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.
|Publisher:||San Val, Incorporated|
About 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.