22 January 2010

A miniature writing lesson...

I've been enjoying a book called "The Courage to Write-How Writers Transcend Fear" by Ralph Keyes. It's a lot of fun to read and he has so many helpful insights. On page 108 he talks about a lesson he uses to teach his students about using plain language instead of trying to impress the reader with a lot of fancy vocabulary. Here is that quote:

"To remind students that no one has a monopoly on good writing, I sometimes read aloud from the back of a little bottle of insect repellent:

Don't goop on. Three drops for hands and face is plenty. Rub in well. For chiggers apply sparingly on tops of shoes and socks and along openings of clothing. Repeat as needed. Special Cream Formula goes into pores: lasts longer; won't be sticky, stinky, or greasy; won't injure guns, tackle, or clothes when used as directed.

My students and I analyze this piece of writing. The smallnesss of its forum enforces economy of expression. That's good. Also, the "Directions" genre calls for (but seldom gets) such clear, active language. We pause to worry over goop. Is this word too colloquial? Does it call too much attention to itself? No better alternative suggests itself. Goop gives a graphic picture of the act in question. So goop it is. Stinky is another venturesome term that does its job, and stands in poetic juxtaposition to the word sticky. This piece of writing is a success. It's clear. It's vigorous. It has good rhythm. The writer accomplished her mission." (Ralph Keyes-The Courage to Write)

Cute, huh? This would-be writer (me) is hoping to find the encouragement needed to actually write that 'tween novel!


  1. I never would have thought of the directions on back of a bottle could be a writing lesson. But it makes sense that it's directness would be so effective in writing.


  2. I take it that the goop-y quote is from the book? It's a great excerpt and a wonderful lesson. I often find myself reading shampoo bottles in the shower -- my eyes seem to constantly rove about looking for words to fix on -- and I have analyzed the syntax of many brands, usually finding it wanting

  3. Yes, that quote was from the book. And thanks for making me aware that I didn't do a very good job of letting readers know that it's a quote! :) Thanks for reading so many of my posts today! Have a great day!