside something else, such as the content of a book or of a chest of drawers.
Council = a formal committee chosen to make decisions or give advice, especially an elected committee who make decisions for a town.
Counsel = advice, or the act of giving advice, or a lawyer whose job is to advise the client on legal matters and represent them in court.
Crochet = to make a kind of knitted cloth by looping and knotting a continuous thread back into itself to form a dense net, by means of a single needle with a hook on the end.
Crotchet = a quarter-length musical note, or a sharp hook, or a small tool which is so shaped (and is probably not wholly unrelated to a crochet-hook), or a strange "hook", a little weirdness, in a person's habits or attitudes.
Current = pertaining to this present time, or a flow of electricity, or a linear movement of a strand of water within a larger body of water.
Currant = a small round single berry, or a small black dried grape, made from a red grape and very shrivelled (as opposed to a raisin, which is made from a white Muscatel grape and is slightly lighter in colour and a bit less shrivelled, or a sultana, which is a dried seedless white grape, golden and quite plump and juicy).
Cygnet = a baby swan.
Signet = an object, often a hard stone set into a ring, which has a symbol carved into it which can be pressed into sealing wax to show that it was the owner of the signet who sealed the document.
Dandle = to bounce a baby or pet gently up and down to amuse it.
Dangle = to hang suspended in the air.
Dongle = a small gadget for connecting a computer to broadband, often in the form of a little egg-shaped socket piece which dangles on a short cable.
Debauch = to cause somebody to indulge in physical excess or depravity, usually of a sexual nature, or a party at which this sort of thing occurs.
Debouche or débouché = an exit or outlet (including a sales outlet), or the act of spilling out through an exit - especially from a narrow space into a wider one, such as a river emptying into the sea, or a crowd emerging from a doorway onto the street. Also used of an army joining battle. Usually pronounced exactly the same way as debauch - this is another one I've been caught by myself.
Deduce = work out from the evidence that a thing is so.
Deduct = take away something from a group of somethings - similar to subtract, but usually with a more hostile vibe, as e.g. deducting points.
Defiantly = standing up to someone or something in a challenging or cheeky way.
Definitely = certainly, no doubt about it.
Definite = certain, unmistakable, sometimes used to add emphasis, as when one says "There was a definite chill in the air".
Definitive = a thing which fits or provides the very definition of whatever it is, so perfect an example is it.
Depository = a place for dropping off and/or storing some specific item.
Suppository = a type of pill which is inserted into the rectum, either to cure constipation or just because it is felt that the medication will be absorbed more efficiently that way.
Desert = prounced DEZ-ert, a large area of land which receives little or no rainfall, or more loosely just an area which is very sparsely covered and barren.
Desert = prounced dez-ERT, something which you receive because you deserve it, as in the phrase "just deserts".
Dessert = prounced dez-ERT, a sweet course eaten after a savoury main meal.
Digression = when a conversation or text wanders away from the original or main topic onto a side issue.
Discretion = the state of being discreet about something (see below), especially when e.g. avoiding a sensitive topic or secret. Also, if you say a thing is "at [somebody's] discretion" it means it's up to them to decide whether it happens or not.
Diversion = when a physical side-path takes travellers awy from their original path, often in order to go around an obstacle which is blocking the original path, which will then be re-joined farther on. Also, by analogy, a pleasurable pastime which distracts you from your everyday thoughts or mood.
Discreet = circumspect, covert, not obvious, not blatant.
Discrete = separated into a distinct portion. A discrete rock formation, for example, would be one with clear boundaries which made it easy to distinguish it from other rocks or soil around it, whereas a discreet one would be one that was hard to see.
Disinterested = having nothing to gain from and no strong preference for either side of a debate - having, as the saying goes, "no dog in this fight".
Uninterested = finding something dull and not worth paying attention to.
Dolt = a stupid person, and/or one who acts in an ignorant unthinking way.
Dote on = to pamper someone and make much of them,as e.g. when somebody is always fussing and crooning over a small dog or showing people pictures of their grandchild.
Dual = having two parts or aspects which are similar, such as the two lanes on a dual carriageway.
Duel = a competition between two people, especially a formal, ritualized fight.
Dudgeon = a state of annoyance or resentment.
Dungeon = originally, a strong castle keep, but latterly used of underground chambers or passages, especially those used as prison cells.
Elicit = to induce a particular response.
Illicit = unauthorized, at best dubiously legal, and probably done on the sly.
Elusive = hard to locate or to pin down.
Illusive = being in some sense an illusion e.g. a false impression or belief or a misleading visual trick.
