Words Fail Me

Words Fail Me by Patricia T. O'Conner

Book: Words Fail Me by Patricia T. O'Conner Read Free Book Online
Authors: Patricia T. O'Conner
variety is creativity, many of them go through painful contortions to avoid using an important word twice:
As the Cardinal briefed the Pope on plans for the Holy Father's visit, His Eminence told His Holiness that the Pontiffs trip was eagerly awaited by worshipers who had never seen God's Vicar in person.
    If you're guilty of writing like that, cease and desist. Skilled writers (some are even journalists) know they can use repetition to their advantage, building power with each echo of a word or phrase or sound. You're already familiar with some famous examples, from Shakespeare ("And Brutus is an honorable man") to Lincoln ("of the people, by the people, for the people") to James Joyce ("and yes I said yes I will Yes")to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. ("I have a dream"). Thank heavens they didn't avoid repeating themselves. What if Poe's Raven had squawked "Nevermore" only once and never more? I cringe to imagine it:
Quoth the Raven, "Fat chance,
" or "
In a pig's eye,
" or "
Not bloody likely.
    Variety is a wonderful thing, and I'm not putting it down. But when carried to ridiculous extremes, it has a monotony of its own.
Nicely Nicely
    The same can be said of repetition, of course. There are times when enough is enough is enough. Gertrude Stein, who nearly made a fetish of repetition, has been both
ridiculed and acclaimed for it. You can decide for yourself. Here's a typical passage of hers:
    "He had been nicely faithful. In being one he was one who had he been one continuing would not have been one continuing being nicely faithful. He was one continuing, he was not continuing to be nicely faithful. In continuing he was being one being the one who was saying good good, excellent but in continuing he was needing that he was believing that he was aspiring to be one continuing to be able to be saying good good, excellent."
    One editor turned down a manuscript of Stein's with this explanation: "Being only one, having only one pair of eyes, having only one time, having only one life, I cannot read your MS three or four times. Not even one time. Only one look, only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one."

16. Training Wheels
    Remember when you needed training wheels to ride a bike? Well, some grown-ups still use them—when they write. They shore up their prose, belaboring the obvious with unnecessary words.
    When you write with props, you don't say merely that a melody is pleasing, you say that it's pleasing
to the ear.
A dancer isn't just graceful, she's graceful
on her feet.
Take off the training wheels. You don't need them and neither do your readers.
    You'll have to search carefully for props in your writing because they're hidden in plain sight. The obvious, as we all know, can be hard to see.
    Look first at phrases starting with prepositions (
by, for, in, of, on, to,
and so on), and be sure they're necessary. This sentence includes a classic example of an unnecessary prop:
Tom planned
in advance
to steal the jam.
Since planning is generally done ahead of time, who needs
in advance?
    People toss off redundant expressions when their minds are elsewhere. Pretty soon they don't notice them. Someone fond of prop words might write a real estate flyer that reads like this:
The Neo-Tuscan farmhouse is filled
to the rafters
with charm. Barn-red
in color,
it is built of handmade Belgian brick that was flown in
by plane
from Bruges. Situated on a rise
of ground
amid formal gardens, the house is minimalist
in design
yet spacious
in size.
It's an easy drive
by car
to prime shopping, and a leisurely walk
on foot
to a secluded nature preserve.
    A prepositional phrase that doesn't add anything should be subtracted. If you're unsure, just imagine that the phrase isn't there. Then, if it isn't missed, drop it. Don't put up with things that are
to the taste,
to the touch,
in manner,
in build,
around the edge,

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