Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know about Writing


When writers get to sucking their thumbs, they are apt to mistake muses for mystical deities. The solemnity of Trappists at vespers envelops them, and they begin ruminating prayerfully on voice, on vision and on the sanctity of art with a capital A. The reverence of monks may be inspiring to behold, but most of us are simple carpenters in prose, planing our sentences as best as we can and never as smoothly as we'd like. There is humility, and maybe honesty, in knowing we were called to serve one of the lesser ...
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Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know about Writing

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When writers get to sucking their thumbs, they are apt to mistake muses for mystical deities. The solemnity of Trappists at vespers envelops them, and they begin ruminating prayerfully on voice, on vision and on the sanctity of art with a capital A. The reverence of monks may be inspiring to behold, but most of us are simple carpenters in prose, planing our sentences as best as we can and never as smoothly as we'd like. There is humility, and maybe honesty, in knowing we were called to serve one of the lesser gods. Not that it makes the writing any easier. The irony is that we ever thought it was, back before we had to do it for a living. Some of us even wanted to be writers, and were content in the knowledge that we knew, more or less, what we were about. A kid can do worse. In every class of 20 or so students, there will always be one, maybe two, for whom writing comes as naturally as Rollerblading. For the rest, it's more grueling than cleaning out the garage, a chore of no tangible benefit. With the garage, at least, you get it swept, bundle up a few sturdy trash bags and you can forget it for another six months. Writing is every day; words forced onto paper like blood from a rutabaga. When schools open later this month, sad little kiddies will again be straitjacketed in something the druids of public education call "the writing process." I'm not smart enough to understand what they're trying to do and can only be glad I came along before so much "research" --- a word educators use like a crutch --- was piled into a slag heap in every superintendent's office. Few are serious and fewer interested The research could be removed to a landfill, every polysyllabic scrap of it, and we'd be better off. A handful of familiar primers already say everything that needs to be said on the subject. If a student doesn't have a copy of "The Elements of Style" --- also known as Strunk & White, its co-authors' last names --- he's unequipped. If he hasn't spent time with William Zinsser's "Writing Well," he needs to. And if he's genuinely serious about writing, he will keep copies of Fowler's "Modern English Usage" and Follett's "Modern American Usage" nearby. Most aren't serious, of course, and some are scarcely interested. It's for these lethargic souls that Patricia T. O ' Conner (bless her) has written" Words Fail Me : What Everyone Who Writes Should Know About Writing O ' Conner is a former editor at The New York Times Book Review, but she writes for --- how to say this politely? --- a wider audience. And she does it without writing down to her readers. If anything, you wish she wrote up occasionally. " Words Fail Me " is a nuts-and-bolts book ("Think of it as a user's manual"), but it's the nuts and bolts that most young writers have trouble fitting into place. And not just young writers. People who long ago forgot the parts of speech sit hunched over keyboards in airport terminals and coffee shops, trying to put thoughts into words. "Computers haven't made us bad writers," O ' Conner says. "We write badly because we don't know how. For many years, our schools have done a rotten job of teaching writing. Asking students to write without showing them how is like expecting them to drive before they've had a lesson." 'Just enough and no more'. It begins with the most obvious questions: What is your subject? Who is your audience? How to get started? The problem is that young people --- so talkative otherwise --- haven't the foggiest idea what they want to say or if they want to say anything at all. They only know they have to write something. But what, and how? O ' Conner is an optimist, and it's a good thing. The ailing patient wants encouragement, not discouragement. "Good writing," she sensibly says, "is writing that works. It makes sense. It's both comfy and elegant. It says just enough and no more. It has manners, not mannerisms. Good writing has all the right words --- and not too many of them --- in all the right places." She isn't big on outlines --- more good sense --- and she knows that not every single paragraph has to begin with the mandatory topic sentence (where did this ever start?). But she's smart about the little things as well as the essentials: "Never underestimate the power of understatement," she says. Most people write badly about feelings and emotion, resorting to cliche or overwrought sentimentality. "One small detail," as O ' Conner writes, "such as a shoe washed up on a beach, can be more tragic than a graphic description of a drowning victim's body." "When there are no words," Flaubert said, "a glance is enough." This isn't just nuts-and-bolts mechanics. It's the deft touch that makes craftsmen of carpenters and artists, sometimes, of workaday writers.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Words to Live By

Ever laughed aloud while reading? While reading a book on grammar? You will, thanks to language maven Patricia O'Conner, who celebrates the written word with vibrant passion and exceptional clarity. Her style is refreshingly engaging, as she parses sentences economically and with flair. Whether hacks or scribes or yeoman users of English, readers who delighted in O'Conner's bestselling Woe is I will rejoice once more, for her new book -- Words Fail Me -- resumes her direct, humorous assault on misbehaving modifiers, comma sense, and other linguistic maladies.

At the core, communication is a two-part process: An idea is expressed, then it is received. Ideally, that idea is received exactly as intended, and the communication succeeds. Of course, experience demonstrates the fragility of this model. Drawing from a lifetime of writing and editing, including years at The New York Times Book Review, O'Conner explores the reasons behind the rules of written engagement. Then, she nimbly demonstrates strategies to strengthen the message. O'Conner says it best:

"You think nobody cares about grammar? The next time you post a message to an Internet newsgroup, try mixing up it's and its, lie and lay, or there and their, and see what happens. The grammar police will be on your case, and you'll get so many flames that your modem will smoke.