Emaciated = very unhealthily thin and bony, probably due to starvation.
Emanated = emerged from or given off by something, e.g. "A loud cheer emanated from the packed hall" or "A sense of menace emanated from the shadowy form".
Emancipated = set free from some long-standing restriction. In the US, can refer to a teenager who is just below the local age of majority but has been legally granted the contractual and decision-making powers of an adult. Note this does not exist in the UK - here, a child who is able to convince a court that they need to divorce their parents will be made a "Ward of Court", which means that the state itself becomes their parent until they are sixteen.
Emit = to give out some effect, as e.g. "The radio emitted a shrill beep"..
Omit = to leave out, to skip a stage, as e.g. "We omitted to bring our passports".
Entrain = to cause something to become synchronised with something else, or to be swept along with or follow on from it. Or to get on a train, analogous to embarking on a boat. This one turned up in the work of a writer I was beta-ing for, and I think it was the result of trusting the spellchecker.
Entertain = to provide somebody with amusement.
Erotic = sexually stimulating.
Erratic = unpredictable in a random, jerky sort of way.
Exacerbated = some problem or injury is made worse.
Exasperated = irritated and frustrated by something.
Exhausting = very tiring.
Exhaustive = very thorough. To make an exhaustive search, for example, is to search absolutely everywhere you can think of in great detail.
Expanding = getting bigger, and often spread more thinly as a result.
Expounding = holding forth about some topic, especially when explaining something in a systematic way.
Farther = an extra distance in a literal, physical sense, as e.g. "There's a petrol station on the left a bit farther along this road".
Father = a male parent, or an older male authority figure who is analogous to a parent: the Father/Mother of the House, for example, is the oldest MP currently serving in the British House of Commons.
Further = an extra distance in a metaphorical sense, e.g. "Before this argument goes any further ...."
Fitfully = intermittently, with implications of restlessness.
Fittingly = appropriately, adequately.
Flaunt = display in a show-offy, attention-seeking way, as when waving a banner or flashing your engagement ring around.
Flout = ignore some rule, custom or instruction.
Foliage = the leaves of a plant or plants, or a mass of leafy plants.
Herbage = a mass of herbs, in the botanical sense - that is, plants which don't have woody stems, and which die back after flowering.
Verbiage = overly wordy or densely technical speech or writing.
Forbidding = the act of insisting that a thing not be done, or an off-putting, threatening quality or manner.
Foreboding = an ominous sense that something bad is about to happen.
Fore-sworn = having already/previously sworn to something.
Forsworn = having rejected or betrayed a thing previously sworn to or believed.
Gamble = to bet on the outcome of something.
Gambol = to bound about in a jerky, erratic way as an expression of playfulness.
Geezer = an adult man, especially an elderly and slightly rough-looking one.
Gizmo = slang word for any gadget, especially a small clever one.
Gizzard = the throat and stomach, especially of a bird.
Grisly = gruesome, bloody.
Grizzly = a very large species of brown bear, probably so-called because its coat is "grizzled", i.e. has a lot of grey mixed into it, without being solidly grey.
Heal = to cause a living thing to recover from an injury, illness or psychological trauma, or the act of so recovering. Can also be applied by extension to situations, such as "healing" a rift between people who have quarrelled.
Heel = the back part of your foot, or a dishonourable unpleasant person, similar to a "cad". "Heel" or "heel over" can also mean to lean far over to one side, especially if the thing which is doing the leaning is a ship.
Hoard = to store things up in large amounts and keep them, possibly in a secretive way, or a collection of things which have been hoarded.
Horde = a large group of somethings (usually living creatures) - especially a large mob of irregular soldiers.
Imbibe = drink a liquid or, more metaphorically, absorb something like an atmosphere or ambience.
Imbue = to infuse something with some quality. One might, for example, imbue a landscape painting with a sense of menace.
Imply = to suggest that a thing is so, without outright stating it.
Infer = to work out that a thing is so, probably from observing something which implies that it is.
Intend = to have decided or planned to do something.
Intent = the decision or plan to do something. Also the state of concentrating on something with great attention. The two words are clearly related, but intend is a verb and intent is a noun or an adjective, so a person cannot intent - they can only be intent, or have the intent to do something.
Irrelevant = not having any bearing on the matter currently being considered.
Irreverant = disrespectful towards some symbol or representative of religious or cultural authority.
Lath = a very thin strip of rough wood, often used to give plaster something to stick to.
Lathe = a device for spinning a piece of wood and carving it at the same time, to produce e.g. round-sectioned table legs with a pattern carved all the way around them.
