How to Improve Your Writing – Part 2: from Confucius to Lincoln

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1 English textbook

1 Style Guide, Illustrated

4 Writers:  Confucius to Lincoln

le mot juste

Improve writing immediately, ages 9 to 99

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I sat down with an English textbook* and read through the lessons on improving writing style. They go beyond grammar and mechanics (capitalization and punctuation), good content, and logical organization. It’s the final book in the curriculum, so publishers assume readers know the essentials.

The first lesson discusses originality. If you haven’t read the letter on originality, please do so. The writing samples span centuries, yet illustrate fresh, colorful language.

The second element of good writing is the use of Exact Words. Social media, texts, email, sadly even hand-written cards, are filled with—I will say what you have undoubtedly observed—trash words.

Trash words. That’s what I call them. When everything is awesome and beautiful, and totally or actually, you know, literally epic, then nothing is. They are suitable at the Java House with Jack. They are not appropriate for a college essay or a business memorandum. 

It’s easy to be generic. It’s hard to be specific.

The textbook focuses on five elements and its aim is to make your writing effective. Effective means the type of writing people want to read.

  1. originality
  2. exact words the topic of this letter
  3. active voice
  4. figurative language
  5. triplets, as in a set of phrases

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The Teacher’s Manual is open to Part 2 lesson on writing. The classical model shows examples for study.

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PART 2. EXACT WORDS

          

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Purpose: To emphasize that exact words contribute to an effective writing style. By choosing nouns, verbs, and modifiers that say precisetly what you mean, you will make your writing sharp and clear rather than vague and fuzzy. My children used this series during a year of travel. A few reviewers found it drab, colorless, and boring which is understandable, though only in part. Here’s an excerpt.

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Why write “the noise of the old tractor” when the “the put-put of the old John Deere” describes the scene exactly? Look at your verbs. Do they state specifically what the subject does or is? Why write “Mother put more flour into the bread dough” when “Mother kneaded more flour into the bread dough” tells precisely what she did?

Lesson 19. Improve Your Writing Style, Part 2: Exact Words, p. 74

Tractors and breadmaking seem dated as topics. I don’t mind dated or drab when the lesson achieves its end. I prefer it. This chart contrasts vague words such as things, get and got, make and made, with exact words.

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VagueExact
The huge animal was eating some little things.The elephant was eating some peanuts.
I got the five dollars for mowing that lawn.I earned fived dollars for mowing that lawn.
Two of my rabbits have gotten away.Two of my rabbits have escaped.
We made it to the airport in timeWe arrived at the airport in time.
Our team made ten points.Our team scored ten points

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What do plain-English stylists Strunk and White think of Exact Words? Rule 16 from their guide, The Elements of Style, is one of the elementary principles of composition.

Rule 16. Use definite, specific, concrete language.

Here are examples from Strunk and White.

A period of unfavorable weather set in.It rained every day for a week.
He showed satisfaction as he took possession of his well-earned reward.He grinned as he pocketed the coin.
The Elements of Style (Illustrated), p. 37

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le mot juste

Gustave Flaubert coined the French term, mot juste, which refers to the word or phrase that is exactly right in a particular situation. (Cambridge Dictionary) Pronounced: mō ˈZHo͞ost.

Writing professionals struggle with the mot juste. John McPhee wrote–I believe it was him–that he would leave a mark or filler word and continue, a reminder to later flesh it out. Such endeavors require a search and take time.

Works cited in this letter and illustrated style guide

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Check out the word choices and originality in these passages from recent reading, beginning with Confucius and ending with Lincoln.

1. He that is really Good can never be unhappy. He that is really wise can never be perplexed. He that is really brave is never afraid. Confucius (551-479 BC), Book IX, 28.

This is a translation by Arthur Whaley. The three words are specific traits Confucius has observed over a long life. The order is intentional and Good has a capital G because it is primary. Whaley annotates this verse: Goodness, wisdom and courage are the Three Ways of the true gentleman. Cf. XIV, 30. Confucius always ranks courage below wisdom and wisdom below Goodness.

3. Kurt smashed the body of his guitar into the security guard’s head, tearing open his flesh, drawing streams of blood that immediately started pouring down his sinister Mohawk. (Dave Grohl the Storyteller: Tales of life and music, 2021, p. 156.)

Antithetical in topic to the first quote, the words are so vivid I wince when I read it. The verb, smash, the tearing open, the streams of blood and that modifier, sinister describe the stage and the horror that awaits them in a chapter titled, We were surrounded and there was no way out. Nirvana and Kurt Cobain return to finish the set, the stage still wet with blood. They will have to contend with Mr. Mohawk.

3. SPOILER ALERT. He’d carried on to a small, lighted chapel where he found more than a dozen young women and girls, down on their hands and knees with tins of old-fashioned lavender polish and rags, polishing their hearts out in circles on the floor. (Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, 2021, p. 43)

The title has the word, things and these, both vague. But, the author uses mystery to create tension. What things like these? You can smell the polish in the dimly lit chapel. My own heart hurts when I “see” what the protagonist didn’t like to believe only moments before he stumbles onto this scene. The Orwell Prize-winning author exposes the Magdelene laundries in Ireland in the1980s.

