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Build Your Vocabulary!!!

This quarter’s workout is a test. It consist of 30 questions that will help you brush up on what you may have forgotten and also help you improve in the areas you are weak. As everyone knows the most effective way to improve your writing is to READ!!! The goal is at least 15 minutes a day, every day. If you follow this tip, your writing will improve almost magically. Read anything and everything. Through the process of osmosis you will absorb new words, sentence structures, and information, all of which will enhance your writing.

At a garage sale, I came across a gem of a book called “The Word A Day Vocabulary Builder”, which was written by Bergen Evans in 1963. In the first 71 pages he instructs you on how to use the book and the remainder is a vocabulary dictionary that list words from A-Z that the reader learns at the rate of one a day. He states that the more words we know the closer we can come to expressing precisely what we want to. Our vocabulary provides clarity and variety. Furthermore, it makes a speaker or writer more interesting. We know nothing until we endow it with words.

Do you realize that almost everything we are as human beings is related to words and how we use them. That is the one thing that distinguishes us from animals. We have the ability to think and then implement, share, and distribute those thoughts into speech.

In one paragraph Bergen states “as you develop a larger vocabulary you will be increasingly aware of what is going on. You will enjoy what you read more. New pleasures will be opened to you…you will understand more.” According to the National Conference on Research in English “a child’s ability to read, to speak, to write, and to think is inevitably conditioned by his vocabulary. That is also true of adults. We cannot separate our ideas from words. These words are our means of adjusting to the situations of life. Words are powerful tools and the better vocabulary you have the more powerful your writing and speech will become. {Bergen Baldwin Evans (September 19, 1904 – February 4, 1978) was a Northwestern University professor of English, Rhodes Scholar, Harvard graduate, and a television host. He received a George Foster Peabody Award in 1957 for excellence in broadcasting for his CBS TV series The Last Word.

Happy New Year!!

The first month of 2016 has faded into the sunset and all those resolutions, aspirations, and dreams for the new year have drifted to the side of the road. What are you planning to do about your writing this year?

Below are 10 suggestions that might help inspire you, or maybe you have something you would like to share. 

1. Join and participate in an active writer’s group that offers critique and direction.

2. Write every day. Set up a schedule and “do it”.

3. Take a passage or paragraph from a favorite book and rewrite it in your own words

     or write an essay on why you like it.

4. Make a list of 12 books you want to read, and read one each month.

5. Read at least 2 books on the writing craft this year and implement what you learn.

6. Attend a writing conference and write an article about it for the local newspaper.

7. Take a writing class online or at a local college.

8. Begin a journal.

9. Write a blog.

10. Review a book.


As a writer remember the 6th of the Pen commandments:

“Thou shalt describe thy world, express thy opinion, and preserve thy past.”

Our creative expression is done in words. An artist uses a brush, a musician uses an instrument, and a writer uses a pen. We create our music and paint our portraits with words. Almost everything we are is related to words. The one characteristic that distinguishes the human being from other life forms on this planet is our speech. Our ability to articulate thoughts, feelings, desires, hopes, and fears puts us at the top of the food chain. For instance, have you ever looked at a pig and realized that it was never going to be anything else but a pig? You could dress it up, move it out of the sty, and put lipstick on it, but it is still a pig and will always be a pig, it can never be anything else, change its circumstances, or chose to be something different than it is. A human being on the other hand can change.

As I surf the writing sites on the internet and read the magazines of the trade I am utterly amazed at the amount of articulation going on in the world. Everyone has an opinion on everything and they write about it. I am also amazed at the dearth of words used to express those opinions. I think most of the misunderstandings that we have in this world are created by our verbal shortcomings. Some of the greatest disasters in history have come about because of misunderstood directions. A well chosen word may provoke serious consequences or even avoid the gravest danger.

So if you are a writer you have the responsibility of developing a good vocabulary. That doesn’t mean being an intellectual giant or becoming a dictionary with feet, it simply means the more words we know, the greater our ability to express precisely what we want to say. A large and varied vocabulary can make a writer more interesting, avoid repetition, and provoke attention. Thomas Mann in his essay “Death the Proud Brother” wrote about seeing a shabby little man lying dead on a subway bench in New York and was struck by the thought of what a miserable and dull existence such a man must have had because of the sterility of his speech. “Poor, dismal, ugly, sterile, shabby, little man, with your little scrabble of harsh oaths, and cries, and stale constricted words, your pitiful little designs and feeble purposes…Joy, glory and magnificence were here for you upon this earth, but you scrabbled along the pavements rattling a few stale words like gravel in your throat, and would have none of them.” It has been said that “Profanity is the effort of a feeble brain to express itself forcibly”. Increasing you vocabulary is a way of “cussing, swearing, and profaning” creatively. So improve your writing by improving your speech.    Donnie


Develop our Craft

It the beginning of the year did you make any goals in relation to writing? Have you looked at them since January 1st? If you haven't maybe you should. I have observed that as writer's, we talk a lot about writing, we read a lot about writing, we study a lot about writing, we attend a lot of conferences on writing, and constantly seek publication or in many cases rejection of our writing. However, we seem to spend very little time in actually writing. I can find 101 excuses for not planting my butt in the chair and applying pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard, but for the life of me not one good reason. The solution I think to this problem of procrastination is to make writing a habit.