Law = an organised rule or body of rules, whether human or scientific, which governs how something (often a human society) behaves.
Lore = a body of traditional stories, customs and beliefs, especially if handed down by word of mouth.
Lightening = getting paler/more illuminated, as seen of the sky as dawn approaches, or causing something to become paler/more illuminated.
Lightning = flashes of electrical energy seen in the sky during a storm.
Loathe = (with a hard, buzzing "th" sound which is close to a "v") to have a powerful dislike of something.
Loath = (with a soft "th" as in "moth") to be loath to do something is to be very reluctant to do it.
Lumbar = having to do with the lower back.
Lumber = timber of the sort you might use for building, or miscellaneous possessions of the kind you might store in a box-room (a.k.a. a lumber room), or the act of dumping some inconvenient thing or task onto somebody ("he lumbered me with cleaning out the garage"), or a heavy, awkward gait. Also Scots slang for a person you are going on a date with (in the quasi-sexual sense).
Magnanimous = very generous, especially being forgiving and generous to somebody you have good reason to resent.
Unanimous = everybody in a given group (such as e.g. a jury) who had an opinion about a particular question, had the same opinion.
Mews = a small, secluded back-street in a built-up area, in its original state containing garages which were initially intended to hold horse-drawn carriages belonging to families in nearby houses, and stables and tack rooms for the horses. Now usually converted into a row of small, expensive houses. Also something a cat does, like a meow only squeakier and more plaintive.
Muse = an anthropomorphic personification of artistic inspiration, or the act of pondering something.
Muscle = block of mobile tissue which pulls your skeleton around by expanding and contracting, thus changing your position.
Mussel = a flattish, ovalish, dark blueish shellfish.
Negligent = failing to perform some important action due to avoidable laziness or carelessness.
Negligible = something so small or unimportant that its effects are insignificant, e.g. "The rain on Saturday had a negligible effect on trade".
... no end = to do X without limit (without coming to an end).
... to no end = to do X without point or purpose (having no end, that is, no goal in mind).
Pacific = peaceful. The Pacific Ocean is so called because the water there is generally calmer than in the Atlantic.
Specific = this particular one, rather than some other one.
Palatable = pleasant-tasting, or at least not actively unpleasant-tasting, so that one could eat it without revulsion.
Palpable = literally, able to be palpated - that is, something physical you can handle. Used metaphorically of atmospheres and moods which are so strong they almost feel as if you could touch them physically.
Palate = the roof and back of your mouth, or your taste for different flavours.
Palette = a board on which a painter carries small amounts of diferent paints s/he is currently using, and by implication the range of colours in a particular image, or which are available in a particular graphics program.
Panda = a black and white, mostly vegetarian bear or a red, chestnut and cream animal resembling a racoon with bear-like feet. The red panda is placed in its own group, the Ailuridae, but is quite closely related to racoons, and the giant panda is the bear which is closest to the common ancestor of bears, Ailuridae and racoons.
Pander = to "pander to" is to satisfy somebody else's desires, probably more attentively than they deserve, while "a pander" is somebody who obtains prostitutes for another person.
Ponder = to spend a significant amount of time wondering about something in a deep, thoughtful way.
Peak = the top of something, or to reach the highest level and then begin to fall. You would not, unless you were being funny, say that a climber had "peaked" a mountain by climbing to the peak, but a mathematical graph may peak and then either plateau or decline, and so may someone or something's performance.
Peek = to take a quick surreptitious look at something.
Pique on its own usually = sulky resentment, as in the phrase "a fit of pique", but "to pique someone's interest" is to cause them to become intrigued by something.
Peal = a loud ringing of bells, especially of two or more bells ringing together in a musical pattern.
Peel = the skin of a fruit or vegetable, or the act of removing the skin of a fruit or vegetable or of removing something similarly close-fitting, such as e.g. peeling off a pair of tights.
Pean = a praise-hymn, or in general enthusiastic praise.
Peon = a low-ranking worker, a peasant.
Poesy = poetry, or the gift of being able to write poetry.
Posey = having an affected manner, prone to striking poses.
Posy = a small bunch of flowers, or a little snatch of decorative poetry such as you might inscribe on a ring.
Pore = hovering over something examining it closely for some time, especially reading a piece of text very closely. Or a small hole in e.g. your skin, through which sweat passes.
Pour = like liquid from a jug.
Prescribe = to prescribe something is to recommend strongly that it should be used or taken, generally as the solution to some problem. In the UK, at least, medicines which you can only obtain from the pharmacist if you have a formal doctor's note recommending that you take them are called prescription medicines, and the doctor prescribes them, the doctor's note is your prescription, and the pharmacist "fills" it.
