Writing Craft 101: Common Terms

One thing I see time and again when working with newer authors is that they have a great idea for a story or a character or a world and they have written a first draft of a novel, putting all those ideas down on paper, and then they get to the point where they’re trying to get feedback, and the people they’re trying to learn from toss out words and phrases and acronyms, like “deep POV” and “info-dumping” and “telling” and so on and they’re trying to learn, but it’s like speaking a foreign language. The terms that are used in writing circles among more seasoned writers are deeply confusing to someone who has never studied them.

Here is a simple definition of terms that you’ll hear a lot, so you can reference your own work when someone says you need to work on them.

POV: Point of View

This is through whose eyes the story is told. Most stories will have a primary POV character, the main character, although there can be multiple POV characters in one story.

Person: Who is telling the story

This is similar to POV, but not exactly the same. The POV employed is a storytelling style, whereas Person has to do with grammar. In fiction, you’ll most often encounter third person and first person POVs. Third person is when it is told by a narrator, as in “he said, she did,” while first person is when it’s told by the character himself, as in “I did, I said.” Nonfiction, especially self-help books, may use second-person, as in “You should, you will,” but you’ll rarely find that in fiction except in a Choose Your Own Adventure story.

Tense: When the story is told

Tenses are past, present, and future. You can study tenses further in a grammar book, but primarily what you’ll see in fiction is past tense and occasionally present tense.

Backstory: The information about your character that has shaped who he is and why he does what he does. This includes his past, his personality, his relationships, and so on.

Info-dumping: Telling your reader what you feel she needs to know about your character’s backstory in a way that is boring and inorganic to the storyline.

Active and Passive Sentences: This is another grammar term, having to do with active voice and passive voice. In the active voice, the subject of the sentence is doing whatever is being done in the sentence. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon by the verb. “Dr. Jekyll consumed the potion,” vs. “The potion was consumed by Dr. Jekyll.” Active voice is the preferred writing style in fiction.

Show and Tell: This refers to the way you get information to your reader. You can tell your reader, “It was just about sunset when he kissed her goodnight,” or you can show them, “Rosy fingers of fading light painted her cheeks with a soft glow as he leaned in to kiss her goodnight.” There is a time and a place for telling, but for important scenes, showing is much more engaging to your reader.

Genre: This is the category into which your story fits. There are many, many genres, but some of the popular genres include Romance, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Chick-Lit, Action/Adventure, and Young Adult, among others.

Target Audience: Your target audience is the readers who are most likely to buy your book. If you’re writing romance, your target audience is probably women in the 30+ age range. If you’re writing Young Adult, your target audience is probably teens and twenty-somethings. If you’re writing suspense or sci-fi, your target audience is probably men.

Homonyms: These are words that sound like one another but have different meanings and sometimes different spellings.

Very often in writing I see homonyms confused. This is a sure way to lose the respect of your reader. Double check words that have another similar-sounding word to make sure you’re using the right one. And for a quick reference, check out my book “Handy Handbook of Common Homonyms,” available on Amazon, or FREE if you sign up for my newsletter (see the sidebar).

Crutch Words: Words that a particular author uses frequently in their work. Most authors have them. They’re different for everyone. Ideally, you should figure out which ones are yours and come up with new ways to convey the same information so your work doesn’t sound repetitive and therefore boring.

Pantsers and Plotters: This refers to your particular style, whether you prefer to write “by the seat of your pants,” making things up as you go along (pantser), or whether you prefer to create a detailed outline of your characters and plot arc before ever beginning to write the story itself (plotter).

I’ll go into more detail about each of these things in the coming weeks, explaining the pros and cons of different writing styles, why certain things are preferred over others, and how to effectively use them in your own manuscript.

What about you? What words or phrases have you heard that you aren’t sure what is meant by them, or what were you confused by when you were a newer writer?

2 thoughts on “Writing Craft 101: Common Terms

  1. Hi, Avily,

    Just as an aside, it might also be helpful for new authors to learn story structure terms and phrases, like “inciting incident” or “plot point,” or even broad definitions they might run across like “act” or “scene” or “sequence.”

    I know as a new author, the idea of the mythical three-act structure threw me for a loop. Of COURSE all stories have a beginning, middle, and end. (I don’t think the TAS helps much with learning how to write a story, but that’s my opinion – personally, Shakespeare’s five-act structure works a lot better, but again, that’s opinion.) But maybe having that stuff online, like this, might be helpful? I don’t know.

    This is a great resource for new writers. Thanks!

Leave a Reply