50 Words for “Writing”

By Mark Nichol

As an unabashed proponent of reasonable elegant variation — the moderate use of synonyms to avoid tiring repetition of a specific word throughout a passage — I offer this assortment of terms for a piece of writing:

1. Article: This word, with the diminutive -le as a clue, refers to a small part of a publication (thus, the extension of the word to mean “thing” or “item”) — more specifically, a piece of nonfiction that appears in a periodical or on a Web site. (It also refers to a section of an official piece of writing.)

2. Brief: Breve, the Latin predecessor of this synonym for short, acquired the connotation of “summary” or “letter” when it was used in the Roman Catholic Church to refer to a missive less extensive than a bull. (That word comes from the Latin word bulla, “knob,” referring to the seal that ensured discretion.) Brief now refers to a legal summary — hence briefcase.

3. Causerie: This noun form of the French verb causer, “to chat,” directly borrowed into English, means “a brief, informal essay.”

4. Chronicle: This term, derived from the Greek term ta khronika (“the annals”), refers to a an account of a succession of historical events.

5. Column: This word originally referred to a vertical block of type on a page, echoing the original meaning of “pillar.” Early journalistic publications, which made no pretensions to objectivity, laid out various pieces of writing in distinct columns, hence the modern connotation of an article advocating a point of view.

6. Commentary: The Latin term from which this word derives, commentarius, refers to personal writing, but the modern sense is of an opinion piece.

7. Composition: This descendant of the Latin word compositionem (“putting together”) refers to the assemblage of sentences that constitutes a written effort, either in general or in the specific reference to a scholastic exercise.

8. Critique: A critique, as the name implies, is a work of criticism; the connotation is of a formal, erudite dissection of another written work (or any creative endeavor).

9. Diatribe: Interestingly, this word’s Latin precursor, diatriba, has the neutral connotation of “learned discussion.” A couple hundred years ago, it acquired the sense, now exclusive, of harsh criticism or complaint.

10. Discourse: The meaning of discursus, the Latin term from which discourse stems is “the act of running around,” suggesting the process of progressing through a written argument.

11. Discussion: Despite the resemblance of this word to discourse, there is no relation; the Latin origin is discussus, meaning “to break apart,” which led to the noun discussionem and its sense of “examination.”

12. Dissertation: The term from which this word’s Latin ancestor, dissertationem, is ultimately derived means “to take words apart”; the primary sense now is of scholarly writing that examines or debates an assertion.

13-14. Document: The Latin term documentum (“example, lesson, proof”) now has a generic sense of any piece of writing. Documentation, however, implies information provided to support or authenticate other writing, and is used especially in computing and in academic research.

15. Editorial: This word derives from the direct borrowing of the Latin term editor (“one who presents”). As the entry for column explains, all editorial content was originally subjective, but in modern journalism, the term refers to a statement of opinion by a periodical’s management or by a guest commentator. The latter variety is often relegated to an op-ed page. (The latter term is an abbreviation for “opposite the editorial page” — that being the sheet on which the publication’s own arguments are printed.)

16. Essay: The meaning of this word is “attempt” (it’s related to assay, which refers to a test of a metal’s purity), with an original connotation, long since muted by the quotidian ubiquity of the scholastic assignment by that name, of a written opinion presented for the audience’s approval.

17. Examination: The sense of “test” for this word (or for exam, the truncated form that has largely supplanted it) follows the original meaning of “test or judging in a legal context” (hence the judicial term cross-examination).

18. Exposition: This word derived from the Latin term expositionem (“something shown or set forth”) can mean “narration” or, more often, “explanation; the latter sense is employed in literary criticism to refer to the author’s technique in revealing background details.

19. Feature: This term, taken from Latin by way of French, means “a formation.” In writing, it refers to an article — specifically, usually a profile of a person, place, or thing, perhaps with a more conversational style, as opposed to a more straightforward news or informational piece or an opinion.

20. Guide: This word from the same term in French, originally meaning “one who shows the way,” refers to publications that inform readers about how to do something or where to visit. It may be extended to guidebook.

21. Memorandum: Taking directly from the Latin word for “(thing) to be remembered,” this word, and its abbreviation, memo, refer to an official note.

22. Minutes: This word, which stems from the Latin phrase minuta scriptura (literally, “small writing”), refers to a record of a meeting or a similar event.

23. Monograph: This word, which literally means “writing about one (thing),” refers to academic writing on a topic.

24. Narrative: The Latin term narrationem means “recounting,” and this word is a synonym for “story,” though it also specifically refers to storytelling style.

25. Polemic: This Anglicization of the French word polemique (“controversial”) means “a harsh response to or refutation of an opinion.”

26-28. Paper: This meaning — an example of synecdoche, in which the name for a material stands in for something made of that material (as in wheels as slang for car) — describes a scholarly written presentation. A variation is white paper, a piece of writing prepared for or by a government entity or a business to inform or persuade. By contrast, a green paper is a preliminary version of a white paper.