Proscribe = to proscribe a thing is to forbid it from happening or being used, e.g. "Fishing in this lake is proscribed".
Principal = the main or most important thing in a series, such as the principal export of a country or, in the U.S., the Headmaster or Headmistress of a school (sometimes used here in the UK for the head of a university).
Principle = a governing idea, whether moral or logical. So a principle can be an ethical concept you adhere to, or a theory about how some system works, such as the famous Peter Principle - "In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence".
Prise = to lever something up or out, such as a tight paint-tin lid.
Prize = to value something highly, or an award given for succeeding at something.
Quail = to shrink back fearfully at the idea of something alarming; or a small, round, nervous bird resembling a miniature partridge.
Quell = to suppress or reduce something, as e.g. quelling a riot.
Racked = subjected to severe pain or distress, like a person being tortured on the rack.
Wracked = sometimes used as an alternative spelling for "racked" or "wrecked", but properly means cast ashore, or by extension ending up stranded or dumped somewhere, like the bits of debris or "storm wrack" you find on a beach.
Wreaked = caused to happen, usually used in a negative, violent sense such as "he wreaked havoc", "she wreaked vengeance".
Wrecked = severely damaged so that it no longer functions.
Rain = the stuff that falls from the sky.
Rein = a strap for guiding a horse or a toddler, also used by analogy in phrases like "reining in his temper" and "given free rein".
Reign = what a ruler (in the leadership sense) does.
Respectful = to behave in a polite way which shows that you have respect for someone or something.
Respective = refers to things which belong separately to each of a group of persons or things which have already been mentioned - e.g. "the villagers returned to their respective homes" would mean that each returned to his or her personal home, rather than going to someone else's house or to the shops.
Retch = to heave and gag as if about to vomit.
Wretch = an unfortunate person at the bottom of the social heap, such as a starving peasant, or somebody who has behaved in a way which invites scorn, such that somebody might say to them "You wretch!" as an insult.
Revelry = partying.
Rivalry = two or more people or institutions each striving to do better than the other(s) in order to prove a point.
Right = something which is correct; or something which is on the starboard side as opposed to port (left); or something to which you are entitled.
Rite = a ritual.
Wright = a craftsman who specializes in making or building some particular thing, such as e.g. a wheelwright.
Write = compose with words; set words down on paper or some other medium.
Sachet = a small flat packet of something such as herbs or sauce or perfume, usually designed to be torn open and then disposed of once empty.
Sashay = to walk in a strolling, swayng, self-displaying way, like a fashion model on the catwalk.
Saw = a long metal blade with a handle and a serrated edge, used for cutting through wood or similar by using long repeated strokes; or the act of using a saw to cut with; or a traditional saying or conventional piece of supposed wisdom, usually found in the phrase "old saw". Also the past tense of "see", except in some rural dialects which use "seed" instead.
Soar = fly at or to a great height.
Sore = as an adjective, moderately painful, especially said of something painful to the touch. As a noun, a chronically raw, oozing patch on the skin. As a verb, to cause sores.
Scenario = a hypothetical situation or a projection of how a situation may play out.
Scenery = the area around and behind whatever you're focusing on - the backdrop of trees, hills, buildings etc...
Scotch = whisky made in Scotland. Occasionally used to mean that a thing is from Scotland (which is how it got attached to the whisky), although this is nearly obsolete, and "Scottish" is nowadays more correct. As a verb, to scotch something is to put a stop to it, generally by interfering with its progress in some way rather than officially ordering it to stop.
Scots = people who come from Scotland (singular = "a Scot"), or the traditional Anglo-Saxon-derived language of Lowland Scotland, also known as Lallans and related to English about the way Dutch is related to German. Doric, the variant spoken in and around Aberdeenshire, in which among other things the "w" sound is replaced by "f", is sometimes regarded as an extreme dialect of Scots and sometimes as a related but distinct language.
Secede = to leave or become independent of or seperate from a group of which you were previously a member, usually said of a country leaving a federation to become independent.
Succeed = to perform a task successfully, to manage to do something.
Sodden = soggy.
Sudden = happening rapidly with little or no warning.
Spur = to stir something into greater or faster action, or a metal prong worn on a rider's heel and used to prod a horse, often to tell it to go faster.
Spurn = to reject something.
Stationary = staying in one place, not moving.
Stationery = letter-writing and printing sundries such as pens, paper, ink, envelopes etc..
Storey = a floor of a building in British spelling (and note that in Britain the floor at street-level is the "ground floor" and the "first floor" is the first storey above ground, so that a building of which the top floor is the fourth floor has five storeys).
