Writer's Lexicon

I’m actively compiling this list to benefit writers of varying levels of immersion in the waters of authordom, to help us look less stupid or simply to help you navigate the world of writing a little more confidently. I am taking suggestions to add to this list, it's not complete by any stretch. I am particularly interested in ‘writer-culture’ words. Or, perhaps you disagree with my definition. I’d like to hear about that as well.

Plot Devices and literary words

Alien Space Bats - The term was originally used as a sarcastic attack on poorly written alternate histories due to lack of plausibility to create improbably plot divergences. Also refers to the use of Deus ex Machina in the form of Ancient Aliens.

Backronym - Same as an acronym but the word came first and the meaning behind the letters followed after.

Big Dumb Object (BDO) - The science fiction term refers to any mysterious object (usually of extraterrestrial or unknown origin and immense power) in a story which generates an intense sense of wonder just by being there. For example the Monoliths in 2001 A Space Odyssey, or The Void Ship in Doctor Who.

Brenda Starr dialogue - Long sections of talk with no physical background or description of the characters. Such dialogue, detached from the story’s setting, tends to echo hollowly, as if suspended in mid-air. Named for the American comic-strip in which dialogue balloons were often seen emerging from the Manhattan skyline.

“Burly Detective” Syndrome - This useful term is taken from SF’s cousin-genre, the detective-pulp. The hack writers of the Mike Shayne series showed an odd reluctance to use Shayne’s proper name, preferring such euphemisms as “the burly detective” or “the red-headed sleuth.” This syndrome arises from a wrong-headed conviction that the same word should not be used twice in close succession. This is only true of particularly strong and visible words, such as “vertiginous.” Better to re-use a simple tag or phrase than to contrive cumbersome methods of avoiding it.

Brand Name Fever - Use of brand name alone, without accompanying visual detail, to create false verisimilitude. You can stock a future with Hondas and Sonys and IBM’s and still have no idea with it looks like.

"Call a Rabbit a Smeerp" - A cheap technique for false exoticism, in which common elements of the real world are re-named for a fantastic milieu without any real alteration in their basic nature or behavior. “Smeerps” are especially common in fantasy worlds, where people often ride exotic steeds that look and act just like horses. (Attributed to James Blish.)

 Chekhov's gun - "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." – Anton Chekhov, letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev (pseudonym of A. S. Gruzinsky), 1 November 1889. It is a metaphor for a plot device or foreshadowing, which if shown or discussed should be used later.

Deus Ex Machina - Latin for: God from the machine. This device goes all the way back to ancient Greece, where a problem in the story is solved by the sudden invention of something that saves the day.  It’s often criticized as lacking imagination on the part of the author, as it often violates the internal logic of a story.

Gingerbread - Useless ornament in prose, such as fancy sesquipedalian Latinate words where short clear English ones will do. Novice authors sometimes use “gingerbread” in the hope of disguising faults and conveying an air of refinement. (Attr. Damon Knight)

Head Hopping - Moving from one POV to another in the same scene without a scene break.

MacGuffin - "[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin'. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers." -- Alfred Hitchcock
A plot device that provides the initial motivation for a character, and it may or may not end up coming back into the story at the end.

Not Simultaneous - The mis-use of the present participle is a common structural sentence-fault for beginning writers. “Putting his key in the door, he leapt up the stairs and got his revolver out of the bureau.” Alas, our hero couldn’t do this even if his arms were forty feet long. This fault shades into “Ing Disease,” the tendency to pepper sentences with words ending in “-ing,” a grammatical construction which tends to confuse the proper sequence of events. (Attr. Damon Knight)

Pathetic Fallacy - A literary term for the attributing of human emotion and conduct to all aspects within nature. It is a kind of personification that is found in poetic writing when, for example, clouds seem sullen, when leaves dance, when dogs laugh, or when rocks seem indifferent.

Quibble - A plot device where the exact verbal directions are followed to the letter but avoid its intended meaning, such as: A deal with the Devil, or Genie Wishes, or in The Lord of the Rings, Glorfindel's prophecy states that "not by the hand of man will the Witch-king of Angmar fall." The Witch-king is slain by Éowyn, a woman.

Pushbutton Words - Words used to evoke a cheap emotional response without engaging the intellect or the critical faculties. Commonly found in story titles, they include such bits of bogus lyricism as “star,” “dance,” “dream,” “song,” “tears” and “poet,” clichés calculated to render the SF audience misty-eyed and tender-hearted.

Red herring - A false clue that leads the characters toward an inaccurate conclusion within the plot of a story, considered to be the opposite of Chekhov’s Gun. The Chewbacca Defense is starting to come into the lexicon as a famous Red Herring It refers to a South Park episode and refers to using something so patently absurd that it makes no sense and creates confusion.

Red Shirt - Expendable, refers to the crewmen of the TV Series Star Trek who were often killed during a mission.

Retroactive continuity or Retcon - An alteration of facts about a story that already been published in order to accommodate a sequel or prequel, or simply to correct errors in the original chronology of events. Commonly used in Comic Books and Pulp Fiction.

