Wednesday, February 11, 2015

"Words Fail Me" by Patricia O'Conner

          "What is written without effort is generally read without pleasure." Samuel Johnson

Words Fail Me  What everyone who writes should know about writing; Harcourt Brace & Co., 1999 by Patricia O'Conner is a gem of a book for beginning writers.  It was easy to read and gives sensible, useful tips to make you a better writer. Good writing goes beyond mastery of words. "Good writing is writing that works, " states O'Conner. She believes a writer must have an understanding of the heart, the world and life. You have to have a capacity to make judgments. Following the rules, most of the time, will get you good writing. These are philosophies that she comes back to often.

The chapters are divided into sensible categories filled with humorous sentences of wisdom. "Crummy spelling," says O'Conner, "is more noticeable than crummy anything else." Her most important rule is "Your first duty to the reader is to make sense. Everything else -- eloquence, beautiful images, catchy phrases, melodic and rhythmic language -- comes later, if at all. I'm all for artistry, but it's better to write something homely and clear than something lovely and unintelligible."

Here are some compelling ideas she advocates.

1. Know your audience. Determine what things your audience (readers) have in common. Every choice you make is influenced by these communities. Write what you would like them to read. O'Conner says your writing will be clearer if you start with these tenets in place. Writing for ten year olds about pioneer cooking is different than writing about pioneer cooking for adult women. 
   Picture your reader, make him or her friendly and on your side, with you in this road you are both traveling. "Readers are not Olympic judges." They want to enjoy the time spent together. 
 Respect their intelligence by not talking down to them. 

2. Her mantra is: WHAT do I want to say, "HOW do I want to say it, and WHY do I want to say it. Write down ideas as they come to you. Also write a list of things you want to tell your readers. She calls this her "stash."  Cull from the stash and keep what you want in another place but never delete any ideas permanently. Change is fine. You can move ideas around once you get the basics down. The first two sentences of each paragraph must be strong.

3. According to O'Conner, there are several beginnings and a good beginning can win an audience for life.
   Summary beginnings...tell what you are going to tell them, tell them why it needs saying and how you will do it.
   Anecdotal beginnings...start with a short story or joke. These must be relevant to the topic of the rest of the story and age appropriate.
  Physical descriptions...set the scene by describing where the characters are and what they look like with their names.
  Leisurely opening...very hard to write. James Michener comes to mind It took him three chapters to tell you the sun was rising over Maui in his book  Hawaii. Audiences in today's fast paced world do not tolerate well leisurely openings.

4. Give yourself enough time to write. Set a schedule that you can stick to based on the other activities in your life. Some of us have school age children so our free time in between 9:00 and 2:00 with domestic chores thrown in. Others work at a job that negates free time from 7:30 AM to 6:00PM. Look at your schedules and determine what works. It may be every Saturday from 1:00-5:00PM or two hours daily.
 Every writer  has a time limit of how long he can write. Know yours. 
 O'Conner says that if you quit writing before your scheduled time, do not reward yourself with something pleasant like a cookie or reading for 20 minutes. Do some icky job until your scheduled writing time expires. 

Part 2 of this book: The Fundamental Things

1. "If you have done your homework, you do not have to disguise it in showy language." Use short words. Hemingway says that you need a built in  (paraphrased) baloney detector. Readers know inflated language versus true ideas expressed well. 
2. Short paragraphs are easier to read.
3. "Find an interesting verb and the rest of the sentence will take care of itself." Strong verbs don't need propping up. "He walked with a swagger." versus "He swaggered." "The meal took three hours to be eaten" versus, "They ate for three hours." Keep nouns and verbs close together to avoid confusion.
 Use single modifiers not " wet, red, snow-encrusted face."
4. Read your work aloud listening for cliches, boring phrases and stilted sentences.
5. Put the modifying item last. "This restaurant serves pumpkin ravioli, linguine and pasta." What it really serves is linguine, pasta and pumpkin ravioli.
6. Remove "training wheels" in your writing. " that is pleasing to the ear" and "...dancer is graceful on her feet." (How else would music be pleasing?)
7. Use exclamation points sparingly and never in multiples.

Part 3: Getting Better All The Time

1. Maintain the appropriate tone throughout. Good writing is not comedic in one part and grisly in another. Match the tone to the subject matter. 
2. "Rewriting is more than correcting what is wrong but pushing further what is acceptable."
O'Conner says to do a final analysis of your writing.
-----Do I still like the beginning?
-----Can I be simpler?
-----Do I make sense?
-----Do my numbers add up?
-----Do my sentences hang together?
-----Do I need every word modifier?
-----Have I got rhythm?
-----Am I playing the same tune throughout (tone of ideas)?
-----Am I using the right image?
-----Have I made my case?
-----How's my grammar?

I give this book five stars. She uses excellent examples for every point she makes. One final piece of advice from Patricia O'Conner: Any problem can be solved---sometimes by throwing it out.

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