Story = a tale, or a floor of a building in American spelling.
Subside = to sink from a high position back to a low position you had occupied before, as when a risen sponge-cake goes flat or a high sea calms down, or when a furiously angry and shouty person calms down again. "Subsidence" often refers to ground which is sinking, especially if it's underneath a building.
Subsidy = an additional sum of money or other material provision, added to an amount you already have in order to assist you in achieving something (survival, in some cases).
Subsist = derive enough sustenance or income to live: usually only just, so e.g. to subsist on pasta would imply you couldn't afford (or be bothered to cook) anything else. "Subsistance farming" is farming where you grow just barely enough to feed yourself and your family, but not enough to trade or store.
Sufferance = a strained kind of patience, usually found in the phrase "to take [some thing which is being put up with] on sufferance".
Suffering = extreme pain or distress, or the act of experiencing the same.
Swath = a broad strip of something, especially a clear strip which has been cut through tall grass/crops by a mower or scythe, or the line of crops which have been cut and cast onto the ground. By extension, to "cut a swath" can mean to charge through a situation, brushing everybody else out of the way.
Swathe = can be an alternate spelling of swath, above, with all the same meanings, but in addition can be a verb meaning to wrap something or someone in cloth, or a noun meaning a loose floppy length of cloth such as you might use to swathe someone or something.
Tortious = pertaining to the legal term "tort", which means a wrongful civil (i.e. not outright criminal) act which causes someone else to suffer loss or harm, and which results in legal liability . Tortious Interference, for example, is where two people have a contract, and then a third person tries to persuade one of them to break the contract, thus harming the interests of the other party to the contract.
Tortuous = extremely complicated, especially something like a road-system or a maze which has a lot of complex bends in it.
Torturous = extremely painful, resembling or being actual torture.
Troop = a group of soldiers, or occasionally of actors or similar, or the act of trailing around in a band like soldiers, often in a slightly weary or resigned way as in "We trooped off down to the shops".
Trooper = a soldier in a troop. To "swear like a trooper" is to swear like a soldier.
Troupe = a group of actors or acrobats - or of baboons!
Trouper = one who is always willing to make an effort and give their best performance despite all difficulties, as dedicated actors are meant to do.
Undergoing = being in the process of having something done to one, such as "undergoing repairs" or "undergoing surgery".
Undertaking = the act of preparing a funeral (funeral organisers are called "undertakers" in the UK), or of promising to perform some task, such as "I undertake to organise the tombola stall". An undertaking, as a noun, is some kind of significant task which someone has taken on, e.g. "Renovating the bridge will be a major undertaking".
Vain = being proud of one's own appearance or abilities in a smug, show-offish, self-preening way. A thing or situation which is vain can also be pointless, something which is bound to fail, as in "a vain attempt to escape" or "He applied in vain for housing benefit".
Vane = a long flat sheet of some material, designed to be moved by wind or water, such as a weather-vane or the sails of a windmill.
Vein = a blood-vessel which returns de-oxygenated blood from the body to the heart.
Vial or phial = a small bottle such as you might use to contain medicine or perfume.
Vile = extremely unpleasant.
Viol = a six-stringed musical instrument similar to a violin, but having looser, gut strings and a softer sound.
Vicious = gratuitously nasty.
Viscous = of a liquid, thick and gloopy.
Wail = a sound somewhere between crying and screaming, or the act of making such a sound.
Wale = a raised welt on the skin caused by a blow or an allergic reaction; a raised ridge along the side of a wooden ship; to strike somebody, probably with a whip, in order to raise a welt.
Whale = a large cetacean (type of marine mammal), or sometimes by extension anything unusually large or impressive e.g. "I had a whale of a time", meaning "I had a really great time".
Waist = the area between a human's hips and ribcage, and by extension any pinched-in area of something which is wider on either side of the pinch, such as the narrow bit in the middle of a dumbell.
Waste = something discarded or left over and of no use, especially discarded material produced as a side-effect of some biological or manufacturing process; or a barren, sparsely- or un-inhabited region not suitable for farming; or the act of becoming thin in an unhealthy way; or of needlessly allowing some resource to go unused (especially when talking about neglected talent), or to be used up without benefit or thrown away unneccesarily.
Want = desire or need.
Wont = usual habit.
Won't = will not.
Unwanted = not desired.
Unwonted = not your usual practice.
Unwarranted = not justified.
Wary = nervous that some person or thing may be about to do something nasty.
Weary = tired.
Weather = what the local climate is currently doing in terms of wind, sunshine etc..
