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

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

by Patricia T. O'Conner

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A fun, focused guide to making words work for you


Whether you are working on the novel that's been in the back of your mind for years or simply facing an increasing demand to write well at work or school, the fact remains: we all write more often these days, be it reports, e-mails, blog posts, or texts. But despite the increase in written communication, the fundamentals of good writing have been lost. Grammar maven Patricia T. O'Conner comes to the rescue with the most painless, practical, and funny writing book ever written. In short, snappy chapters filled with crystal-clear examples, amusing comparisons, and humorous allegories that cover everything from "Pronoun Pileups" and "Verbs That Zing" to "What to Do When You're Stuck," O'Conner provides simple, straightforward tips to help you sort through your thoughts and make your sentences strong.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780156010870
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 09/07/2000
Series: Harvest Book
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 640,150
Product dimensions: 5.12(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.59(d)
Lexile: 930L (what's this?)

About the Author

Patricia 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.

Read an Excerpt


Is Your Egg Ready to Hatch?


Let's face it. Some subjects are harder to explain than others. A pipe organ is more complicated than a kazoo (even I can play Bach on the kazoo). No subject, though, is so complicated that it can't be explained in clear English. If you can't explain something to another person, maybe — just maybe — you don't quite understand it yourself.

Anything worth writing about is worth explaining. But you can't make something clear to someone else if it isn't clear to you. Before you write about a subject, make sure you know it inside and out. If there are questions in your mind, don't skip them or cover them up. Do your best to find the answers. Then, if questions remain, you can always be honest and say so; the reader will forgive you.

Whenever there's something wrong with your writing, suspect that there's something wrong with your thinking. Perhaps your writing is unclear because your ideas are unclear. Think, read, learn some more. When your egg is ready to hatch, it'll hatch. In the meantime, sit on it a bit longer.

The old admonition to "write what you know" is a cliché, but it's still good advice. No matter how vivid and fertile your imagination, you'll write best what you know best. Dr. Spock patted thousands of babies' bottoms, and generations of parents have turned to his venerable book on child care. Ben Hogan was the king of the swing, and his book on the fundamentals of golf has been a classic for years.

Speaking of classics, Melville and Conrad spent years at sea, and you can almost smell the salt air in their writing. In his rough-and-tumble youth, Dickens worked in a blacking factory, lived in the poorhouse, and clerked and ran errands in law offices and courts. Not surprisingly, his most lifelike characters aren't from high society. They're street people, beggars, thieves and spongers, laborers, petty clerks, and of course lawyers.

You may have noticed that in Jane Austen's novels, ladies are always present. What did the men say among themselves over their port when the women had withdrawn? Austen never took part in exclusively male conversation, so there is none in her novels. What's unfamiliar is kept offstage.

Not all of us have the luxury of writing only about what we know. A college student who's asked to write a paper on Kierkegaard can't very well decline and say he'd rather write about the Spice Girls. An ad executive with a fabulous wine cellar isn't likely to turn down the Bud account just because she thinks beer is déclassé. If you have to write about something unfamiliar, learn about it. Once you know the subject, you're ready to write.

You're probably wondering about those exceptions to the rule — writers who convincingly describe things they couldn't have seen with their own eyes. Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire is vivid and convincing, even though she's never met one of the undead (at least, I hope she hasn't). She modeled the vampire Lestat after her blond husband, and set much of the atmospheric tale in her native New Orleans. Her writing comes alive because she's borrowed from what she knows in order to create a fictional world that's as real as the real thing.

Don't let the exceptions mislead you, though. An author who invents a world she hasn't seen, a reality she hasn't known, must be hellishly good to be believable. Most of us aren't hellishly good. We must know whereof we speak.


"The Party to Whom I Am Speaking"


A piece of writing requires at least two people: one to write it and one to read it. Who's going to read yours? It's important to ask, because people who don't know their readers or who forget about them aren't very good writers. You'll save yourself all kinds of trouble by learning this lesson early.

