Types of writing: Mystery genre

A mystery (sometimes called a detective or crime novel) focuses on an individual, usually a detective, who solves a crime, often a murder.  Edgar Allen Poe was one of the first to write such stories, and from his first name comes the Edgar Awards, given annually to the best examples of this genre.  This genre has several common elements.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.Often the crime happens before the novel opens.  In The Cuckoo’s Calling by J.K. Rowling (using the pen name of Robert Galbraith), the murder (or is it a suicide?) happens minutes before the opening scene in which the police and medical examiner investigate the corpse.  In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, the murders happen as the book progresses, after characters and setting are established in the readers’ minds.  Either way, we readers do not usually develop an emotional connection to the victim.

If the crime begins the story, the next chapter introduces the detective, interrupted while living his usual life.  Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple might be knitting with a friend, or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow might be drinking in a favorite bar.  Elizabeth George’s Thomas Lynley might be heading to his estate for a family gathering.

The detective-protagonist is proactive:  looking for clues, meeting with suspects, talking to the police, and facing danger.  He often reaches a low point well into the story from which he emerges a better person.  Sherlock Holmes is a damaged protagonist—a drug addict.  Philip Marlow is an undiagnosed alcoholic and chain smoker.  Such character flaws make the detective more realistic.

Sometimes the detective has a side kick.  Dr. Watson is Holmes’.  Sergeant Barbara Havers is Lynley’s.  But many detectives, like Hercule Poirot, work alone.

The antagonist is the killer, but since we don’t know who he/she is, almost all the characters are antagonists whose alibis, means and motives need to be studied.  Sometimes a character whom we assume to be innocent turns out to be the killer, making for a clever twist at the end.  The antagonist must be cunning, resourceful, and indefatigable—the same characteristics as the detective, so their battle of wits, like Holmes’ and Moriarty’s, seems matched.

Suspense is important to sustain reader interest.  So is foreshadowing and surprise.  Many times the detective finds himself or herself in danger.  Evidence is revealed little by little, asking the reader to infer what each clue might mean.  Some true clues are brushed over while red herrings are traced to their dead ends.

Many mysteries put a cast of characters in a closed off situation—on a train or on an island—so we know one of them has to be the murderer.  P.D. James used this strategy as did Agatha Christie.  Other writers, like Raymond Chandler, don’t close off characters physically, but motive or opportunity limits the likely suspects.  Picturing the setting is important, and writers describe in great detail where rooms or items within rooms are located.

The fun of this genre is trying to solve the murder before the detective identifies the murderer.  Satisfaction also comes from appreciating the fine mind of the detective as he explains how he (or she) solved the crime.


Every good writer knows that during revising writing becomes really good—not in planning (though that is important), not in composing the first draft (though you must start somewhere), and not in copy-editing (though pesky commas and apostrophes must be set right).

But what if a student never gets to the point of revising because of perfectionism?

Third grader, “Anna,” can’t bear an erasure to show on her papers.  She starts a paragraph and before the first sentence is done, she erases.  Then she tries to erase the erasure marks and in so doing rips her paper.  Anna starts over on a pristine piece of notebook paper.  But she erases again, maybe because a word extends too far into the right margin or because an “a” looks like an “o” to her.  She starts over again.  But another flaw happens.  I have told her that two start-overs are all she can do.  She begs to start a fourth sheet of paper.  She cries.  She freezes, and refuses to go on.  After an hour, Anna has nothing to show for her time.

I worked with a girl like Anna for several months.  In that time, she completed nothing.  Nothing.

Sixth grader, “Kyla,” reads a selection and writes responses to questions.  She gets most of her responses correct.  When I tell her one is not correct, she goes back into the text and orally defends her written answer with more evidence.  But it is the wrong evidence, or it is wrongly interpreted.  Still she argues that her answer is correct.  She will not accept that her response can be wrong.

I worked with a girl like Kyla.  She could not learn from her mistakes because she could not admit she made mistakes.  She exhausted me.

Suppose eighth grader, Sam, is assigned to write a narrative about what he did on his spring break.  He writes and then reads to me a four page single spaced narrative.  He describes packing his suitcase, driving to the airport, flying for hours and watching films.  At the end he has written not a word about what he did once he arrived at his destination.

We discuss how his response does not fulfill the assignment despite exquisite sentence structure and not a single grammatical error.  I ask Sam to rewrite.  We discuss what is required.  But the next week,  his mother cancels the lesson.  Sam cannot face me.

When you add one plus one, the perfect answer is two.  When you write, there is no perfect answer.  There are good ways to say something and better ways, but rarely is there a best way.  Extreme perfectionists seem to think there is one and only one best way to express something, or to hand-write something, and any way other than that one way is no good.  They see their writing as black or white with no shades of grey allowed.

Revising is the stage where writing becomes great.  If, like Anna, a student never finishes, there is nothing to revise.  If, like Kyla, a student defends less than great writing and refuses to listen to ways to improve it, there is nothing to revise.  If, like Sam, a student walks away from an opportunity to revise because he can’t accept that his first draft is less than perfect, there is nothing to revise.