Wether = a gelded male sheep.
Whether = used to speculate whether something is true.
Welch = to unilaterally ditch some kind of promise or arrangement without completing it, especially as seen in the phrase "to welch on a deal".
Welsh = coming from or belonging to Wales, or the native Celtic language traditionally spoken in parts of that country. Note that Welsh Rarebit - which is often pronounced and occasionally spelled Welsh Rabbit - is a fancy kind of melted cheese on toast.
Whelp = a newborn puppy.
Welp = an exclamation used in the U.S..
Welt = a raised skin abrasion. If you scratch yourself and the skin isn't broken or bleeding, but it still sweels up in a raised red line, that's a welt.
Whither = used to speculate whither something or someone is heading (as opposed to "whence", which asks where they're coming from).
Wither = to dry out and shrivel.
Withers = as a noun, a high ridge between the shoulder-blades, especially in equines.
Writhe = to twist and wriggle about.
Yoke = a bar used to carry weights evenly across the shoulders, or to link two draught animals together so they can pull a cart or plough; by extension anything which binds you to heavy work, such as a contract of employment, or which binds you to another person, such as a marriage.
Yolk = the central sac part of an egg, often yellow and holding nutrients which nourish the developing embryo.
N.B. Although widely misused even in Scotland, "of that ilk" does not mean "of the same kind": it means "of the same name". Specifically, it refers to a clan chief whose home estate or "clan seat" - a sort of capitol city for the clan - is named after the clan's surname. Moncreiffe of that Ilk is chief of the Moncreiffes, based at an estate called Moncreiffe; MacDonald of Keppoch is chief of a branch of the MacDonalds whose clan seat is called Keppoch. Toad of Toad Hall has been translated into Scots as Taid o' that Ilk.
An awful lot of people get confused about the use of the apostrophe - the ' mark - and stick it in in the wrong places. This is an error which, if done a lot, can be quite noticeable and off-putting to readers. The apostrophe stands for what's called "elision" - that is, a place where part of a word has been cut out, such as in "can't", which is short for "cannot", where the ' stands in for the missing letters "no".
In the case of possessive terms such as "the cat's tail" the apostrophe is there because supposedly the original, archaic way of saying this was "the cat its tail", and the ' stands for the missing letters "it". The actual word "its", used to indicate possession (e.g. "the cat lashed its tail"), has no apostrophe, since to insert one would mean it was short for "it its", which would be ridiculous. "It's" takes an apostrophe only when it is short for "it is" or "it has".
For some reason if "it was" is ever elided it becomes "'twas", not "it's". If "it is" appears as a stand-alone statement or at the end of a statement ("Is it Tuesday today?" "Yes, it is".) as opposed to at the start or middle of a statement ("It is Tuesday") then it elides to "'tis" or the negative form "'tisn't", rather than to "it's" or "it's not".
Simple plurals ending in 's' and which are not possessive ("Look at all those cats") do not have an apostrophe. Plurals which end in 's', and which are also possessive, just stick an apostrophe on the end - so one says "the cats' tails", not "the cats's tails", unless one is being deliberately cute. There is some doubt whether singular words or names which naturally end in 's' should take 's or a plain apostrophe when used possessively; you will find, for example, that whether JK Rowling says "Sirius' face" or "Sirius's face" varies from book to book, according to the whim of her editor.
Note however that in spoken English, Britons do normally pronounce the possessive 's' after a singular word itself ending in 's', unless it is very hard to say without spitting. So speaking out loud we would usually say "Sirius's face" - but "Hogwarts' walls", just because "Hogwarts's walls" is too hard to say.
N.B. the mostly-American habit of writing till as 'til, as if it were a contraction of until, is a grammatical error. Till is no more a contraction of until than to is a contraction of unto, and in fact till considerably predates until.
Also, there is no such expression as "would of" or "could of" - these are mishearings of "would've" (that is, "would have") and "could've".
Many people also get lost over the correct use of who and whom, and whether to use e.g. "Jill and I" or "Jill and me". The trick is to change it to "he" and "him", or "I" and "me", and see which fits.
So, for example, you say "To whom it may concern" because you would say "it concerns him", not "it concerns he". You say "Who is that?" not "Whom is that?" because you would say "He is", not "Him is".
Similarly, if you want to know whether it's "Jill and I" or "Jill and me", take Jill out altogether. We say "I was tired, not "Me was tired", therefore it's "Jill and I were tired", not "Jill and me were tired". We say "He gave it to me", not (except in certain rural dialects) "He gave it to I", hence it's "He gave it to Jill and me", not "He gave it to Jill and I".