All writers, remember, are readers first. You'll read a lot more than you'll ever write. Let the reader in you influence the writer in you. Put yourself in the reader's place, then write what you'd like to read.

If the very idea of writing strikes fear into your soul, or if you freeze up when you start to write, you may have a problem imagining your reader. Fear of writing is often fear of the reader, especially one you don't know. And no wonder. Nothing is more daunting than an audience of strangers. Break the ice and get acquainted.

Similarly, if your writing is unfocused, your reader may be out of focus, too. When you can't see the target, you don't know where to aim. Sharpen your focus and bring the reader into the picture. Clarifying your audience will clarify your thinking and your writing.

All writing has an intended audience, even the telephone book (it may be monotonous, short on verbs, and heavy on numbers and proper nouns, but it sure knows its readers!). Your audience probably won't be as wide as your area code, but it could be almost anyone — your landlord, a garden club, the parole board, Internet jocks, a college admissions director, fiction readers, the editorial-page editor, the Supreme Court. Someone is always on the receiving end, but who? It's a big world out there, and before you write you have to narrow it down. Once you've identified your audience, everything you do — every decision you make about vocabulary, tone, sentence structure, imagery, humor, and the rest — should be done with this target, your reader, in mind.

Draw a mental picture of your reader and carry it with you as you write. Stop working now and then, and, like Lily Tomlin's telephone operator, ask, "Is this the party to whom I am speaking?"

Of course, you might have a different audience every time you write; where writing is concerned, one size does not fit all. As much as possible, try to anticipate your reader's needs, sophistication, likes and dislikes, attention span, mood, tastes, and sense of humor. In our personal relationships, this kind of discretion is called tact; in writing, it's called knowing your audience.

Here's how it works. Say you're writing a brochure for an investment firm, giving financial advice to the newly widowed. You'll want to sound serious but not gloomy, honest and direct but not intrusive. A wisecrack about the River Styx would not be appropriate. If you were advising college students, on the other hand, humor might be in order. Your tone and choice of words would be very different.

For better or for worse, audience is everything, no matter what you write. Unfortunately, some audiences seem to require bad writing: dullness (the phone book), pretentious language (an academic paper), hype (advertising copy). Take the academic paper, for example. Ask yourself who will be reading, then aim at that target. It may be that you hate pompous words like syncretism and etiology, and would rather use plain words like joining and cause. But since the professor or dissertation committee or scholarly journal expects gobbledygook and would reject anything else, you hold your nose and write "syncretism" and "etiology." If they want stuffy, give them stuffy. Once you're tenured or you're running the place, you can be yourself. (There's more on the pretentiousness problem in chapter 6.)

A fiction writer, too, should always imagine the people who'll be reading. I once saw a read-aloud children's book intended for preschoolers; each left-hand page had a picture and each right-hand page was packed with text, nicely written but impossibly long. The writer should have imagined the audience: a kid squirming in somebody's lap. While the grown-up drones on about the enchanted forest, the audience is clamoring to see the next picture.

You can't always hold the audience in your lap, even mentally. Unless you're writing to just one person, the audience will be made up of individuals, no two exactly alike. Still, they'll have certain things in common. Determine what those things are and keep them in mind as you write. You'll be surprised how much clearer your thinking and your writing will be. You may even make readers feel you're talking to each one alone.

While you're drawing your mental picture, remember that the readers are on your side (assuming you're not chewing them out). They want you to succeed. Why wouldn't they? When they read something, they want it to be good. Put mental smiles on their mental faces. You're not adversaries, after all. You're in this together, because you want to write something good and they want to read something good. Even someone who disagrees with what you say can enjoy reading it.

