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Good Writing Strategy Begins With Good Vocabulary
The first part of this article is a vocabulary lesson: a list of literary terms, techniques or devices. If you happen to be a word guru (hello, fellow word-comrade) skip ahead to the next part where you can find some good information on what to do while trekking through a book for the first time.
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Words Are Important
We use words to express ourselves. The grander our vocabulary, the more articulate we become. As we become more articulate, we do not need to use as many words – and that, my friends, cuts down on how much you need to write. In short: having a strong vocabulary makes you less wordy. Teachers and professors hate wordy papers and they love making you sound smart (it reflects well on them).
To help you become more articulate, I am going to provide you with a list of the top eight words you’re going to be using in a thought-out, academic, top-notch paper. Also, for the over-achievers I’ll throw in a link to another longer list.
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A List of Literary Terms and Techniques. (This is fun!)
Allegory – This is a story where everything means something else. The idea is to capture abstract ideas by using characters, events, or any figure as an extended metaphor. Did you get to see Alice In Wonderland Yet (and my apologies, if you did)? The book Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, by Lewis Caroll can be read as an allegory . Franz Kafka’s book The Trial can definitely be read as an allegory, either for religion or for government. Whenever you get the feeling you’re reading something that can be interpreted as meaning something else, look and see if you can’t piece together an allegory and throw your teacher or professor for a total loop.
Parable – Not to be confused with an allegory. A parable is short, often in an environment familiar to you. An allegory is often absurd (think: Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Kafka’s The Trial, Melville’s Moby Dick), is often longer than a parable, and more complexly written. To help you, here’s a link that uses Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles as an example.
Antagonist – That’s the bad guy! Or the seemingly insurmountable circumstance that looms overhead, threatening to hold you down and keep you from your goals. Have you been keeping up with Batman? (Didn’t Ledger do a fantastic job? I thought so.) Speaking of the Joker, he’s the antagonist in The Dark Knight. On a funny note, Batman himself is also the antagonist. I should be more specific: The struggles he faces with himself are antagonistic. Do you see how smart that sounded?!
Just for fun, on the flipside, the antonym to antagonist is protagonist – the good guy, force, or anything that leads you to what the writer believes to be right.
In the Holy Bible, Satan is an antagonist. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, he’s a protagonist.
Connotation – What something means based on what is around it. This sentence on its own is not great. When you put the previous sentence in context (connotation) you realize it is wonderful because it is a part of this great educational tome. Think of it this way: a fist, on its own, is nothing but your hand balled up. A fist in context is an angry symbol, meaning that you want to punch someone – probably in the face, maybe the stomach, depends on the situation.
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Personification – Giving human-like attributes to a non-human thing. If I say that prior to writing this, "the white screen of my word processor was smirking at me, sarcastically challenging me to complete an impossible task," I would be personifying my computer (and Microsoft Word). When you yell at your computer because it is not behaving the way you would like it to, you’re personifying it. When you read a book and find any non-human thing given human attributes, use this word; it makes teachers smile. Remember the old children’s movie Beethoven? How about Pixar’s Wall-E? Both use personification. They’re also both dandy movies.
Theme – The main idea of the book. Everything in the book, ideally, is to add to the theme. The author has written this book in such a way, structured the characters as such, and led you down this winding path of text all because of the theme.
For fun, let’s make sure you do not confuse theme with motif (teachers really love the word “motif”). A motif is a recurring idea, symbol, object (or anything else at all) in a book. In the Narnia series, the struggle between good and evil is the motif. (The theme is that good wins). By the way, the Narnia series is also an allegory. You see it is very easy to fit these in once you get the hang of them.
Symbol – Something that means something else. Hope you aren’t confused.
Just to make sure you are staying on the well-beaten path, though, do not confuse symbol and metaphor (which is easy to do at first). A symbol is a substitute for something else. A metaphor is a comparison, so that you can understand better.
The skull and crossbones is a symbol for poison. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, poison is both a motif and a metaphor to show how evil decays and infects the characters.
Irony – This word is used to point out that something is not what it seems. I’m going to take a minute with Irony. (And I promise not to mention a certain song that one woman wrote many years ago, but I will say: Fail!) There are three kinds of irony:
Verbal – 1. Saying something false that is true. 2. The speaker says something he fails to realize is true (but the audience knows), or he means something different from what he says.
Dramatic – The characters do not know what is going on or what the result of their actions will be, but the audience knows. You see this frequently in classic tragedies. In Sophocles’ character Oedipus says, “Your life is one long night so that you cannot / hurt me or any other who sees the light.” (lines 422-423) in Oedipus Rex. You may know in advance that Oedipus is not far from going blind himself.
Cosmic – When an unknown force is behind the bad outcome. The idea that the gods are playing with our lives for their own entertainment.
For a more complete list of literary terms, see Haley Drucker’s list of literary terms here. Continue to the next page for more tips on using smart words in your writing.
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Now That You Know These Words, What do You Do?
I recommend you write down the definitions in a way that you best understand and keep the list with you while you read. If you own the book you are reading, you can underline a word or phrase that you associate as parable, allegory, irony, antagonistic (or any other word) and put the abbreviation next to it. If you are not able to write in the book (belongs to the school, library, stole it from Barnes and Noble but plan to return it) you can write down the page and paragraph number, include a quote and what the quote is an example of all on a separate sheet of paper or an index card. This will prove a wonderful resource when you write your response paper.
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When To Use These Words
If while you write your response paper, you find yourself snapping your fingers, trying to think of a word, it may be a good idea to have a look at a list of literary terms, devices and techniques, either here, or many other helpful places. The more you are acquainted with the words, the less need for finger snapping.
Whenever you find you are explaining something, always try to see if there is a word for what you are explaining; odds are you will come up with it, and your paper will be better for it.
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Putting Everything Together
So, let's sum up what we've learned together: be less wordy, and learn the right words to achieve that goal. When your writing is wordy it takes up too much of your valuable time, and also your teacher’s or professor’s time. You can reduce wordiness by learning complex words and structuring your sentences to make them as effective as possible. Here you have been provided with a common list of literary terms, techniques and devices.
So is this all there is to writing a good paper? Nope. Another secret is to practice active reading and take excellent notes. Learn how to make these words easy to apply from the book to your paper, to – by transference – improve your very healthy grade point average.