Beware of using too many exclamation marks!!! Exclamation marks indicate a rising, excited/excitable or sharp tone of voice. They may be used sparingly in dialogue where you think your character really would be excited or alarmed; but doing this too often will make the character sound like a nut or a Valley Girl. Using them in the narration will make you, the writer, sound self-conscious and arch; so only use them if that's the effect you're aiming for.
Many American writers seem to eschew the use of the hyphen, but omitting it can create a very confusing effect. For example, the phrase "black trousered legs" is completely ambiguous as to whether it refers to black legs, wearing trousers of indeterminate colour, or to legs of indeterminate colour wearing black trousers. "Black-trousered legs" makes it clear it is the trousers which are black, by showing that "black" and "trousered" are closely linked, while "black, trousered legs" shows that "black" and "trousered" are two separate items in a list of characteristics, which tells us that it is the legs which are black.
Writers who have difficulty with spelling or grammar, or who are unsure of their writing-skills, need to employ a beta-reader; that is, an experienced writer who will read their story before it is published, and identify errors and suggest improvements to the structure etc., as a professional editor would.
Even the more experienced and confident writers normally use a beta, since everybody makes at least some mistakes - typing errors, and using the same word (other than neutral words like "the" and "but") three times in one sentence, and so on. When you first write (or draw) something, it is very hard to assess it and spot your own errors, because your brain still remembers what it meant to put, and is liable to see what it knows it meant, rather than what it really put. This remains true for days at least, and sometimes months (it once took me six months to notice that I'd drawn somebody with two left hands). A good beta will be able to spot your errors (including continuity errors, such as having somebody drive off in the car which was parked fifty miles away at the end of the previous chapter), and also tell you whether the story "works" for them, whether they think you've explained it clearly enough, whether the pacing is too slow etc..
However, if you don't like using a beta, or can't find one, I have discovered by accident that it is far, far easier to spot your own errors, and to assess your story as if you were a reader rather than the writer, if you export it to a new format and change the look of the thing. If you're used to seeing your story as a Word document, try putting it into HTML, or pasting it into an e-mail, or printing it on paper and reading it on the bus, and you should find that that largely eliminates the "I know what I meant to put" factor.
If any character who is not a) American and b) less than ten years old says "wanna," "gonna" and "cos" a lot, this a sign that it is probably a Painfully Bad Story.
There are two major categories of writing-style: prose and verse. Verse includes poetry and song-lyrics and also more mundane "just" verse, which relates to poetry in the same sort of way that illustration relates to fine-art painting, or theme-tune jingles to "proper" music.
Poetry isn't just pretty phrases and sentiment - or sentimentality - chopped up into short lines. In order to be actual poetry (or at least verse), rather than poetic prose, it needs to have some sort of strong rhythm to it, and/or a sense that the pauses and shifts of emphasis caused by the line-breaks add significantly to the force and impact of the language. It doesn't have to be a very regular, organized rhythm - but if you look at where the stresses (the syllables which naturally come out harder, louder or longer) of the words fall they should have a flow to them like music: a kind of music where the sound and rhythm of the words is as important as their meaning. This is especially true when writing in English, which has very strong and unpredictable stresses.
When you've written a poem, read it aloud to yourself and pay attention to the stresses, and see if they form a pleasing, musical pattern, and/or one which adds emphasis to the points which you wish to be most noticeable to the reader. If they don't, think how you could change the stresses to form a more pleasing pattern, and then pick slightly different words which will give you that pattern. But try to avoid forcing it by artificially shortening words which wouldn't normally be shortened. Using "e'er" instead of "ever," for example, or "glist'ning" instead of "glistening," in a poem which is not otherwise written in old-fashioned language, is like hanging up a sign which says "I couldn't find a word that fit here, so I took a word that didn't fit and cut a bit off it".
The use of some degree of alliteration (words beginning with the same letter), internal echo (rhymes and other sound-alikes within a line, rather than at the end of it) and rhyme is also often desirable, although not essential. But don't overdo it - too much alliteration just results in a tongue-twister. "Wild wet blustering weather," for example, creates a pleasing effect, whereas "wild wet windy weather" sounds faintly silly.
Note that some poetry conforms to very strict, pre-determined patterns of rhyme and stress most of which have official names, and some is "blank" or "free" verse where the rhythms are informal and just fit the poet's current whim. A Petrarchan sonnet, for example, consists of an eight-line stanza (section) with the rhyming scheme ABBAABBA - that is, where all the A lines rhyme with each other, and all the Bs rhyme with each other, but the As don't rhyme with the Bs - followed by a six-line stanza rhyming either CDCDCD or CDEEDE.
