5 Book Terms That Can Make You Sound Brilliant (or Stupid)

I’ve been astonished at the number of people who have expressed some trepidation about communicating with an author out of fear they’ll misuse a word (or never send fan letters as a way to avoid misspellings).

Really, folks, we don’t judge you by your spelling and grammar—unless you’re pointing out a typo in our latest books.

BUT when communicating with authors, English teachers, or librarians there are a few words that, if flubbed, will mark you as an uncultivated reader and/or book-lover (two different things). If you’re a self-published scribbler, misusing these words will mark you as not-ready-for-prime time. And if you’re an honest-to-goodness trade-published author, your library card should be seized.

Here are five-ish commonly confused book terms. Get them right and you look like the Stephen Hawking of publishing … get them wrong and you look like you only read picture books.

Novel vs. nonfiction

This probably the most botched book term. Simply put, a novel is a work of fiction, and a nonfiction book (history, biography, and true crime, for example) is a factual work where everything is true. To say a historian is a novelist is as great an insult as referring to the genre of “women in peril” as “romance.”

Index vs. Table of Contents

OK, both tell you what’s in a book, but they are otherwise very different. An index is the (usually) robust alphabetical listing of names and subjects with their corresponding page numbers, always in the back of the book. A table of contents is a list of the chapter titles and the pages where they begin, usually in descending order somewhere before the book’s actual narrative begins. Neither should be confused with a Chinese takeout menu, which is neither alphabetical or descending, and almost never appears in a book except as a bookmark.

True crime? C’mon man

True crime vs. mystery

A personal peccadillo. True crime is a book-length account of an actual crime, while a mystery is completely made-up, a fiction, a novel (remember?) This is, again, fertile ground for faux pas: Never call a true-crime writer a mystery writer. Really. One makes everything up and never leaves the house, and the other doesn’t make money. I’ll take it personally … I mean, true crime writers will take it personally. Think about it this way: “Magnum P.I.” vs. “Cops.”

Foreword vs. forward

This is frequently bollixed, even by genuine authors. A foreword is just what it looks like, a word with the reader before the story begins, usually by an authority on the book’s topic. A forward describes nothing whatsoever except where a really stupid plot is not going.

Memoir vs. autobiography vs. biography

Admittedly, this can be messy. The terms are often used interchangeably but they’re actually distinctly specific. Here goes: A biography is a nonfiction story about a person’s life, most often dead, but not always. They’re usually well researched and can be academic, historical, or dumb (What if Gandhi was gay?)

An autobiography is also an allegedly true story of a person’s life, always written by that person except when it’s written by a ghostwriter (as with most political “autobiographies”). When anybody is writing about his own life, you can expect the juicy stuff to be left out or given ridiculous prominence. Obviously, the writer isn’t yet dead, except in the case of Abe Vigoda.

And a memoir is written by the person in the story, but isn’t generally an exhaustive, detailed chronicle of a life. Instead, it’s usually about a certain event, period, or experience. It’s normally told in a more dramatic, less formal story form (narrative nonfiction) to appeal more to the masses. Memoirs customarily come from the author’s memory, so events can be jumbled up and liberally interpreted, to create a more emotional climax. Sorta like Keith Richards’s account of how he won immortality by beating the Devil in a guitar showdown at Woodstock or something.

Ron Franscell is the author of two mysteries, one memoir, one literary fiction, and 13 true crimes. Just to further confuse you.

Cover image by Gary Bendig