Sunday, September 27, 2009


“When words are scarce they are seldom spent in vain.” William Shakespeare

I am a detail-oriented individual. I believe I inherited this trait from my father, who researches everything before buying or pursuing. It was also an important skill to use with my mother, if I was ever to win an argument. Being meticulous when choosing words is something to which I aspire.

As a writer, it’s a fine-line between the text being enriched versus muddled. Is it better for a character to be incredibly disappointed or dismayed? Each word must be chosen with care. If I get feedback from an editor, I must take it to heart to improve my piece. Is there too much dialogue or not enough? Is the manuscript bogged down with details about surroundings or are there too few? Is the internal monologue superfluous or an inadequate explanation of internal motivations? Editors and agents have told me to show and not tell. I often think about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The Scarlet Letter, which initially goes on for pages, describing scenes in minute detail with no dialogue. I doubt an editor would offer Mr. Hawthorne a contract today. Is it detail or minutia?

Striking the right balance of detail is crucial in writing and teaching. Students can only listen so long, no matter how exciting a lesson I try to teach. I need to give enough detail to make the material clear, but not so much that they tune me out. It’s also crucial to provide analogies, so they can relate to a theory that is otherwise unclear. Their feedback helps me tailor my lessons, for if a student’s question demonstrates that s/he is lost, I need to try again. Was it my words that confused the student or the method of delivery? How can I make myself clear?

Being misunderstood in writing, teaching, or conversation is frustrating. I want to always be concise about what I am trying to communicate. Writing is the easiest because I can reedit until I get it right. And I can bestow perfect words upon the lips of my characters. Teaching is a bit harder – I aspire for clarity in the moment, the next class, or the following year, when that lesson comes up again. I often wish I was the type of person who was meticulous in selecting each word that I uttered. I've always admired people who exercise that type of restraint.

In conversation, there’s often less care in choosing words. And if words aren’t chosen correctly, they can degenerate into a misunderstanding. Then, trying to remedy a misunderstanding can quickly deteriorate into an argument. Only words will ameliorate the situation, so choose carefully.


  1. A dear friend of mine once told me....make sure your words are always sweet-because chances are you may have to go back and eat them. I understand your struggle with words...I have had it my whole life. For me- It's not what I found in in books, but in my own heart....out of the abundance my own heart-my mouth speaks. Writing for me is also an introspective look at myself...
    I agree with you...and with them I have learned to infuse and defuse, love and be loved.

  2. I like your friend's philosophy Barbra, but if it's true I'm in big trouble.
    Thanks for your comment.

  3. I'm the kind of person who always measures and pre-thinks than rethinks every word I utter (yes it's true! Those horrible puns I make are premeditated!). But I'm sure I come off to a lot of people as cold and even artificial at times.

    I've only ever taught in a context where people voluntarily came to me, the dynamic is undoubtedly different than a classroom full of kids.

    I suppose there's a balance to be found there. Between spontaneity, and premeditation. Some of the most effective teachers I know give the impression (true or not I don't know) that their natural impulse is to say the spot on right thing, and so they just let themselves go and sweep up most of the class with them. Perhaps you're one of those?

  4. Alesa, I'm amazed over your command of the English language.

    For me, I plan lessons to degree, but what I say is often spontaneous. Besides, no matter how much I plan, students tend to ask questions I didn't plan for, making me puzzle it out aloud. In many ways, it's like a performance, and I try to do my best one so the kids are engaged and learning.

  5. You are? Lol, I'm not sure how to react to that? Thanks I guess... English is the language I have the least trouble with, and the one I use the most, my lover is from RI, I work/read/play/listen to music mostly in English. Shrug, I guess it's normal that my English comes out ok. :7

    Heheh... That reminds me of a this temp-trainee in my office. I helped him out with some puter problems and recommended a couple nearby restaurants. When he left, he said to me, "You know, all things considered, your french isn't bad!"
    He was comically chagrined to hear I was french (half, but I didn't mention that). We had a laugh about it.

    Nodnod, I know exactly what you mean when you compare the class to a performance. In many ways my work is like that too.

  6. @ Alesa, is French your first language or did you grow up bilingual? I figured since you live and grew up in France, it's the language you favor.

  7. Japanese was my first language, which I mostly forgot as a child. Then I grew up speaking fr/eng more or less equally.

    So yep, I don't get credit: in so far as I have a dominant language, it's eng. ; j

  8. Alesa, trilingual? Now I'm more impressed. I'm sure you could pull that Japanese with ease.

  9. LoL, nonono! I was only tringual for a few months when I was 5.
    Now, all I can do in Japanese is describe most things that are likely to turn up on a plate and say "Could you call for the hall porter, there seems to be a frog in my bidet."- err, wait! I know that in Esperanto, as lover of funny sci-fi would: "Bonvolo alsendi la pordiston, lausajne estas rano en mia bideo." (Red Dwarf quote)

  10. Ha! Since I've only got English because I love more Italian every year, I'm still impressed.