Tag Archives: words

Vigor takes work

E.B. White, writing in Maine

I just reread Elements of Style, and several bits of wisdom have taken residence in my mind.  This was the first time I’ve read the fourth edition.  I found the updates to this edition helpful, in particular, some of the tidbits in the final section on style.  If you haven’t read it, do.

I’ve been working through a novel, editing, pruning, and rearranging.  Strunk and White remind me of point 22, on p. 32 of this edition: “Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.”  This can apply to sentences, paragraphs, lines of poetry, and even words: the beginning and end of these units carry the most power, the most weight.  The middle can be incidental, or worse, ignored.  Here’s a clever example (possibly urban legend, but interesting anyway) of how words can work with mixed up middles becoming invisible, and yet the content is still clear.  (Thanks to my friend Lara for digging this up when my human memory failed.):

“Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”

Beginnings and ends of these words are stable, are what we expect, and therefore they guide in reading through the garble.

Another thing that Elements of Style illustrates is more visual than literal.  Writers have to learn the twin arts of making a mess (making a creation, a draft) and then cleaning it up (editing, revising).  If you look at the layout of the examples in Strunk and White, you could consider the left column (before the makeover) as the making of the mess, and the right column (after the makeover) as cleaning it up.  I’m going to use this idea when I talk to students.  I think it helps to put the implicit and explicit judgment of Strunk and White into a context: all writing is a process, a walking through and then away from the muddy, toward the clear.  Start somewhere.  Edit as needed, strive to improve the mess, to communicate better.

Maybe the most important advice is point 17, on p. 23, “Omit needless words.”  An anthem for some people who write, an ideal to strive toward.  I’ve been polishing, weeding the needless, plucking extraneous words from overburdened sentences.  Sometimes it takes years to realize a word is needless.  Omit needless words is a noble mantra and practice.  With time, I could whittle this paragraph down even more than I have, but in the battle between how the blogosphere measures time and my tendency toward perfectionism, I go for speed and risk flaws.  This time, for the first time, I found (or noticed) the sub-mantra of Omit needless words on p. 19, under point 14.  “Note, in the examples above, that when a sentence if made stronger, it usually becomes shorter.  Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.”

It’s worth repeating: “…brevity is a by-product of vigor.”

That is such a beautiful fact, and beautifully put.  No wonder I am tired, this revision has been vigorous.  The novel is shorter.  And, I hope, stronger.

Shut up and sing the song

Jack Hardy’s (magic) green velvet coat

When a songwriter at Jack Hardy’s weekly songwriters group would explain what he or she was about to sing, Jack Hardy would say, “Shut up and sing the song.”  Abrupt, and to some, rude, but a valid procedural point for a workshop, even more notable in its good advice to the writer.

Let the work speak for itself.  If something is  important enough, yet is not on the page, or in the lyrics, put it in there.  Rework or revise it later if you need to, if what you mean is not conveyed through your magic lattice of words, sounds, syllables.

I’ve stolen Jack’s  line when approaching fiction workshops: it applies.  I feel very rude ever telling someone to “shut up,” and usually preface it with context.  As an imperative to action, “Shut up and sing the song” is simple and worth doing.  (I’m talking to myself, too.  For years, I whined about how I wanted to write and yet was not doing it.)  Shut up about what you want to do, wish you could do, mean to do, intend to do.

Shut up and sing the song.

Cutting, that fragile balance

Spring cleaning.

Having gained sufficient time and distance from the sentences in my novel, I’m cutting.  Many sentences have too many words.  Some need words rearranged, the most important word relocated to the end of the sentence, emphasizing the point.  There is something so refreshing about this process of paring down, pruning to make a thing flourish.  The trick is  balance: how to tell when you’re tinkering to tinker, when the first way was better.  Breathing with each sentence, the comfort of making them stronger, the comfort of those moments when I know I’ve made them better.

Delicious, rewarding, nerdy.  Yes.

The alpha and the omega

Something emerging...

I got this trick via Jim Krusoe, who attributes it to Carol Emshwiller.  (Thanks, Jim and Carol!)

Writers of fiction: Take the first and last words of a piece, then put them together.  The idea is that the resulting phrase might somehow relate to the whole.  Here are mine.

The Watery Girl: “Something emerging.”

The Eight Mile Suspended Carnival (which is rough and will surely change): “Mim hands.”

Both, weirdly, work.

Pith from Rebecca

Look closely: you will find pith here.

If your nouns and verbs can do the work, let them.  You’ll have little need for adjectives and adverbs.

(p.s. It’s a shame I can’t–or won’t–follow this advice.  I just tried that exercise where you take a page of your work and banish all adjectives and adverbs.  It wasn’t as bad as I thought, but it wasn’t as good as I’d hope.  Some things made no sense without the adjectives.  Worth trying, though, and worth keeping in mind as I write.)

A (very) short story about school

“I don’t remember much; I went outside and I ate some snow, and G– ate some snow, and we said, ‘num num num.’ “

The river of lost words

Trying to recreate words lost in the recent death of my hard drive (and overly old backup files).  Writers beware: back up your data.  (Or risk having to recreate.  I think the following might be better than what I had, but there was too much angst in the process of loss.)

Years before, opportunity had stolen most of the trees.  Bend, snap, cut went the rhythm of thieves.  Wood mill.  Trees sometimes fall naturally into water, storms come and leave their messes behind, but these logs were felled too fast, unnatural, and shipped down the river, money to be made.  They’d grow back, some said, but forgot to plant seedlings, no thought beyond the next greed-meal.  Just along the river, a few bushes remained in the thin trickle of lush.

Antioch Writers Workshop July 2010

Embroiled fully in this year’s Antioch Writers Workshop.  I love being around writers, talking about writing, writing with writers, the world cracking open before me.

Before the keynote on Saturday, I was driving to campus and feeling guilty, semi-taking a week off from child, home, life, to do the workshop, because sometimes it seems like choosing to be a writer is a silly luxury (but is it even a choice? I ask myself).


Then I realized (it’s so easy to REALIZE things while driving, isn’t it?) that all writing is really about life.  Whether fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, a person (who is alive) puts something on paper (or screen, or sand) and it means something to at least one person.  What else is life, if not that?

Lovely review of Wexler’s The Painting and The City

There’s a very nice review of my husband’s novel at OF Blog of the Fallen.  The reviewer, Larry, really seems to get at what I observed when I watched Robert work on the novel, when he says,

“Wexler’s novel felt as though it were a briskly-paced story that had been stripped of any extraneous fat, leaving the reader with a story that moves at a falsely languid pace until s/he realizes just how quickly things have developed and how engrossed s/he is with what has transpired.”



A word I like, that I first learned in high school French, “to work.”  Interesting that it has both these ideas in it, working over a sustained period, and giving birth.

Seems about right.