If a word doesn’t work, send it packing

Writing women – Version 2Seeing the tools of language handled deftly by others is one of the great pleasures of my life; for a writer, honing those tools is a process that lasts a lifetime.

Some people have better ears for music than others (my mother, a normally tolerant woman, emphatically dissuaded my tone-challenged father from singing in the house). Some have more natural athletic talent (one of my highly accomplished college buddies can still relive the trauma of having come perilously close to failing our college phys ed requirement). Some seem to know instinctively how to draw pictures that look like what they are meant to represent (in 4th grade, I marveled at how one of my classmates produced beautiful portrayals of everything from giraffes to geraniums). And some individuals have greater natural facility with written language. Still, writing clearly and thoughtfully is a skill that can be learned.

Everyone works differently, but you might find some of these pointers helpful.

  • You cannot be a successful writer or editor without loving language, and paying exquisite attention to words. This does not mean throwing around lots of big words; in fact it often means just the opposite — don’t mistake grandiosity for precision.
  • Good writers tend to be avid readers. You can’t figure out how the written language works without spending some serious time with it. When I was teaching high school English in the previous century, I found that even weak writers were capable of impressive prose when assigned to compose letters reflecting the writing of authors with highly distinctive styles. Jane Austen worked particularly well with 10th grade boys. Go figure.
  • When the blank page taunts you, remember that you don’t have to know exactly what you want to say before you start writing. The process of writing is often a process of uncovering. You might surprise yourself.
  • Don’t edit while you write. Although working styles vary greatly, professional writers rarely drop perfectly formed sentences and perfectly organized paragraphs onto pristine pages. When I write my 700-word New Haven Register columns, for instance, I usually find myself working from 2500-3000 words of notes, from which I eventually carve out the essays. Because of the space constraints, I must be ruthless, often discarding phrases that I’ve become attached to. Sometimes I can tuck them away for future use. Sometimes I just have to say goodbye.
  • Every word in whatever you’re writing — a resume, a short story, a research paper, an editorial should be there for a reason. If a word does not provide information, clarify a point, help to set a mood, or produce an emotion, out it goes.
  • Expand your repertoire of verbs, and focus on using just the right ones for your purposes instead of loading sentences with adverbs. Think of all the options for describing how people walk: amble, creep, march, meander, plod, saunter, stride, stroll, tread, wander, and on and on. “She strode down the hall” tells a very different story from “She plodded down the hall.”
  • A tip for checking your own work: You can determine a lot about something you’ve written by having someone else read it out loud to you, slowly, word for word. If it doesn’t make sense when you hear it, it won’t make sense on the page.

And, because I am determined to rid the world of this particular assault against the English language, I’m including one grammar note:

  • People, people: Please learn how to use the pronouns “I,” “me,” and “myself.”   Otherwise intelligent adults who would ordinarily write “She gave the goldfish to me” become all squirrely when goldfish are being given to more than one person, and commit grievous syntactical sins with sentences such as, “She gave the goldfish to Zelda and I” or “She gave the goldfish to Zelda and myself.” The rules of grammar do not change just because others are receiving goldfish, too. The correct construction remains “She gave the goldfish to Zelda and me.”

There. I feel better now. As always, questions and comments welcome.

© Rhea Hirshman 2015

10 thoughts on “If a word doesn’t work, send it packing

  1. Sandy

    It may be hard to understand but your article produced lots of conflict in this little pea brain of mine. On one hand I was left with some fantastic ideas and suggestions to facilitate a way to enjoy the art of expression through writing. On the other, my mind returned to my school days (starting in grammer school and never ending) when those terrible feelings of inferiority, stupidity, and humiliation brought any attempt to write to a screeching halt because I didn’t know a noun from a pronoun, a verb from and adverb, and would commit the deadly sin of changing tenses in mid sentence.

    Okay, it’s out and it’s over. It is time to forget getting straight “F’s”, time to stop worrying about tenses and pronouns, and commas (oh my), and remind myself that this writing thing is a process and you don’t have to have it finished before you put your pencil to paper. Time to remember that really, no one has to read it anyway so I can stop whining and go get a good old fashioned piece of paper and pencil. Thanks Rhea!

    1. Rhea Hirshman Post author

      Oh, Sandy, I know. People — including professionals — can have all sorts of conflicting and conflicted feelings about writing. Best just to get that pencil moving! ;->

  2. Ginny Bales

    Wonderful article!! Timely since I am trying to write again these days.
    And what a funny bit about Jane Austen working well for 10th grade boys to imitate! That’s the telling detail that only an experienced and thoughtful teacher could have written.

    1. Rhea Hirshman Post author

      Thanks, Ginny. Now I will look forward to reading what you’ll be writing. Are you continuing the blog from a while ago, or moving on to something else?

  3. brbeitch

    This calls for a standing ovation, Rhea. Thanks for putting it all in words in such a succinct manner. I particularly appreciated your respectful tone– not easy to achieve in such a piece.

    Your posting was timely; I just had lunch with an old friend whose command of English is more than a cut above average. However, she falls short in the use of pronouns when used with one or more people. I couldn’t believe it when she told me (just an hour ago) that “Me, my sister, and my granddaughter are taking the train to Chicago next week.” I wish I could figure out a sensitive way to tell her. But she has a personality that reminds me of a very sweet and loving wire-haired terrier I once had; one word of perceived criticism used to send Sweet Daisy’s ears into a droopy position and her tail lowered between her legs.


    1. Rhea Hirshman Post author

      Thanks, BRB ;->
      Re: your friend with the pronouns. Maybe send her the link to this post with a note that you thought she might enjoy it? Perhaps she will see herself among those distributing goldfish….


Leave a Reply to Ginny Bales Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s