Including one embarrassing misuse too many people commit

A white half-mask, phantom-of-the-opera style, against a white background.
A white half-mask, phantom-of-the-opera style, against a white background.
Photo by Tamara Gak on Unsplash

Many years ago, I studied journalism at the University of Minnesota. It was (still is) a school with a pretty high-powered teaching and research hospital. In a crisis, patients were flown there from rural parts of the state. The paramedics who jumped on and off the helicopters and administered care in midair had a stressful job, which they dealt with by cracking jokes, keeping things light. When the university newspaper wrote a front-page human interest story on these paramedics, that whistling-in-the-dark tendency was the focus of the story.

The unfortunate A1 headline read, “Flight Medics Humor Death.”

Okay: While the…

Like “insight” versus “outsight,” this pair of words illustrates how language grows simpler with the passage of time

Photo by Guilherme Caetano on Unsplash

If you’re like most people, when you want to refer to a secret identity or “shadow self,” you reach for a particular term: alter ego. In everyday English, this term has come to mean two things. First, a persona created and acted out by one person — Sasha Fierce is the alter ego of Beyonce Knowles, a stage persona that she acts out. However, the alter ego can also be an entirely separate person: The ebullient Penn Jillette is the alter ego of silent Christopher Teller.

Many of us learned this concept in middle-school or high-school English class, when we…

What is ‘head hopping’ and why do writers do it?

Who’s thinking what in this scene? Photo by Milan Popovic on Unsplash

You’ve undoubtedly seen a movie, maybe a thriller, in which the key plot twist near the end hinges on who saw what. Most of the film has been showing you events from John’s point of view … but then, close to the end, the narrative goes back in time to show those same events unfolding from Emily’s vantage point. Suddenly, the story looks very different. Like a kaleidoscope shift, everything changes.

The key to this kind of plot twist? It’s point of view (often abbreviated as POV). That kind of twist wouldn’t work if the entire movie had carelessly wandered…

Who knew all the work this humble letter was doing?

A red capital A on a white background.
A red capital A on a white background.
Photo by Aneta Pawlik on Unsplash

When I wrote an article on how I’d resolved to read the entire dictionary in quarantine, one wit commented that he’d always thought the dictionary was the story of “an aardvark that ends up at the zoo.” It’s reasonable to guess that ‘aardvark’ or a similar double-a word from the Dutch would be the first word in the dictionary — after, of course, ‘a’ alone, which is a word unto itself.

However, the ‘A’ section actually with seventeen entries on the letter ‘A’ alone. In contrast, ‘B’ has six such entries, and ‘C’ seven. Seeing all those columns, I was…

Why is this simple lesson so hard to keep in mind?

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Physics defines ‘work’ a little differently than the average English speaker. In physics, work is defined by progress. If you exhaust yourself trying to push a car out of a ditch, but it doesn’t budge an inch, you have done no work.

Hardly seems fair, does it?

This is the same definition, though, that we writers often bring to our works-in-progress in the morning. We want to push back from the desk later in the day, thinking, There, I wrote 1600 words. Good words, that‘ll almost certainly make it…

Spoiler alert: It’s not about literally descending from a height

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A few days ago, I wrote a story about a marvelous and timely word I’d just discovered, climacteric. Climacteric means ‘a time of significant change,’ and I explored its implications, especially in the time of quarantine, here.

Then, a few entries below in the dictionary, I discovered an equally timely word: climbdown. Here’s how the World Book Dictionary defines it: “The abandonment of a high position on some point or question, when it becomes untenable or unacceptable.”

Upon reading that definition, it’s quite possible you had some version of the…

Leading me to dissect the following question: How done is ‘done’?

Is it Miller Time yet? (photo by Wil Stewart on Unsplash)

If you’re like a lot of writers, you’re a fan of the totally arbitrary deadline. I’m no exception. For my work-in-progress, the fourth novel about young LA-based investigator Hailey Cain, I chose April 23, because it’s William Shakespeare’s birthday. (Unless you’re one of those who insists it’s really the Earl of Oxford’s birthday). I find this date meaningful because Shakespeare was a wildly imaginative writer who was also good with money — two things that a lot of creative types don’t believe can go together.

Here’s the thing: While…

This rarely-used word is concept whose time has come

Photo by Ross Findon via Unsplash

This is the World Book Dictionary’s definition of climacteric: “A time when some important event occurs, changing the course of things; crucial period.” I first encountered this word in spring of 2020, when I’d just gone into quarantine. In fact, people around the globe were going into quarantine. The world was changing in ways that were dark and drastic, but also weird and wonderful. So many people were quarantining that air pollution was falling in some of the world’s biggest cities. People were working from home for whom that had never been a possibility before. Italians were singing on balconies…

The short answer: As much as you let it

A used-up tube of toothpaste cut open at the far end, which is clipped together with two paper clips.
A used-up tube of toothpaste cut open at the far end, which is clipped together with two paper clips.
Toothpaste: Author’s own

This is the long-delayed (though probably not much awaited) conclusion to my ‘How I Wrote My First Novel’ short series, in which I’ve tried to walk readers through the process of writing a first book, as I did it, complete with mistakes. Here, we’re going to look at the aftermath: Success.

First things first: By “success,” I mean a sale to a traditional publisher, resulting in a novel you can walk into a bookstore and see on the shelf. That’s what it meant to me — and to most aspiring writers — when I was working on my first novel…

As Winston Churchill said, ‘Never give in; never, never, never.’

Photo courtesy of Amazon KDP, from a licensed stock image.

The first pages of this book, which is being released on Amazon today, were written in 2005. To give you some perspective on that: At the time, the reigning social media platform was MySpace. Really.

Also in 2005, I was a relatively young writer in San Luis Obispo, California, who’d had the astounding good luck to sign a three-book contract with Bantam Dell, on the strength of a debut mystery, The 37th Hour, and the representation of a good literary agent. 37th Hour had been published in January 2004, and the sequel, Sympathy Between Humans, in January 2005. Now all…

Jodi Compton

Jodi Compton is the author of four crime novels. Learn more about her books at

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