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The Power of Words

(from teacher, writer and friend Chris Swann)

edu180atl: chris swann 9.19.12

by edu180atl on September 19, 2012

There is a poster in my classroom that reads, “Words hurt. Words heal. Words mean.” As an English teacher, I tend to treat written words as almost sacred objects. I constantly ask my students if they are using the best words to say what they want to say. I point out how poets are obsessed with words, how Hart Crane paged through an unabridged dictionary to find the right two-syllable word for a line of verse. (He finally stopped at “spindrift.”)

For all this professed power of words, I often fail to pay attention to my own. A few years ago, I rebuked a senior for plagiarizing and reported him for disciplinary action. Later that day, as I was getting ready to go home, the same senior knocked on my office door and asked if we could talk. Irritably I glanced at my watch and said, “Yeah, I’ve got five minutes. What do you need?” He closed the door behind him, fell into a chair, and began sobbing. He had come to ask me for help in facing his parents. That took guts. And in a teachable moment, I failed him.

Words are tools, and we are imperfect craftsmen. Even great poets like Tennyson write lines like “Form! form! Riflemen form!…Look to your butts, and take good aims!” But adults who work in schools have a unique influence on, and responsibility for, students. We should model a wiser and more deliberate use of words.

Words hurt. Words heal. Words mean.

About the author: Chris Swann—English department chair at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School—is a teacher, reader, writer, husband, and dad…not necessarily in that order.

Watching the London Olympics has reminded me what a solitary sport writing is. I hear swimmers talk about how “medaling” made it worth it—all those mornings of getting up early and plummeting into cold water.

Each time we begin a new project, we face a blank page. For me, it used to be staring down a sheet of copy paper rolled into my standard, portable, Olivetti typewriter; later, it was an old Underwood. Now it’s the lighted screen on my Mac laptop.

But the page is just as blank.

Franz Kafka once described writing as being “utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.” And E.B. White lauded the sheer courage of writers, saying, “I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all.”

But a spark of inspiration helps us to begin. This courage that White describes nudges us to continue. And dedication, hard work, and discipline—so familiar to Olympic athletes—can accompany us to the end. We won’t find ourselves on a medal stand in some arena, with the American anthem playing as our flag ascends, but we will feel that special satisfaction and the sheer joy of having written.

“I think I did pretty well, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank paper.”—Steve Martin



E.B. White at work in his boathouse office.


A Quick, Virtual Trip to SCBWI Conference

The Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) has its big summer conference coming up on Aug. 3-6 in Los Angeles. Even if you can’t attend the conference, make it a point to check out information from the official conference blog.

You’ll find author interviews, information on new books, and helpful links—not to mention the names of some “powerhouse agents.” Pour some iced tea or a glass of cool lemonade and take a quick virtual trip. You may not come back with a t-shirt and totebag full of information, but you’ll pick up some encouragement and some tips along the way.

Visit the conference at: http://scbwiconference.blogspot.com/

Writing prompts are a good way to exercise your creativity or help you get started on something you’ve been wanting to begin. “Agent Courtney” (Vicky Alvear Shecter’s agent) has a writing prompt contest now through Aug. 26, 2011. The winner will get a query letter critiqued. Just go with this beginning sentence: “The last thing he remembered was…”
See Agent Courtney’s instructions on her blog: http://agentcourtney.blogspot.com/2011/07/writing-prompt-2.html?spref=fb
And here’s my own entry, a way to nudge myself on that Civil War historical novel I’ve been wanting to write. Good luck, everyone.

The last thing he remembered was the sweet summer morning—and a lingering stillness. A tangle of Confederate jasmine clutched the fence post to his left, and Jacob detected this familiar fragrance of home even as he lay on the ground with his rifle, waiting for the signal to attack. He would never forget the wet grass, the warm, honeyed air, and the soft hum of such an unspoiled, early morning.

For several years, I’ve been doing book editing and manuscript critiques for SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), and I’ve noticed that aspiring writers tend to make many of the same mistakes. So maybe while we’re all beginning to think about spring cleaning at home, it’s a good time to consider cleaning up manuscript copy, too.

Here are a few things to look for before turning your manuscript over to an editor or publisher:

Check spacing. Put one space between sentences. (I know that that’s not what many of us were taught years ago, but Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist then either!)

Check spelling. This seems like a no-brainer but every writer should go through a manuscript looking for words that pass the spellcheck test and yet are still incorrect—like “she could hardly breath” instead of “she could barely breathe.” I keep dictionary.com minimized on my desktop while I’m working. Then I can pull it up and check spelling and words for the Thesaurus while I’m working.

Make sure a dash is a DASH. A string of hyphens (—) does not an emdash make. On a Mac, the long emdash is made by holding down “shift” and “option,” and then hitting the “hyphen” key. Voila! A dash: —. A shorter endash is made by holding down “option” and then the hyphen key: –.

Use transition words. And then, and so, next, after…all of these can help make the action travel along smoothly instead of jerking forward like boxcars.

Check for common grammatical errors, like writing “we laid down” instead of “we lay down.”

Be consistent with caps. Sometimes a word is capped in one place and then down-sized a paragraph or so later. If you have a longish book, create a style guide to help you remember what you decided to do.

WREN COTTAGE Writing & Editing

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”
—William Wordsworth