Retronym - A neologism that gives a new name to an old object because of some development that requires clarification, such as Acoustic Guitar after the Electric Guitar was developed.

Roget’s Disease - The ludicrous overuse of far-fetched adjectives, piled into a festering, fungal, tenebrous, troglodytic, ichorous, leprous, synonymic heap. (Attr. John W. Campbell)

“Said” Bookism - An artificial verb used to avoid the word “said.” “Said” is one of the few invisible words in the English language and is almost impossible to overuse. It is much less distracting than “he retorted,” “she inquired,” “he ejaculated,” and other oddities. The term “said-book” comes from certain pamphlets, containing hundreds of purple-prose synonyms for the word “said,” which were sold to aspiring authors from tiny ads in American magazines of the pre-WWII era.

Tautology - Needless repeating of a word or idea, such as 'final result.'

The Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis - A character from television series St Elsewhere who, in the last episode was seen waking up and the entire series was in his imagination. Refers to using the “it was all a dream” idea to end a story.

General Terms

Active Voice - Writing where the subject of the sentence is carrying out action.

ARC - Advanced Reader Copy, printed before the actual print run on a new book.

Auxiliary or Helping verb - A verb that goes with another verb (have or do.)

Back Matter - Back pages of a book that have appendixes, indexes and endnotes.

Bastard Title - Optional first page of a book containing only the title and nothing else.

Blank Verse - Unrhymed poetry, very popular in current writing circles.

Block Quote - A quotation set off from the main text (usually indented) and NOT surrounded by quotes.

Bluelines - Final proofs that offer a last chance to make changes.

Boilerplate - Standard text used in multiple documents with little or no change, usually referring to contract language.

Bubble - The circle that surrounds editors comments.

Chicago Style - The preferred method used by The Chicago Manual of Style - style guide for writing.

Cliché - An expression or idea that is so overused that the meaning is weakened, more commonly used today to mean stereotypical or predictable.

Clip - A sample of work.

Conventions - Mechanical correctness, spelling, grammar, usage, indenting, capitals, and punctuation.

Dead Copy - Final edited Manuscript that is used to proof typesetting (less commonly used with software.)

Draft - Preliminary version of a piece that will likely require revision and editing.

Editing - Proof reading for mechanical features of writing, spelling, punctuation, etc.

Ellipses - … there are several methods to show this in manuscript, check with your editor or agent on how to show these.

Em Dash - a style of showing a break in thought. Style manuals show 2 and 2 em dashes and their uses.

Fair Use - Allowing copying of short portions of copyrighted material for educational or review purposes.

Forward - Introductory statement in the front matter written by someone other than the author.

Front Matter - Printed material at the start of a book including title page, table of contents and dedications.

Front Piece - A page in the front matter facing the title page, usually containing an illustration and often on different card stock.

Galley - The first printed version (proof) of a document.

GLB - Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual.

H/H - Hero and Heroine (A couple in a romance novel.)

HEA - Happily ever after (used in the romance genre.)

het - Heterosexual

HFN - Happy for Now (used in the romance genre for how the story ends.)

Hook - The important part of a work at the beginning that captures a reader's interest.

House Style - Preferred editorial style of a publisher.

Imprint - A branding name used by a publisher for books they release, one publisher may have several.

ISBN - Unique number assigned to each book by a publisher, now a 13 digit number, not necessarily required by self-publication.

Lead or Lede - The first couple of lines of a story.

Ligature - Special characters formed by combining two or more letters, such as æ.

Logline - A brief description of a piece, usually a teaser.

MC - Main Character.

Meme - Pronounced ‘meem’ - an idea, belief or system of beliefs that spreads among a culture.

NaNoWriMo - Pronounced ‘Nah No Rye Moe’, National Novel Writing Month, a 50k word writing challenge for the month of November.

Neologism - A new word or expression.

On Acceptance - Payment received only when the editor accepts the final manuscript.

On Publication - Payment received only when the MS is published.

On Spec - A submission accepted without obligation to publish it.

Orphan or Widow - First line of a paragraph that appears at the bottom of a page by itself.

Parenthetical - Using these (), still acceptable but falling out of use in fiction.

Passive Voice - A sentence where the subject is being acted upon instead of doing the action.

Pitch - A short description of a piece.

POD - Print on Demand.

POV - Point of view - the perspective of the story, 1st person.

Preface - Introductory statement in the front matter written by the AUTHOR.

Prewriting - Invention, Brainstorming, Researching, Plotting, Outlining, Character development, in other words, things done before starting on the first draft.

Proof - A trial sheet printed to be checked and corrected; a galley is the first proof.

Query - A sales letter showcasing writing style, usually limited in length to 1 or 2 pages.

Reproduction Proof - A high quality proof for final review before printing.

Revising - Making structural or content changes to a draft.

Royalty - The Percentage of book sales paid to the author by the publisher.

Run-on Sentence - A sentence containing two or more independent clauses improperly joined or simply too long.

Serial Comma - Comma preceding 'and' or 'or' in a list of items.

Show Don't Tell - Writing in a manner that allows the reader to experience the story through the description of actions, thought, senses and feelings rather than through exposition or summary.