For most perfectionists I have taught, the light bulb goes on when they realize that good writing becomes great through revising.  They want better writing and better grades.  They are willing to endure the cross-outs, erasures, arrows, and words between the lines and in the margins to improve their writing.

But for  a few students like Anna, Kyla and Sam, I do not have  words to make them recognize that perfectionism is making their writing worse, not better.  I suspect there are underlying issues which have led to perfectionism, and until those issues are addressed, I am spinning my wheels working with a perfectionist.

Words to eliminate from your writing

Yesterday I helped a third grader revise her writing.  After the third time “so” appeared as a sentence opener, she recognized the repetition and went back to the beginning, crossing out that word.  “I use too many so’s,” she said without prompting from me.

We all have words like “so” in our writing.  What are some words you should be wary of overusing, or using at all?

Very.  Your writing is stronger without “very.”  Mark Twain suggested substituting “damn” when you write “very.” He said, if you need “damn,” use it, but if not, don’t use “very.”  “Very” is intended to strengthen the verb it modifies, but in fact, the verb is stronger without this modifier.

Really and almost all adverbs which end in –ly.  Think of these adverbs as crutches holding up the verbs they modify.  Take away the crutches and strengthen the verbs.

Then.  When we write about events happening in sequence, we might need to use “then” to keep the ordering clear to us.  But readers know you are telling events in chronological order.  They don’t need “then.”  So eliminate the “thens” when you are done.

Just.  So.  LikeRather.  Actually.  Figure out which words you overuse and eliminate them.

Words which mean “said.”  Use “said” if you need to identify who is speaking, but skip its synonyms unless you want the reader to focus on how something is said.  “Hollered,” “whispered,” and “choked” focus the reader on the way something is said.  Usually you want to focus on the meaning of words, not on how they are said.

Said.  Most of the time it’s obvious who is speaking, and “said” isn’t needed.  (But sometimes it is.)

Start and Begin.  Everything starts or begins.  Unless you are focusing on the beginning of something, skip these words.

Up, down.  He fell down.  Can he fall up?  She reached up into the overhead luggage compartment.  Can she reach down into such a compartment?

That.  When “that” introduces a dependent clause, it might not be needed.  Read what you’ve written with and without “that.”  If it reads fine without, take out “that.”

840 New Words Added to Dictionary

Do you remember the first time you heard the word “email”?  How about “booting”?  Or “text” as it relates to sending messages on phones?  Or, speaking of text, “OMG”?

Our language is always changing.  Lately, that change is propelled by words related to technology and the work of technology, such as texting.  But there are other sources for new words or phrases, such as foreign foods and immigrants.

Merriam-Webster added more than 800 new words to its dictionary this month.  Some I am familiar with; others are totally new. If you want your writing to be up-to-the-minute, try slipping in some of these.

Hophead:  someone who likes beer.

Generation Z:  people born in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Latinx:  a gender-neutral version of Latino or Latina.

Portmanteau words:  blended words such as mocktail:  a nonalcoholic drink.

Iftar:  the after-sundown meal taken by Muslims during Ramaden.

Avo:  avocado.

Guac:  guacamole.

Airplane mode:  the setting of an electronic device during flight.

For more information, go to https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/new-words-in-the-dictionary-september-2018.

Famous forensic linguist cases

The publication of an anonymously written op-ed piece in The New York Times in early September brought to mind the idea of a “forensic linguist” or word detective. The term “forensic linguist” was coined in the late 1960s, though the work of word detectives goes back many years.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.In the US, the first crime solved by forensic linguists happened in 1927.   A girl was kidnapped in upstate New York.  Her family, the McClure family, received a ransom note addressed to the girl’s uncle, Duncan McLure, the only member of the family to spell his name McLure.  Yet the ransom note was addressed to Duncan McLure.  Police thought it odd that the kidnapper would know that the uncle spelled his name differently from the rest of the family.  They figured he was in on the kidnapping.  Sure enough, the uncle eventually confessed.

The case of the Unabomber was solved in 1995 with the help of a forensic linguist.  A man dubbed the “Unabomber” was wanted by the FBI for a series of bombings which killed three people and injured more than a dozen over many years.  This unidentified terrorist wrote a “manifesto” explaining his beliefs and promised to stop the killings if the manifesto were published.  It was.  One reader thought he recognized the writing style in the manifesto as the same style as of his reclusive brother.  An FBI profiler, James Fitzgerald, studied the manifesto, comparing the words and writing style with other known writings by the man’s brother.  The FBI brought the linguistic findings to a federal court which granted a search warrant for the recluse’s cabin.  Information in the cabin corroborated the suspicion that the recluse was the Unabomber.   Theodore Kaczinski was arrested and imprisoned, ending a 17-year hunt.

