Gems from “Wordsmithy”

Last night our six-year old daughter repeatedly asked me what I was laughing at. I replied, “This man says the funniest things.” After a few times, she stopped asking. I was reading Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life by Douglas Wilson, a book I thoroughly enjoyed and profited from. Over the years I’ve read quite a few of Wilson’s books and enjoyed and benefited from each one, though I found several points in each book with which I did not agree (Doug would appreciate my not ending that sentence with a preposition). This is a unique book that every writer, or aspiring one, will want to read. Having admired the author’s writing skills for some time, I took in the 120 pages cheerfully. I soaked in wisdom, gleaned morsels, and mined gems. I was reminded of the power of our words, both written and spoken.

Wilson’s likeness of each of his seven main points to a Russian doll containing seven smaller dolls piqued my interest immediately, since I have taught in Russia on numerous occasions. I have listed his seven points below. You should look at them as seven slices in Wilson’s counsel pie served to aspiring writers. Following his seven main points, you will read a handful of the sentences highlighted in my copy. I hope some of them make you laugh as I did.

  1. Know something about the world.
  2. Read.
  3. Read mechanical helps.
  4. Stretch before your routines.
  5. Be at peace with being lousy for a while.
  6. Learn other languages.
  7. Keep a commonplace book.

On knowing the world

“A writer should have some kind of real life ballast….This kind of life experience is not distracting you from your appointed task of writing. It is, rather, the roundabout blessing of giving you something to say.” [13-15]

“Pay attention to all the words you use every day—especially the words that are coming out of your mouth.” [22]

“If you want to say a lot, you need to have a lot to say. It is not possible to have the inputs be thin and the outputs thick.” [24]

“Picture your writing corpus as the mouth of a great river, and all the life you have experienced as the various tributaries that feed the river. But you ought to be actually living the experience, not just spelunking in the lives of ordinary people while the other end of the rope is tied off in your writer’s study.” [25]

“Angst, anguish, and lots of despair is the kind of thing that whiners buy, and the problem with having whiners as your reading constituency is that whiners are not known for their loyalty to anything. That would include your next book, remember.” [26]

On reading

“Don’t be afraid to have twenty books going at once.” [31] Thank you, Doug!

“Our world already has too much verbiage in it that comes off like it was written by a committee or a computer—or maybe a committee of computers.” [32]

“If you try to wring every book out like it was a washcloth full of information (and nothing but information), all you will do is slow yourself down to a useless pace. Go for total tonnage, and read like someone who will forget most of it.” [34]

“A little bit [of reading] every day really adds up…It is far better to walk a mile a day than to run five miles every other month.” [38-39]

“Act like a Sioux with a superstitious fixation on using every last part of the buffalo.” [41]

On word fussing

“Dictionaries are books. Why can’t we read them?” [53]

On stretching before writing

“I am astonished at how many young Christians want to be writers and how few of them want to mess with all the prerequisites, which look suspiciously to them like work.” [67]

“If clichés were candied fruit, walnuts, and raisins, the Book of Psalms in The Message would be a three-pound fruitcake.” [73-74]

On not waiting until you’ve arrived to write

“What you delete from your computer, what you take out of your prose, is as important as what you leave in.” [82]

“God blesses giving, so every use of language, down to the lowliest tweet, ought to be thought of as a gift to others.” [84]

“While it remains true that you can’t put in what God left out, it is also true that God put a whole lot more into most of us than we are currently using.” [85]

“Critics, whether right or wrong, well-meaning or malicious, should be listened to with care.” [88]

“Assume that every critic, even one with a black cape and a handlebar mustache, has something you can learn from.” [89]

On learning other languages

“In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. In the land of the illiterate, the semi-literate is the scribe.” [103]

On keeping a commonplace [note] book

“The writer’s life is a scavenger’s life.” [107]

“You do not create ex nihilo. You rearrange and recombine. You are the same old flour and eggs in search of a new recipe.” [113]

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