Sunday, September 19, 2010


By Earl Staggs

There’ve been some terrific, hard-to-follow entries here recently about the art and craft of writing. I thought I’d offer a slight change of pace with something on the lighter side. Hopefully, however, you’ll find a point made that’s worth the time it takes to read it.

I like the old anecdote about Stephen King. He gives us nightmares with his tales of terror and horror, but he actually has the heart of an innocent five year old. He keeps it in a glass jar on his desk.

I’m afraid my desk is not that interesting. On mine are only the basic tools.

There’s a big fat dictionary, of course. Without it, how would I ever remember how many m’s are in “accommodate?” Then I wonder why “accumulate” only rates one. Who decides these things? But I shouldn’t let myself be so easily distracted with the monumental questions in life when I should be writing.

Next to my dictionary sits Roget’s Super Thesaurus. This is the tool I use, primarily, to replace my humdrum verbs. After all, I shouldn’t be content with “hurried” when the more effectual “scurried” is available.

I know, I know. Both a dictionary and thesaurus are cached within my computer, only a mouse click away. But once in a while, I like to rest the mouse finger and use both hands on something with real paper and ink and pages I can thumb through instead of scrolling.

Next to those two large tomes resides the tiny and well-thumbed copy of Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.” Third Edition. With Index. After all these years of writing, I shouldn’t need reminders to “Use the active voice” and “Put statements in positive form,” but I do. Old habits adhere, especially bad ones.

While thinking about these basic tools, however, I found myself thinking of tools I might have if they were available. There I was being distracted again, but before I could bring myself back to being the disciplined writer, I came up with a Wish List of Writer’s Tools.

First, I’d need a whisk broom and dust pan. I’ll explain those in a minute.

The Wish List I compiled began with a series of buttons beside my keyboard. For example, I’d have a button labeled “Had/Was Eliminator.” A push of the button and every “had” and “was” phrase, those heralds of passive writing, would tumble out onto my desktop and be magically replaced with active and more engaging verbs and phrases. “I had left her a message at two o”clock, and it was now almost six” would become “I left her a message at two o’clock, nearly four hours ago.”

Next to that button, one labeled “Comma Relocator.” One push and the commas in the wrong place would move to where they grammatically belonged. Extra commas would fall onto the desktop to mingle with the had’s and was’s.

Another helpful button, the “Overused Words Exorcist,” would remove the words I habitually overuse. These would include “then” and “that” and “just.” A single push of the button, and they’d join the pile already building on my desktop and spilling over onto the floor.

By now, I was on a roll. I came up with buttons to fill plot gaps, add character depth, delete adverbs and more before I came to my senses and put an end to this craziness .

What was I thinking?

These buttons would make writing easier, for sure. No longer would I have to endlessly revise, tweak, and polish. No longer would I sweat and swear for hours to make my work tight, concise and clear. That’s doing it the hard way and takes a lot of time, thought, and effort. Doint it the hard way is a tiresome, frustrating process fraught with periods of wondering why I ever wanted to be a writer in the first place.

But you know what? Doing it the hard way earns me the right to pump my fist in the air and shout “Yes!” when it’s finished and it’s right. When that little fat lady peeks out from behind the final paragraph and belts out a tune, I can sing along. I did it the hard way and I deserve to join in the chorus and celebrate the accomplishment of a tough job well done.

Besides, writing’s never been easy and shouldn’t be. If it were easy, anyone could do it and we writers wouldn’t be special.

So I shredded my Wish List. I’ll stick to my basic tools and doing it the hard way.

But I kept the whisk broom and dust pan. Even writing the hard way produces piles of had’s, was’s, excess commas, overused and other extraneous words on the desktop and floor. They need to be swept up and properly disposed of. Otherwise, the little buggers will breed and multiply.



Mark W. Danielson said...

Loved the post, Earl. Sounds like a great wish list. Rather than extra buttons, I've found reading everything aloud usually identifies the errors most of us include on our first drafts. What looks good on paper sure sounds different out loud.

Jan Christensen said...

Clever, clever, and I could use those buttons, for sure. To say nothing of the whisk broom!

Morgan Mandel said...

I like the comma one and also the overused words one. It would save me a lot of time. I kind of know where to put the commas, but it seems it changes a lot.

Morgan Mandel