4. Theirs was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; ‘tis ours only, to transmit these, the former unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. (Abraham Lincoln’s address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. January 27, 1838)

Scholars believe that the foundational ideas in the Gettysburg Address arose from this speech 25 years earlier. What is evident is Lincoln’s rhetoric: a goodly land with its hills and valleys, and the edifice of liberty and equal rights. Using persuasive writing with carefully thought-out words, he envisions our nation, our home, and the edifice we have built to secure liberties and equal rights not just for his generation, but for the future, one untorn by the invader or usurper. And the modifiers he chooses: unprofaned by the foot of the invader for the land and undecayed for the edifice. Lincoln has such reverence for the reader’s intelligence.

These writers use Exact Words. Analyze the vocabulary and order of words, contrasting them with words they could have used. Each sentence is original, fresh, colorful in a way that reflects the tone of the broader work and its author’s voice.

An effective style takes years of effort to seem effortless. Make the effort to use exact words. It is common for me to have ten to twenty or more revisions per letter. Is this my best? No. But is it good, good enough? Maybe.

Be honest about your writing. Does it have trash words and vague, fuzzy modifiers and verbs?

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IMPROVE WRITING IMMEDIATELY

What is it you want to say? If you know the structure, an outline is helpful. Start simple and note main ideas. In creative writing when you have little to no structural requirements, begin by shoveling the sh*t from your head to the page. You edit, revise, and cut excess later. Dictate into your phone then send it to yourself. A topic or kernel, even a prompt you devise, are starting points. ChatGPT or AI may be useful, but beware! Such answers are easy to spot because they draw on existing sources.

So be you. There’s no one else like you. Find your content and organize in a logical arrangement, then write.

When you write the first draft, write LONG. Set it aside for an hour, a day. Then read it to find out what it is you care about and wish to focus on. Write three drafts: first, second, and final.

Use EXACT WORDS. During revision make sure to cut cliches, vague words, and trash words. Use definite, specific, concrete words. Be original.

And, slow down to figure out what it is you want to say. Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. And, that writing will be worth reading.

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FOOTNOTES

*This is Part 2 of 5 lessons on How to Improve Your Writing. Parts 3, 4, and 5 are yet to come. Please read Part 1 if you missed it, link below.

  1. originalityHow to Improve Your Writing – Part I: from Tolstoy to Grohl
  2. exact words the topic of this letter
  3. active voice
  4. figurative language
  5. triplets, as in a set of phrases

*Let it be known that I break rules. All the time. Fragments–such as the last sentence–have their place. Of Orwell’s six rules for better writing the final rule is applicable here: vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. If you’re new to THL (TreeHouseLetter), take a moment for the Footnotes, because this is where I share fun stuff, disclaimers and tidbits not available on podcast, or in the main letter, but reserved for the curious and the tenacious. And, because further explanation would disrupt the flow, but are worth the mention. Beyond Orwell’s barbarism, for the love of language and effective communication, break the rules if the proposition and the writing require it. That is, when rhythm and movement on the line, the message, the broader context of the work and a writerly instinct demand it.

*Astute readers recognize this letter as classic prose, written between equals: the writer and the reader. As an intellectual and philosophical activity, classic writing means the author has done her thinking before writing. I am presenting the results. The propositions are given and reviewed for consideration with examples for study. Are these the end-all, be-all of writing or good composition? Of course not. Orwell has six rules, Strunk and White have 84 pages of rules, and so on. There are many styles and standards. I share these five because most will benefit from them–myself included–and they are easy enough to use and improve writing immediately. Classic Prose: Thought and Presentation, TreeHouseLetter July 21, 2023.

*Communicating Effectively, English 9 & 10, Pub. 2003. Some years ago, I invested in an English program when I took my children out of school to travel. Parents asked about what I would do for school. So, I built a curriculum for my three children, since my husband and I had both taught in college. I chose Rod & Staff Building Christian English–this textbook is the final book in the English series–because I thought my children should know how to write and it was the best program I could find. Schools and an increasingly secular society find such content off-putting, and at times my children found the text humorous. My father learned Latin and English for catechism, and he credits the nuns in parochial school for ensuring every child left the classroom with a knowledge of English. They were not paid in dollars and they would, by God, do everything to make sure he knew his letters. He would become a teacher, a principal and a diplomat.

**William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. The Elements of Style, Illustrated by Maira Kalman, 2007. Who knew there was an illustrated writing guide? A present from my child some years ago, this is the very type of gift I relish. You would benefit equally as a writer if you invested in the classic (un-illustrated) version, but that would be drab and colorless, though of course, far from boring.

Rule 15 has illustrations of would, should, could. The rule closes with this: “If your every sentence admits a doubt, your writing will lack authority. Save the auxiliaries would, should, could, may, might, and can for situations involving real uncertainty.”

Mar 12, 2024

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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