1996 was an election year with President Bill Clinton running for a second term as President.  A new novel told the inside story of a southern Presidential contender from the perspective of a campaign insider.  Its author, “Anonymous,” rocketed to the top of the best seller list.   The hunt was on for the author’s identity.  A Vassar College English professor, Donald Foster, used the skills of a forensic linguist to narrow down the possible writers.  Foster tallied word frequency in the controversial novel.  By comparing the result with word frequency in the writings of likely authors, Foster correctly identified the anonymous author as Joe Klein, a news magazine columnist.  At first Klein denied it, but later comparisons of portions of the hand-written manuscript with other handwritten work by Klein proved him to be the author, and he eventually admitted authorship.

Another example of forensic linguistics was in finding the author of a 2013 critically acclaimed novel, The Cuckoo’s CallingThe Sunday Times of London’s art editor suspected that Robert Gilbraith, listed as the author, might be a pen name of J. K. Rowling.  The Times hired a forensic linguist, Patrick Juola, to investigate.  Juola searched by computer for data related to adjacent words, to the most commonly used words, and to the use of long and short words, among other searches.   This gave him a “fingerprint” of the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling.   He did the same kind of search of The Casual Vacancy, a known book by Rowling, and of the final Harry Potter book.  Then he compared that data with similar searches of books by three other female novelists.  The results showed that Rowling was highly likely to be the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling.  With all this evidence, Rowling confessed that she was indeed the author.

Will the identity of the anonymous op-ed writer be known soon?  If the original writing wasn’t edited much, then most likely the author will become known. The computer analysis of J. K. Rowling’s writing took only a half hour.  Plug in the right information, and a match will show.

But if the writer purposely disguised his or her usual style, the task becomes harder.  And if that disguised style was heavily edited, the task becomes harder still.  And if the author denies authorship (and many of those suspected to be the author already have),  then the author may go unknown for years, even decades, as did Woodward and Bernstein’s Deep Throat informant during the Watergate investigation in the 1970s.

For forensic linguists, it’s easier to eliminate suspects than it is to prove authorship.




Forensic linguists, a new kind of Sherlock Holmes

An anonymously written New York Times op-ed piece critical of the Trump White House was published on Wednesday. The author claims to be a senior official in the Trump White House.

Since then, a slew of senior officials have denied authorship. This raises the question: Can the identity of the anonymous writer be learned from an examination of his or her writing?

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.According to some forensic linguists—highly trained writing detectives—yes, the writer will eventually be outed.

What will forensic linguists be studying to identify the author? Some details might include:

  • The frequency with which particular words are used.
  • The average word and sentence length.
  • The average number of syllables per word.
  • The frequency with which articles (a, an, and the) are used.
  • The number of unique words.
  • Repetition of unusual words or variations on well-known sayings.
  • Regional or generational use of certain words.
  • Repeated errors such as in spelling, in use of apostrophes, or in grammar.
  • Sentence patterns.

Many crimes have been solved using the analysis of forensic linguists. But these specialists have erred too. They say it is easier to eliminate a suspected writer than to identify one.

No doubt forensic linguists are already busy comparing the anonymously written op-ed piece to known writings by senior White House officials.

Next: Some we’ll-known situations in which forensic linguists have proven authorship.

Citing evidence, paraphrasing and quoting

When students are expected to cite evidence from readings, beginning in late elementary grades, the problem of when and how to use paraphrasing and direct quotes arises, as well as how to combine the two seamlessly.

Let’s start with a story everyone knows, “The Three Little Pigs.”  Suppose the version of the story being analyzed says,

The wolf walked up to the door of the first little pig.  The wolf saw that the house was made of straw.  Silly little pig, thought the wolf.  I’ll have you for my dinner today.  So the wolf knocked on the door and said, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in.” 

Now suppose the student has taken the position that the wolf is a polite creature.  The student needs to cite information from the article proving this point.

What I have observed is that most students equate the word “cite” with “use direct quotes.”  To do that, students might quote the whole paragraph as their citation.  (I see this all the time.)  But that is not a good way to cite.

One good way is to cite by paraphrasing without ever using direct quotes.  For example, to prove the wolf is polite, the student could write,

The wolf didn’t run to the door of the little pig living in the house of straw, but as the story says, he walked.  Also, the wolf knocked at the door and asked in a normal tone of voice to be let in.  In other words, the wolf behaved politely.

But suppose the student wants to quote the words, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in,” because they are so identified with the classic wording of the story.  The student could have written most of the same citation as above, changing it this way.

The wolf didn’t run to the door of the little pig living in the house of straw, but as the story says, he walked.  Also, the wolf knocked at the door and asked in a normal tone of voice to be let in, saying, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in.” In other words, the wolf behaved politely.

This too is a citation.

However, what I see is that students directly quote two or three sentences or a whole paragraph without connecting the quote to their own grammar.  Both the students’ ideas and the direct quote stand alone in a paragraph with no transition from one to the other, and no attempt to shorten the quote to only a few key words.  If there is a transition from their own words to the direct quote it is stilted or confusing.

Students need much practice paraphrasing without using direct quotes, and paraphrasing plus using direct quotes.  This can be done using single paragraphs from fairy tales, songs, or news stories until students are comfortable with this kind of writing.