It's essential to imagine a friendly reader, because fear of your audience leads to serious problems. Writer's block is one of them, and so is first-person phobia; we'll get to them later. The fearful writer pictures the audience as a panel of Olympic judges, all holding up cards with 3's and 4's instead of 10's. But aside from editors, English teachers, and book critics, readers usually aren't sitting in judgment. They'll stay with you if you give them a nice move now and then — not every one has to be a triple axel.

Even though your mental picture of a friendly reader won't always be accurate, pretend it is. If you dislike thejerk you're writing for, don't show it. And don't imagine a reader lying in wait, ready to pounce on every little mistake, or your writing will sound defensive and fearful. Write as though you were addressing someone whose opinion you value, even if the reader is a boneheaded bureaucrat who wants to put a sewage treatment plant on your street, or a stingy insurance company that won't pay for your tummy tuck, or a neighbor who insists his boa constrictor loves children (as appetizers, maybe).

But be yourself as much as possible. If you're the serious type, be serious. Don't fake a breezy style or nudge readers with "Get it?" phrases. Assume they'll get it. Otherwise your writing will sound forced and artificial.

Don't talk down to a reader, either. Imagine he's intelligent, even if you know for a fact that he has a mind like a slotted spoon. It doesn't matter if the person who's going to read your paper is a cretin (or if, in the case of that children's book, the intended audience is three years old). Write as though you were addressing intelligent people you understand and respect. Don't patronize them, but don't talk over their heads. If something needs explaining, explain it.

Get to know your audience — use your imagination — because it's easier to give your best to someone you know and like. Think of your reader as a familiar presence, someone you can talk to. Your attitude will come through in your writing.


Get with the Program


This chapter is about organization. Yes, it's grunt work. And no, you may not skip to chapter 4. It doesn't matter how sloppy or tidy you are in real life. Even people whose closets look like Martha Stewart's can turn out writing that's a mess.

Unfortunately, organizing your mind isn't as simple as organizing your closet. You can't go to Home Depot or Hold Everything and buy the shelving and compartments and cubbyholes that will tidy your material and put it to work for you. Besides, when you put a closet in order, you throw things away. You never, ever throw away an idea.

Do I hear grumbling? Well, resign yourself to this part of the process. It's not the part where you roll right along, humming a merry tune as the words tumble over one another in their eagerness to get on the page. Writers seldom shout, "Boy, this outline is really cookin'!" (Not that I recommend outlines, as you'll see.) What's more, the effort that goes into organization is largely invisible. You'll never hear a reader say, "My, this [essay/letter/novel/report] is beautifully organized." The job may be a pain in the butt, but it's thankless, too.

Now for the good news. Once you're organized, the rest becomes easier. No bogging down in the Great Grimpen Mire, that swampy wasteland pitted with the bones of lost writers whose last words were "Where am I?" You'll have a map. How do you get one?

First, you need something to organize: ideas, material, scraps of expertise, recipes, prognostications, anecdotes, scurrilous gossip, anything that might be relevant to what you want to write. And you get this stuff by hoarding it, by faithfully making notes and squirreling them away.

Let's say you're planning a magazine article about biker gangs. You could save a newspaper clipping about a turf war in Los Angeles, the nickname of a Hell's Angel you want to interview, or a tattoo ad from a biker magazine. Or perhaps you're writing a memo to your marketing manager about muffler sales in Toledo. You might jot down the boss's latest joke about Midas, or cut out an article from Car & Driver about auto emissions standards in Ohio.

Keeping a Stash

An idea in your head is merely an idle notion. But an idea written down, that's the beginning of something! Strippeddown to its briefs, a piece of writing is nothing more than a handful of ideas, put into words and arranged to do a job. We all get ideas — try not thinking in the shower. The trick is to write them down.

How many inspirations have you gotten in the middle of the night, ideas that stole into your mind in the wee hours, only to steal away again by morning? "Great idea," you mumbled as you smugly went back to sleep, confident you'd remember that certain something, just what you needed for the writing project at hand. It might have been a snappy ending for the interoffice newsletter, a perfect first line for a poem to your beloved, a brilliant murder plot (fictional, we hope), or a dynamite punch line for the speech you promised to give at the chili supper.