"Believe me, people care. Whether you're writing e-mail or snail mail, a Web page or a page of memoir, grammar counts. Readers may dismiss writing that's otherwise okay, even terrific, if the grammar is screwed up. This is no small matter, particularly when you're trying to make a good impression -- applying for a job, say, or trying to sell a book proposal, or writing an essay for admission to college."

As with her first book, O'Conner's latest effort delivers on many levels and for many readerships. Average writers will find the advice tangible and interesting and the anecdotes memorable. For semipro lexicographers, the pleasures are even more immediate; O'Conner is a master wordsmith of nuance and weight. Words Fail Me, punny title and all, is another startling success, infusing fresh vigor into everyday English.

Daniel Pinkwater
Lighthearted and funny...It's like Strunk and White combined with S. J. Perelman—none of whom would have had the slightest objection.
NY Times Book Review
Seattle Times
O'Conner's guidelines are helpful to anyone who puts pen, or word processor, to paper.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
So effortless to read...The back cover shows up before you've broken a sweat.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Bless her. She's smart about the little things as well as the essentials....This isn't just nuts-and-bolts mechanics. It's the deft touch that makes craftsmen of carpenters and artists, sometimes, of workaday writers.
O'Conner's first book, Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, is a favorite reference in the KLIATT office, so I picked up Words Fail Me with enthusiasm. I am not disappointed, especially since this semester I am trying to help college students with their writing, and I see that O'Conner has pinpointed problems all writers face. Her humorous examples are welcome: e.g., quoting the dead-parrot sketch from Monty Python to illustrate "euphemism run amok." She makes an interesting point that at present writing abounds in our culture—think e-mail—yet we are not necessarily writing well. Her suggestions get to the center of typical problems writers have: identifying their audience, organizing their material, getting started, revising, and perhaps revising once more. We should all be students of writing, because it is such an important part of communicating in our society, and because most all writing could be improved. O'Conner's approach, friendly and helpful with specifics, is one students and teachers can use. KLIATT Codes: JSA—Recommended for junior and senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1999, Harcourt/Harvest, 228p, bibliog, index, 21cm, 99-25610, $12.00. Ages 13 to adult. Reviewer: Claire Rosser; January 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 1)
From the Publisher
"O'Conner uses her playful sense of humor to help us swallow with a laugh the rules that schoolmarms once forced down students' throats.-The New York Times Book Review
"O'Conner is one of those sneaky-good writers: You don't see the effort behind her smoothness."-Salon.com "Read this one from end to end....Imagine what the Congressional Record would be like if bureaucrats wrote that way."-The Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Will delight the word lovers on your shopping list...Sassy." -Detroit News Free Press
"Remember Woe Is I? Well, Ms. O'Conner is back and she hasn't lost her touch. This book is worth the price just to read her chapter titles and headings."-Writers' Exchange
"Patricia T. O'Conner's Woe Is I and Words Fail Me are readable, sympathetic to the struggling writer and often just plain funny."-the Seattle Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156010870
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 9/28/2000
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 126,563
  • Lexile: 930L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Patrcia T. O'Conner was an editor at the New York Times Book Review when she wrote Woe Is I. Her writing has appeared in many magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times and Newsweek. She lives in Connecticut with her husband, Stewart Kellerman.

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Table of Contents

  • IS THE EGG READY TO HATCH? Know Your Subject
  • PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER: The Organized Writer
    • POMPOUS CIRCUMSTANCES: Hold the Baloney
    • THE LIFE OF THE PARTY: Verbs That Zing
    • CALL WAITING: Putting the Subject on Hold
    • NOW WHERE WERE WE? A Time and a Place for Everything
    • THE "IT" PARADE: Pronoun Pileups
    • SMOTHERING HEIGHTS: Behavior Modification
    • TOO MARVELOUS FOR WORDS: Sentences That Make Sense
    • MADE FOR EACH OTHER: Well-Matched Sentences
    • GIVE ME A BREAK: Thinking in Paragraphs
    • THE SNAKE'S PROGRESS: Fear of Repetition
    • TRAINING WHEELS: Belaboring the Obvious
    • CRITIQUE OF POOR REASON: The Art of Making Sense
    • DOWN FOR THE COUNT: When the Numbers Don't Add Up
    • GRAMMAR MOSES: Thou Shalt Not Embarrass Thyself
    • Includes sections called An I for an I; Comma Sense; Taking Leave of
    • Your Tenses; Rules, Schmules; Spellbinding; and others
      • LOST HORIZON: What's the Point of View?
      • WIMPING OUT: The Backward Writer
      • PROMISES, PROMISES: If You Make Them, Keep Them
      • YOU GOT RHYTHM: Writing to the Beat
      • THE HUMAN COMEDY: What's So Funny?
      • I SECOND THAT EMOTION: Writing With Feeling
      • THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING HONEST: Leveling With the Reader
      • ONCE AROUND THE BLOCK: What to Do When You're Stuck
      • DEBT BEFORE DISHONOR: How and What to Borrow
      • REVISE AND CONSENT: Getting to the Finish Line
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