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Category : Writing Tips

Using Examples Well

What’s great about examples are their specificity. That said, I see a surprising number of papers that mention unnamed references or name specific books, movies, articles – and not their authors. When giving examples of scholarly works of pieces of art, be sure to include at least: the name of the work and the name of the work’s author. For example:

  • Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations describes …
  • In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith describes …
  • Adam Smith describes … in The Wealth of Nations.

When the work is well-known, as is the Wealth of Nations, for example, it may not be necessary to specify what type of work you’re referencing. And, in any case, most readers familiar with the formatting of titles would know from context that Wealth of Nations is not likely to be a newspaper, piece of visual art, or movie – any of the other types of works whose titles would be italicized.

In some cases you, may want to provide a date, as in:

  • Jurassic Park (1993) marked Steven Spielberg’s …
  • Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, which hit box offices in 1993, marked …
  • The 1993 hit Jurassic Park marked Steven Spielberg’s …

Again, when the work or its author are well-known, as are both Jurassic Park and Steven Spielberg, you probably don’t need to specify their nature (e.g. “the movie Jurassic Park” or “director Steven Spielberg”). However, in more obscure cases (and depending on your audience), you may find this useful or even necessary. For example:

  • When the film Hyènes premiered in 1992, New York Times film critic Stephen Holden praised its director, Djibril Diop Mambety, for telling a story that “carries a sting.”

This sentence would be far inferior if it read:

  • When Hyènes premiered, Stephen Holden praised Djibril Diop Mambety for telling a story that “carries a sting.”

What is Hyènes? A movie? Book? Play? Who is Stephen Holden? A friend of Mambety’s? A colleague? A critic? And who is Mambety? An author? Director? Playwright?

Examples are useful in so far as they provide specific information. Be aware of your audience (consider what they know already), but when in doubt, more is more, in this case.


Often used informally or conversationally, idioms are common metaphorical expressions that convey ideas via imagery. In the right contexts, they can be a great way to enliven and familiarize your writing. A few examples:

  • After Sharon discussed her options with Tom, it was clear that she was really on the fence about whether to move to Nebraska.

(Sharon was undecided – on neither one nor the other side of a metaphorical fence that represented her decision.)

  • Kim put up with her friend’s complaining for years, but it eventually became clear that she had to draw the line somewhere.

(Kim tolerated her friend’s complaining – but at some point, she decided that it was too much and that she had to draw a metaphorical line the friend was not allowed to cross.)

  • I am perfectly willing to put in extra hours to complete my own work, but I have had it up to here with people asking me to do their work, too.

(Here, the subject feels literally overwhelmed, in the way that a person standing in rising water or a mounting pile of, well, anything might. The pressure has mounted to a high point – “up to here” – and she has had enough.)

  • As a mother, Jamie regularly found herself working 24/7 to take care of her family, see to her own needs, and attend to the responsibilities of her job.

(Jamie felt like she worked around the clock – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.)

  • Agenting is a business in which you really have to pay your dues. Many of the top agents at places like William Morris and International Creative Management started in the mailroom, at base pay.

(Employees in the competitive business of agenting – e.g. agents for authors, musicians, actors – must earn promotions by putting in time and effort, as if manually paying off a debt.)

  • While there are many intellectually talented people working on Wall Street, the real movers and shakers are those who know how to network.

(The real people who progress and make things happen – i.e. move and shake – in the competitive financial industry are not just those who are good thinkers, but those who know how to make personal connections.)

  • Jim initially had difficulty understanding collateralized debt obligations, but he eventually got the hang of it.

(At first, Jim had trouble getting a metaphorical grasp of a challenging concept, but he later got hold of it with his mind as one might something slippery with one’s hand.)

There are dozens of other idioms. Try searching “idioms, English” or check out sites like GoEnglish.com Idioms.

Expand Your Vocab

If you’re looking to expand your vocabulary, here a few ways to start:

Dictionary.com offers free email subscriptions to its word of the day feature. (Look for “Get Word of the Day” and “Free Email Sign Up” on the sidebar.)

Merriam-Webster also offers word of the day emails and podcasts. (Scroll down to find “Subscribe to the Podcast” and “Subscribe to the Word of the Day email”.)

Apps are available for mobile phones. Try Word of the Day by Code Driven (available from iTunes for $0.99) or the Advanced English and Thesaurus app (available in the Android Market for free), from the Cognitive Science Laboratory at Princeton University. The thesaurus bills itself as “organized with an innovative and convenient approach. Nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs are grouped into sets of cognitive synonyms, interlinked by means of conceptual-semantic and lexical relations. In addition to the straightforward definition the dictionary shows how each word is linked to other words in terms of synonyms, opposites and similar words, but also hyponyms and hyperlinks within the group.”

Dictionary.com has a free app, too.

But, as any proficient writer will tell you, when it comes to improving your writing skills, there’s no substitute for reading. Consider subscribing to daily or weekly news bulletins from the likes of Google (which aggregates news content from media outlets), CNN (scroll down to “My Alerts” and select “Personalized email alerts”, or the Washington Post. Subscriptions are free, as is access to site content, and in many cases, you can customize your subscriptions to fit your interests. I’ve done this when studying French and Arabic, and it’s a great way to get daily exposure to common constructions and vocabulary.