Stet - Proofreading mark indicating that the editing marks should be ignored and the text displayed as the original (let it stand.)

Synopsis - A longer description of a piece, usually including all the secrets and how the story ends, these can be different lengths for different purposes, usually in the range of 2 pages for agent submission.

Trim or Boil - To reduce the length of a story.

Vanity Press or Publisher - Where the author pays to have their work published and covers all out of pocket expenses themselves.

Voice (Author's Voice) - The personality of the writer coming through the words.

WIP - Work in progress, usually the current project being written.

YA - Young Adult genre.

Editing terms or abbreviations

ASGCM - American Suburban Gated-Community McCastles - Castle or palace settings where royals don't actually act like royals and answer the door themselves, dress themselves, etc.

awk - Awkward sentence or phrase.

cap - Capitalization.

DTG - Delete the grimace.

FBP - Floating Body Parts, using description in a way that gives action to the character/person, not his/her independent body parts, like 'Her eyes roamed the room' or giving people smiles.

frag - Sentence Fragment.

gr - Grammar error.

ital - Italicize.

lc - lower case.

MS - Manuscript.

mss - manuscript formatting.

nc or ? - Not clear or confusing.

p - Punctuation.

P E - Printer's Error.

R O - Run-on sentence.

ref - Pronoun antecedent is unclear.

RUE - Resist the urge to explain.

SDT - Show, Don't tell.

sp - Spelling Error.

ss - Sentence structure error.

t - Incorrect Verb tense.

Tr - Transposition error.

TSTL - Character acting Too Stupid To Live.

UC - Upper Case.

wc - Word Choice.

Grammar Terms (Just a little refresher)

Alliteration - A series of words all beginning with the same letter or sound.

Anagram - A word or phrase formed by transposing the letters of another word or phrase.

Antecedent - A word or phrase that is referred to by a pronoun.

Clause - A complete phrase containing a noun and verb that is part of a compound sentence.

Complex Sentence - A sentence containing an independent clause and one or more dependent clauses.

Compound Sentence - A sentence containing two or more clauses separated by 'and', 'but' or 'or'.

Gerund - A form of verb acting as a noun and ending in 'ing', like 'acting' (present participle.)

Homograph - Words spelled the same but pronounced differently and having different meaning.

Homonym - Word spelled and pronounced the same way but with different meaning.

Hyperbole - Extravagant and deliberate exaggeration.

Idiom - A phrase peculiar to one geographic area or group of people.

Imperative - A word used as a command; Go.

Independent Clause - A group of words containing a subject, verb, and if necessary, an object, that can stand alone as a sentence.

Indirect Object - The object preceding the direct object that tells to whom or for whom the verb is acting, such as 'me' in 'He sold me'.

Interrogative Pronoun - A pronoun used to ask a question, What, Which, Where, Whom, Whose, etc.

Intransitive Verb - A verb that doesn't need a direct object, such as 'she fainted'.

Metaphor - A phrase comparing two unalike things WITHOUT using 'like' or 'as'.

Onomatopoeia - Use of Words whose pronunciation sounds like their meaning, like Buzz or Hiss.

Oxymoron - Phrase consisting of words with contradictory meaning, military intelligence.

Palindrome - A phrase or word that reads the same forward or backward.

Participle - A verb form ending in 'ing' or 'ed' that can be used as an adjective.

Personification - Giving human traits to non-human objects.

Predicate - Part of a sentence, excluding the subject, that tells about the subject.

Restrictive Clause - A subordinate clause essential to the meaning of the sentence and which does not require a coma preceding it.

Sentence Splice - connecting two independent clauses with a comma.

Simile - Comparing two similar things using 'like' or 'as'

Split Infinitive - A verb form where an adverb or phrase comes between the 'to' and the verb.

Subordinating Conjunction - A conjunction such as 'although, because, since, while' that precedes a subordinate clause.

Transitive Verb - A verb that requires a direct object, 'he threw the ball'.

Page Set-up or Style words

Curly Quotes - Special Quotation marks slanted toward the quote (smart quotes.)

Deck - The sentence or two under the title of a book.

Folio - The page number on a page; blind folio has no page number but counts in the page count.

Kerning - Adjusting the space between characters.

Leading - Adjusting space between lines of text.

N - Short for number.

Nut Graf - The paragraph right after the hook which explains an article.

Plate - A full page illustration, often on higher grade paper or different color.

Running Head - A title that is repeated at the top of every page.

Sink - Distance from the top of a printed page to the first element on that page.

Slug Line - ALL CAPS - location and time of day.



  1. Todd, this is extremely useful! Great idea to put it together, and bravo to you for compiling it. (So THAT'S what "kerning" means!)

    1. I'm happy to see that someone actually read it. =) Thanks!

  2. Todd, this is a wonderful list, even for those of us (like me) who don't write SciFi. I've bookmarked it. Thanks for visiting my blog. Have a great day.

  3. BTW, I replied to your comment on my blog, but I'm not sure how often you visit it. Re: the mystery series you liked in the 70s might have been the Three Investigators series by Robert Arthur. Similar to the Hardy Boys, but different, too. Check it out, and good luck. It's really satisfying to re-read books you liked long ago.


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