Next time, write it down!

A writer with good material is one who never lets a useful nugget slip away. You can be sure that for every book you've read and loved, there once existed a pile of notes. Emily Brontë paused while cooking, ironing, or kneading dough to make notes for Wuthering Heights. Balzac was never without a notebook. Anatole France recorded his nighttime thoughts on pieces of paper that he let pile up under his bed. When that elusive phrase you've been seeking finally comes to mind, write it down. Do this without fail, no matter how inconvenient it is to stop what you're doing and write. (No! Don't take your hands off the wheel! Just do it as soon as you can.)

A tidbit doesn't have to be earth-shaking to be worth saving. It only has to be useful. It can be something that gives you a smile, a twinge, a pang, a shiver, a few goose bumps. It might be a word that grabs you because of itssound or the images it evokes, or because it's your true love's favorite expression. It could be a name, a scrap of conversation, a magazine article, or simply a gesture, mannerism, or stray remark. If there's any chance you could use it in the memo or paper you're planning, save it. And when you make a note — this is important — add beside it a word or two explaining why you wrote it. Your note might look like this: "symbiosis — boss's favorite word." Or "schmooze — add to job description." Without a little reminder, you'll forget why you made the note. I recently came across a long-forgotten note of mine that said only "Mahler." This must have meant something once, but I can't remember what.

Make note-taking a habit. Carry with you a small notebook, a folded piece of paper, or a few file cards, and something to write with. This goes for the bedside table, too; add a little keychain flashlight. Stick with one system. If you're comfortable with file cards, stay with file cards, even if some well-meaning person gives you a gorgeous, expensive leather-bound journal. And keep the cards in the same spot, so that reaching for them becomes automatic.

Once you've made a note — whether on a file card, a page torn from a notebook, or a slip of paper — store it in a handy place. This is your stash. Just as a farmer has seed and a carpenter has lumber, a writer keeps a stash of material — promising words or phrases, news clippings, or idle notions.

The way you organize your stash depends on your personality. If you're one of those systematic types — all right, admit it — you might use an accordion file, with related notes neatly sorted by subject. My own notes tend to accumulate like heaps of nuclear waste. Eventually they reach critical mass and I have to transfer them to manila folders just to get my desk back.


Excerpted from "Words Fail Me"
by .
Copyright © 1999 Patricia T. O'Conner.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii
Introduction 1(8)
Part 1 Pull Yourself Together
Is Your Egg Ready to Hatch? Know the Subject
"The Party to Whom I Am Speaking": Know the Audience
Get with the Program: The Organized Writer
Commencement Address: The First Few Words
From Here to Uncertainty: How Am I Doing?
Part 2 The Fundamental Things Apply
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: Misbehaving Modifiers
Too Marvelous for Words: The Sensible Sentence
Made for Each Other: Well-Matched Sentences
Give Me a Break: Thinking in Paragraphs
The Elongated Yellow Fruit: Fear of Repetition
Training Wheels: Belaboring the Obvious
Critique of Poor Reason: The Art of Making Sense
Grammar Moses: Thou Shalt Not Embarrass Thyself
Down for the Count: When the Numbers Don't Add Up
Part 3 Getting Better All the Time
Lost Horizon: What's the Point of View?
Wimping Out: The Backward Writer
Everybody's Favorite Subject: I, Me, My
Promises, Promises: Making Them, Keeping Them
You Got Rhythm: Writing to the Beat
The Human Comedy: What's So Funny?
I Second That Emotion: Once More, 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
Appendix 222(1)
Bibliography 223(1)
Index 224

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Patricia Holt

Patricia O'Conner's commonsense approach is as entertaining as it is instructive....She has written a nifty guidebook to modern grammar that affectionately elbows the reader on every page.

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