Learn to write better with “That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means” and “Save the Cat!”


Review by C.J. Bunce

Two new book releases will get you (or your favorite writer) back on track, whether you’re trying to write a novel or communicate any other way.  “Words have meaning” is the theme of That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means, a look at the most incorrectly used words in the English language–and how to turn around your usage if you’re doing it wrong.  The second book is a new look at a classic work on writing, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need, a step by step approach to address the writing process if your goal is to write the next Great American Novel.

It’s not just a good paraphrased line from Inigo Montoya.  For That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means, sister and brother writers Kathryn Petras and Ross Petras (authors of You’re Saying It Wrong) researched surveys, dictionaries, language usage panels, and language experts to identify the 150 most commonly confused, abused, questioned, and misused words and phrases in the English language.  It’s a small but jam-packed book that should go next to your copies of Strunk & White, The Chicago Manual of Style, and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage It also will help anyone preparing for their SATs, as words on this list have been commonly used in past tests.  The handy pocket-size also might make this a good choice for stocking stuffer.

Each word or phrase is listed by its frequent mistaken usage followed by quotes by celebrities, periodicals, or online articles getting it all wrong.  Even the most critical writer will agree with the authors’ selections of the way you should or shouldn’t use the term, although you might disagree with one or two along the way and purists may think a few times the writers have caved to modern usage choices.  The authors will reinforce, remind, or educate readers about many traps.  Can anything ever reach a crescendo?  No.  Is “contiguous United States” almost always used incorrectly by nearly everyone?  Yes.  If you regularly use words or phrases (or non-words in some cases) like chronic, begs the question, cliché, alright, in regards to, just desserts, from whence, peruse, verbal, verbiage, and utilize, and you’re not sure of what you’re doing, you probably need this book.   The Petras’ book should be required reading in every high school senior English or first year college English class.

An excerpt from That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means.

Writers of screenplays and novels may have already heard about one of the handful of books on writing for film, Blake Snyder’s 2005 book Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, one way to approach writing for movies.  In Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, author Jessica Brody takes Snyder’s original book and tweaks it for novel writing, arguing the same basic rules for storytelling apply for novels and film.  If you’ve read the original you’ll be familiar with the approach taken here: the best stories include 15 basic “beats” or plot points.  The theory is that if your novel includes these beats and applies them correctly and in the right places, you’re more likely to have a story that agents, publishers, and readers will take note of.

Although Snyder’s titles for his plot points could stand to be updated and more clearly defined (the double-meaning descriptor “Break Into 2” probably will still leave you scratching your head no matter how many times you’ve read Snyder’s method), Brody has updated the examples from classic movies to modern novels, which may make it more accessible to a younger generation of readers and writers.  The only twist there is you are more likely to find meaning in the examples if you’re already familiar with her mainstream fiction choices, like The Fault in Our Stars, Because of Winn-Dixie, Confessions of a Shopaholic, and The Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  For the rest of us genre types, Brody hasn’t forgotten us altogether, including examples from books like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Outsiders, and Ready Player One.

Like its predecessors (this is at least the sixth Save the Cat! series book) Save the Cat! Writes a Novel requires a few thorough reads to develop the mindset of writing according to the 15-part method (another highly regarded method once you’ve checked this out is Alexandra Sokoloff’s Screenwriting Tricks for Authors).  And the title?  “Save the Cat” comes from that scene in every great story where the hero does something to make himself/herself likeable to the audience or reader.  Snyder (who died in 2009) said he got the idea from none other than Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley saving Jonesy the cat in the original Alien–a story element that made Ripley instantly endearing to the audience.

Both of these great books will help your writing no matter the nature of your writing, and both books are available now from Ten Speed Press.  Get Kathryn Petras and Ross Petras’ That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means now here in a hardcover edition, and Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need available here in a trade paperback edition (both links to Amazon).

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