In addition, formal poetry in some languages (e.g. Latin and Japanese) often conforms to a pre-set metre, a count of stresses amd/or syllables per line, but this tends to be difficult to bring off well in English, where the stresses often fall unpredictably. Verse written in imabic pentameter, for example, consists of lines which each have a rhythm which goes dit DAH dit DAH dit DAH dit DAH dit DAH: for example, "I thought I ought to call upon my Mum".
Rhyme and rhythm are good, but an un-rhymed and random poem is usually preferable to one in which the rhyme and rhythm are too obviously forced. Unless you're going for comic effect, or for a very obviously formal structure, you shouldn't even notice the rhymes unless you look for them.
Try to avoid cod-Mediaeval language, especially made up cod-Mediaeval language, unless the poem really is set in the Mediaeval period. I think, for example, of a Potter-verse I came across which had a well-developed, sophisticated rhyme and rhythm scheme, but of which the first line began with "'Twas" and the second line contained the word "didith".
Also try to avoid poetic inversion, especially when used to excess. Poetic inversion is saying things like "Bright was the sun" instead of "The sun was bright". It's all right in moderation if you're going for an archaic feel - especially something in the manner of a Viking saga - but too much of it just looks posey and over-strained.
Ideally a good poem should express an original thought, or an old thought in a fresh and original way, rather than just saying what everyone else has said, in the same way that everyone else has said it.
I've seen people say that it's not real poetry unless it's written from the heart and expresses deep emotion etc.. I've even seen one person present a piece of plain prose and say "Of course it's a poem, because it's about feelings". This is, not to put too fine a point on it, rubbish. Poetry can be about anything which inspires you enough to write a decent poem. Heart-felt feelings are only one possible subject, and are something of a minefield, because poetry written about deep emotion often just ends up as twenty lines of slop. If you do want to write about emotion, it usually turns out better if you use your feelings to create the poem, rather than using the poem to express your feelings - that is, if your main goal is the creation of good art, rather than self-expression.
Poetry usually rouses emotions in the reader, but that doesn't mean it has to be directly about emotions. You can for example write poetry about a battleship or a volcano, and rouse feelings of awe or fear in the reader - just as you can write emotionally-intense music about a forest in winter.
Although strictly speaking all poetry is verse, the term "verse" tends to be used for rhythmic writing which is much less emotionally-intense or striking than "proper" poetry, more mundane in both subject and effect. It also tends to be written with a more obvious umpty-tumpty rhythm than poetry, but this isn't a hard and fast rule. The Victorian writer CS Calverley produced pieces of elaborate, clever, subtle poetic construction which nevertheless were for the most part just extended jokes. Pam Ayres on the other hand writes in a very plain, rhythmic, verse-like style but many of her pieces contain fresh, biting insight and originality which in my opinion qualifies them as poetry rather than just verse - e.g. the one about an old married couple which contains the lines "Since we have no conversation//We have never had a quarrel".
Song lyrics may be high art or mundane jingle, but their peculiarity is that the pattern of the words conforms to the rhythm of the music they are set to, and as such may not read very smoothly without that musical backing.
Anyone who wants to develop their poetic skills, and is unsure how to go about it, would be well-advized to get hold of a copy of Frances Stillman's excellent, informative and highly readable book The Poet's Manual and Rhyming Dictionary.
Ms Stillman has this to say in her introduction:
"Poetry is, of course, verse - although not all verse is poetry [...] Verse is composition in words that employs deliberate patterns of sound in its language. These patterns may follow the rules of regular or mixed meter or the loose cadences of free verse. Verse is almost always divided into lines [...] The lines are often organized into stanzas, which are also sometimes loosely called verses. Verse frequently employs the device of rhyme to heighten its effectiveness".
Later on, Ms Stillman cites the example of the poem Grass by Carl Sandburg, to demonstrate the difference between poetry and prose.
And pile them high at Gettysburg,
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.
Although this is extremely free verse, without any very organized metre and without rhyme, it is full of assonance (words with similar vowel sounds) - "pile" with "high," "shovel" with "under" - and other sorts of internal echoes. Above all, if you take out the line-breaks and present the piece as if it was three paragraphs of prose, viz.:-
And pile them high at Gettysburg and pile them high at Ypres and Verdun. Shovel them under and let me work. Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor: What place is this? Where are we now?
I am the grass. Let me work. -- Carl Sandburg
and then read it out loud, the natural stresses of the language make it quite clear where the line-breaks were and should be. Plain prose, on the other hand, rarely has much of a rhythm to it.