Highlighted patterns

If you have completed the How to Writelike lesson, you should understand the mechanics of highlighters.

Here, let's talk about the more interesting teaching question: what have we highlighted and why?

The answer varies depending on the purpose of a given lesson.

For example, in a lesson featuring this snippet we wanted to highlight the cinematic widening of the view:

They were standing hand in hand in a snowy lane under a dark blue sky in which the night's first stars were already glimmering feebly.

In this instance, we're studying authorial intent (to go wide, wider, widest). 

But if you look closely, you can see that the chunks are a series of prepositional phrases, so why not label them as such? 

For example:

They were standing hand in hand in a snowy lane under a dark blue sky in which the night's first stars were already glimmering feebly.

Both approaches are valid.

But if we label the prepositional phrases only as prepositional phrases, then we lose crucial information, and when we ask students to model the writing they will likely miss the most important part, which is the authorial intent to guide the reader's eye from close-up to wide shot.

You can see our highlighting is purpose-specific and often subjective

When creating lessons, we make decisions about what is worth highlighting, where to draw boundaries, and how to label each highlighter. 

Sometimes we use more fine-grained grammatical analysis to reveal insights

For example, let's compare passages from Dracula and Twilight that describe characters traversing a dangerous environment.

We will focus on the relationship between people, things, and actions.

What do you notice by comparing the two snippets?

The street was lined on both sides by blank, doorless, windowless walls. I could see in the distance, two intersections down, streetlamps, cars, and more pedestrians, but they were all too far away. Because lounging against the western building, midway down the street, were the other two men from the group, both watching with excited smiles as I froze dead on the sidewalk. I realized then that I wasn't being followed.

I was being herded.

I paused for only a second, but it felt like a very long time. I turned then and darted to the other side of the road. I had a sinking feeling that it was a wasted attempt. The footsteps behind me were louder now.


This time, after going to the far side of the Pass, he suddenly turned down a narrow roadway which ran sharply to the right. Soon we were hemmed in with trees, which in places arched right over the roadway till we passed as through a tunnel. And again great frowning rocks guarded us boldly on either side. Though we were in shelter, we could hear the rising wind, for it moaned and whistled through the rocks, and the branches of the trees crashed together as we swept along. It grew colder and colder still, and fine, powdery snow began to fall, so that soon we and all around us were covered with a white blanket. The keen wind still carried the howling of the dogs, though this grew fainter as we went on our way. The baying of the wolves sounded nearer and nearer, as though they were closing round on us from every side. I grew dreadfully afraid, and the horses shared my fear.


In Dracula, around half of the actions are attributed to things. In Twilight, almost none. 

(You could argue that in Twilight, "they were too far away" should be highlighted as a person not a thing, since it includes pedestrians, which would knock the count down even further.)

What does that mean? 

In Dracula, the landscape is an active force. The narrator is travelling in a carriage while the landscape arches, hems, guards, moans, whistles, bays around him. 

In contrast, the environment in Twilight is static, like a cheap film set—some gloomy flats extending into the distance. Almost all the action is from the narrator.

With this insight, you can examine the effects created by each approach, and experiment with them in your own writing.

We could, but it wouldn't give us the insight.

In standard 'school' grammar we have nouns and proper nouns.

However, this system makes no distinction between people and things. For example, 'Dracula' and 'Transylvania 'are both proper nouns, while 'king' and 'castle' are both standard nouns—meaning that within those buckets, people are indistinguishable from objects.

In contrast, simplified functional grammar can make this distinction, through use of discrete labels such as person, thing, and action or process. 

If we compare Twilight and Dracula through this lens, then we see the contrast in active vs static landscape.

In Writelike, the bias is almost always towards this kind of functional and pragmatic analysis.

The Harry Potter snippet comes from the lesson, Gothic in the Deathly Hallows: Guiding the reader's eye. This is a great example of a detailed practice lesson, where we break a paragraph-length snippet down sentence by sentence.

The Dracula and Twilight snippets come from a lesson called, appropriately enough, Dracula vs Twilight: Forks vs the Carpathians. This is an advanced lesson. It's so dense that we've actually left it out of the Browse section in the lesson library, but you can find it if you use the search tool. It's a good lesson, but tough, and we're hoping to revise it at some stage.