29. Proces-verbal: This French term meaning “verbal trial” is an unnecessary synonym for report — unless, perhaps, one wishes to mock the formality or pretension of a report.

30-33. Prolegomenon: This mouthful of a synonym for preface, taken directly from Greek, means “to say beforehand,” though it may be used in a more general sense than preface, which usually refers to a specific component of a book. (A book preface, by the way, is distinguished from the proximately placed foreword by the fact that it is the author’s statement of purpose, intended audience, scope, and content. A foreword, by contrast, is a recommendation from another person. There may also be an introduction, which orients the reader to the topic.)

34. Propaganda: This word, stemming from the Modern Latin word for “propagating,” was used by the Roman Catholic Church in the sense of disseminating the Gospel. Since then, it has acquired a derogatory connotation, referring to true, slanted, or fabricated information designed to promote one’s, or criticize another’s, position or ideology.

35. Proposition: Like many words on this list, proposition comes down almost intact from Latin — in this case, from propositionem, meaning “a statement.” In rhetoric, it is specifically the initial statement of an argument, or a point offered for consideration. It is also employed to refer to a type of referendum.

36. Rant: Alone among all the words on this list, rant is from a Germanic language, rather than Latin or Greek: Randten means to talk foolishly, and a rant is an emotional and perhaps irrational criticism in speech or in writing.

37. Report: This translation of the Latin word reportare, meaning “to carry back,” in noun form refers to a written or spoken account. More specifically, it acquired the sense of an investigative summary and, by extension, a scholastic exercise.

38. Review: This word, from the Latin verb revidere (“to see again”) by way of French (as the noun reveue) is used as a less formal synonym for critique (a written evaluation of a creative product).

39. Screed: This word (from the Old English term screde, “fragment,” and related to shred) needs context assistance, because it can mean “informal writing,” “a long speech,” or “a rant.” The last sense is the most frequent, but make sure, whatever usage you intend, that your readers will understand your intent.

40-41. Script: This derivation of the Latin word scriptum, “a piece of writing,” is versatile. It can refer to a piece of writing in general, to a set of instructions, or to a copy of a play, a screenplay, or a similar work, as well as to a brief computer program. It also has an informal connotation of an orchestrated version of reality that all associated parties are expected to adhere to. Manuscript literally means “a piece of writing produced by hand,” though now it has the more general meaning of a draft of writing at any stage of preparation, as opposed to a published version.

42. Study: Based on the Latin term studere, “to be diligent,” the verb gave rise to the noun meaning “evaluation” or “experiment” and then to a sense of a written account of the procedure. A case study is an account of a particular person, event, or situation.

43. Testament: Testamentum, in Latin, means “will,” as in the legal document, as does the English derivation, but it can also mean “a supporting statement.”

44. Testimonial: This word, derived from the Latin term testimonium, which originally referred to biblical scripture, came to mean “an attestation of the virtues of a person or thing.”

45. Theme: This word comes from Greek, meaning “something set down,” and is akin to thesis (see below), though it often refers merely to a student composition.

46. Thesis: Thesis stems from the same Greek root as theme (tithenai, “to set”); the former word, like the latter, means “something set down.” The formal meaning is of a piece of writing produced as a requirement for a college degree, but it also has a general sense of “a statement to be proved” and as such can refer to an introductory argument in a larger work.

47. Tract: A truncation of the Latin term tractatus, “a treatment,” tract has an often pejorative sense of a piece of propaganda (see above) or something reminiscent of such, often in pamphlet form.

48. Treatise: This word stems from a French derivation of the Latin term tractatus (see above) and refers to an argument that discusses and analyzes a topic.

49. Treatment: Treatment, which has the same root as treatise, is usually employed to refer to an outline or early adaptation of a screenplay.

50. Write-up: This informal term for a piece of writing can carry a connotation of a work with an unduly positive bias, so take care that the context communicates this intent or the lack thereof.

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4 Responses to “50 Words for “Writing””

  • Nikki

    Excellent list!

    I also like ‘blurb’ which eloquently describes exactly what it is. A short summary of a book or DVD…

  • Sally

    ‘Brief’ is UK slang for ‘lawyer.’

    ‘Polemic’ is ultimately from Greel ‘polemikos – warlike.’

    You say ‘rant’ is the only word derived from a Germanic language, then quote ‘screed,’ from Anglo-Saxon – also a Germanic language.

  • Mark MacKay

    Let me suggest ‘broadside’ and ‘preamble.’ Also, whenever I write a feature I usually include a ‘sidebar’ – including related, actionable information – places to go, things to do, locations, prices, dates, contact information.

  • Phil South

    Then there’s BLOG which is a combination of all of them. 🙂

    Phil South
    Creative Genius Programme

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