Don't let words fail you — try O'Conner's new manual
At Notre Dame and Saint Mary's, none of us are strangers to writing. Even the business and math majors had to write an essay or two as part of their college applications.
So why the need for Patricia O'Conner's "Words Fail Me," an instructional treatise on the art? Perhaps because O'Conner takes an angle that few of our professors or TAs ever have: humor.
In the end, "Words Fail Me" delivers a lesson that is pithy, witty and dripping with years of personal experience.
After several years as editor of the New York Times Book Review and publishing in both Newsweek and the New York Times, O'Conner is certainly qualified to instruct.
O'Conner's simple, clear prose exemplifies her expertise, and her experience from a lifetime in the field of professional writing offers a wealth of personal anecdotes, funny enough to keep the reader moving while offering hope to even the most frustrated writer.
Humor is key to O'Conner's stories, which discuss everything from friends in the steamy romance novel industry employed to catch details like 15 month pregnancies (details can get tricky) to little-known facts about well-known authors.
Essentially, "Words Fail Me" says many of the same things we've been taught since elementary school — use strong verbs and vivid descriptors, avoid the passive tense — but it does it in a way that doesn't feel like school.
For O'Conner's college-age audience, that's the most important thing. Her chapters are short, averaging three to 10 pages, and her examples direct.
Most appealingly, her wit is sharp, refreshing and ever-present.
The reader needn't look beyond chapter titles to recognize the wit contained within; subject lines like "Pompous Circumstances: Hold the Baloney" and "Give Me a Break: Thinking In Paragraphs" promise to keep the pages turning.
Of course, behind these titles, O'Conner continues to spoon-feed the humor.
For example, when urging her readers to take notes whenever struck by an idea, however inconvenient, she is quick to interject,"No! Don't take your hands off the wheel. Just do it as soon as you can."
At the heart of the book, O'Conner's humor gives way to her second strongest point: universality.
As college students, we look to her for tips to dazzle our professors, which she no doubt delivers (not to mention some great commentary on "academic gobbledygook" and the rampant abuse of the English language that occurs in academia).
But her advice reaches way beyond the scope of academic and even fiction writing techniques, and approaches the realm of everyday usefulness — an area which seems overly accessible but which many writers of O'Conner's caliber tend to neglect.
O'Conner writes for everyone from the novelists to the house wife giving "a talk at [her] local gardening club on repotting bonsai." The majority of her advice applies to the range of writing that falls in between.
O'Conner starts at the beginning and leaves nothing out. She instructs on note taking, on subject forming, organization, tenses, grammar, style, rhythm, emotion, honesty and countless other aspects that compose quality writing.
O'Conner goes so far as to use her acknowledgment section to actually give advice on how to write good acknowledgments at the opening of a book, which "enable you to shamelessly drop names without seeming immodest."
Even in this pre-introductory section of her book, O'Conner reminds the reader that "Words Fail Me" functions not only as a tool, but as an example of what that tool can fashion, what her knowledge of writing can produce.
O'Conner follows nearly every one of her own rules, conscious enough of her reader to excuse herself when she breaks them (but she also notes that justified breaking of the rules is sometimes necessary for great art).
O'Conner constantly points to her own prose and composition to reinforce a concept she is explaining, revealing a gift for teaching that nearly parallels her aptitude for writing.
Ultimately, "Words Fail Me" makes for a much more enjoyable read than anything you would find on a university course list.
O'Conner parallels Bill Strunk's "Elements of Style" in content (a book often seen on requirement lists for Core and other introductory literature classes within the College of Arts and Letters), but far surpasses it in readability.
Her advice is relevant, her prose amusing, her scope universal, yet personal at the same time.
As O'Conner's own counsel goes, "a good writer can find humor in almost everything." By taking a subject that is usually anything but amusing and transforming it into something fun, interesting and animated, she proves her point beautifully.
"Words Fail Me" stands as a testament to the joys of writing and to the fruits of a labor that doesn't have to be one.
So to the business student writing study abroad applications or to the English major who has lost passion for the art of articulation, take solace in O'Conner's words — they anything but fail her.
All Scene Stories for Wednesday, January 31, 2001