Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Deadly Twelve, or Let's Get Specific: Wednesday Workout

    Here in the South, there is an all purpose word that drives me nuts. The word? "Nice." Depending on the tone of voice, "That's nice" can mean something really wonderful, or truly venomous.  It's a phrase that doesn't translate well in print. You have to hear the tone of voice that goes with the statement.

     "Nice" is just an example of any number of words that sound perfectly fine spoken aloud, but are rendered meaningless on the page. Here are my Top Ten Useless Words in Writing. 1. Nice  2. Very
3. Cute  4. Sweet  5. OK  6. Cool  7. Good  8. Bad  9.  Fun  10.  Sad/happy (I cheated...that's really eleven words).  There are a lot more, but these are the ones that show up the most often in my students' work, and the ones that set my teeth on edge.

    All of these words work fine  in conversation, both spoken and written. As descriptors, they leave a lot to be desired. They are junk food words. They just lounge around your writing, doing the least amount of work possible. So how do you get those words off the couch to carry their share of your writing?  

    For today's workout, I turn to one of my all-time favorite craft books, Craft Lessons: Teaching Writing K-8  (2nd edition) by Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi.  This is an exercise that can be adapted for any age student, or for your own writing. For the purpose of today's lesson, I will pretend I am working with first or second graders.

1.  Have the students write a short description of a person. Let's say, little Courtney has chosen to describe her best friend, Emma.  Here is what Courtney writes.

     I like my best friend Emma. She is fun. We like the same things. (Uh oh...I just hit word number 12..."thing").

  2.  Ask Courtney to close her eyes. "Courtney," you say. "What makes Emma fun?" Closing the eyes is the important part of the exercise. For some reason, if you look a student in the eye and ask the same question, you will get a defensive "I dunno. She's just fun." (Subtext; what's wrong with you, Adult Person? Don't you understand the word fun?)

3.  Hopefully, with her eyes closed, Courtney can see Emma doing fun things; she snorts when she laughs, she only eats the icing off her cupcake, she can do cartwheels. If Courtney really gets into her description, she may go on to describe fun things that she and Emma have done together; gone to Six Flags and gotten soaked on the Log Flume Ride, bake cupcakes (but only eat the icing), ice skate.

4. Now have Courtney re-write her description using some of her new fun details. Maybe it will read something like this:

     Emma is my best friend. She snorts when she laughs, and that makes me laugh, too.  We like doing the same things like ice skating and baking. Emma makes the best cupcakes, but she will only eat the icing.  I don't mind, because I like to eat the leftover cake part.

   5.  Ask Courtney to compare her first and second versions of her description of Emma.  Which one would make her want to know more about Emma (that is if she didn't already know Emma?) Cross your fingers that she picks version two. 

     In my writing workshops, I go so far as to forbid the use of the Deadly Twelve Do-Nothing Words, unless they are being said by a character in dialog.  It can be a laborious task to get even older writers to give up their "comfort words".  But after practice (lots of practice), one fine day your writers will discover that they have written a whole page without using any of the Deadly Twelve.  They don't need their training wheel words any more.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for sharing this, MA. And what a brilliant idea, asking the student to close her eyes before answering the question. I'm going to definitely use that.

The Pen and Ink Blogspot said...

great exercise. I a going to try this one myself. I snorted when I read your comment on the word "nice." It's right up there with "Bless your heart" as Southern snark.

Jean Reidy said...

A simple, swift exercise that teaches so much! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the list. I have one to I have dubbed myself the "it police." I can't stand it. It seems to crop up over and over again when I write. What does it do? Gets in the way of real words.

mary ann rodman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mary ann rodman said...

Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. I have to admit that I have used Ralph Fletcher's exercise more in my everyday life with a vocabulary impaired teenager whose favorite word is "thingie." Communication cannot get less specific than that. And Ms It Police...don't beat yourself up over the occasional "it." There are only so many ways you can rename a noun and sometimes all that's left What really bugs me are pronouns without antecedents, but that's another day, another blog.
If you are in the Midwest and getting deluged right now as I know Carmela is, keep your paper dry and your thoughts flowing.

Audrey said...

I'm guilty of using the word very. In fact, I almost said that I'm very guilty as I typed this. I'm going to print these words on a note card and post it on my bulletin board. Thanks for sharing!

Jill said...

Fun post, Mary Ann! Hee.
My first drafts are full of funs and cools and verys and things. I'll think of this post as I weed them out!

Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford said...

I love this, Mary Ann!