This year our "Writers Workout" is going to be geared toward developing our "craft" by making writing a habit. We need to write until writing becomes as natural and necessary as breathing. The more you write, the better you will write. Don’t be concerned with perfection; concentrate on putting words on paper. You have to have something to revise. I am not advocating keeping a daily journal or diary, I am challenging you to write on a daily basis. Get a notebook, does not matter what kind, but big enough to hold 365 pages. (I love a blank piece of paper, as my family will attest). Like heroine to a drug addict, pens and paper are the writer's addiction. Fill 1 page a day. Writers are also known for their opinions, so if nothing else begin with what you think about something, anything.

As an example, one of the most compelling narratives of the Civil War was written by Mary Chestnut. She was the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner and the wife of a former senator from South Carolina, who became an aide to the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, She wrote this book between 1861 and 1865, on an almost daily basis. Well acquainted with the Confederacy's prominent players she diligently recorded her impressions of the conflict's most significant moments from the very first shots in Charleston, South Carolina to the peace made at Appomattox Courthouse. She captures the urgency and nuance of the period in an epic rich with commentary on race, status, and power within a nation divided. Like Mary Chestnut, we live in an epic era as well. As I write these words, the first time in history, the President of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu is speaking before the United States Legislature. I plan on listening to his address and writing down my thoughts, I am sure I am opinionated enough to fill one page.

Many of our parents lived through the "Great Depression" or the "Rebellion of the 60's". We ourselves have witnessed the struggle for civil rights, the end of the "Soviet Union", the impeachment of a President, the first attack by a foreign power on American soil since the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the election of the first black President, and countless other events and activities that should fuel the writer's obsession. What do you think about these events? What were you doing when they happened? What part did you play, or what effect did they have on your life? Think about a "What If" scenario as the basis for a story.

Being a genealogical researcher I deal a lot with dead people. One of the things I find most interesting and challenging is trying to imagine what their lives were like. How did they deal with the problems, decisions, and choices of their time? How was their life different than my own? I can't tell you how many times I wondered about the thoughts and impressions of my great-grandparents who lived in Oklahoma before it was a state. I had an Uncle who was a "Texas Ranger", wouldn't it be wonderful to have a notebook filled with his thoughts, ideas, practices, etc; A significant thing I have learned is that you cannot put 20th century thoughts into a 17th century mind. They are incompatible.

In the end, we need to realize that writing is more than just telling a story, expressing an opinion, becoming famous, or making a lot of money. It is more than publication. Writing should be an art. The blank page is our canvas, the pen or keyboard our brush, the graphite, ink, or kilobytes our medium. Let's paint the best portrait we can by developing our "craft". Write on a daily basis.

Reflections of 2014

The end of the old year always brings a flurry of activity in making decisions about what will be on the agenda for the New Year. This is the last month for 2014 and in a few weeks, we will be stepping into 2015. I really do not know where the time goes. I had a friend once tell me that the older you get the faster time flies. I now believe him.

Have you been thinking about your goals as a writer for 2015? Do you have an action plan? Will this be the year you really do something with your writing? Check out the workshop and take note of the 5 steps you might want to consider for next year and start your action plan now.

One of my goals this year is to get out of my "box" as a writer. I am developing a plan to step out of the Jacuzzi and jump into the deep end of the pool. Since writers should be readers, I am going to read more and not just in the genres, I like. I plan to venture into unfamiliar venues and to raise my level of communication and understanding.

When you look at writers today, they all seem to stay within their box. The author that comes to mind most frequently is Daniele Steel and I think John Patterson might be running her a close second. If you read one of their books, you have read them all. They have developed a formula and the formula has become the driving force behind what they write. Grisham, Patterson, Sparks, are all great writers, but you know what your going to get. You might like the book, feel good or bad when it is finished, but there are no surprises, no questions unanswered, no mysteries to solve, no purpose to discover, or journey to continue.

Then there is Stephen King. He definitely knows how to write and I love his short stories. He does not write by formula so you never know what you are going to get, but in his longer works he starts out with a revved up engine and then half way through the story begins to sputter and stall. It feels like he gets tired of his story and instead of transporting his reader across the seas, he leaves them wading through the sand.

When I consider the works of "great" or "classic" literature, I have noticed some things they all have in common. They appear structured on four levels. The first level is the story, the second is the purpose of the story, third, the atmosphere to be created, and fourth,  how the story relates to the reader.  Charles Dickens comes to mind immediately. His writing is a great example of what a "classic" is. On the first level, he tells a great story, a little verbose at times, but the story is still great. Compare the tales he tells with those that are written today. How much of today's popular literature will survive 100 years? The second level, his purpose for the story is a commentary on the world that he lived in. He reveals the panoply of the society of his times and the effect its mores, practices, education, economics, politics, and traditions had on the people who lived in that world. His soliloquy begs empathy as well as sympathy from the reader. Third, he creates an atmosphere through the sites, sounds, wardrobe, and even smells of London during his time. The reader travels from the hygienically advanced society of the 21st century into the poverty and filthiness of that bygone era, making the reader more cognizant of deodorant and Lysol. Finally, he entices the reader to compare and consider thoughts, ideas, and reactions in relationship to themselves. One realizes the advances made since Dickens's times, as well as the losses we have endured moving into the digital age. There is "meat on the bones" of the people he introduces.

We live our lives at super-sonic speed and our literacy, life styles, and ethics break the sound barrier of what was once considered proper and acceptable. Single dimension characters populate our literature. We talk a lot about celebrating diversity, but we strive to conform. Human beings are complex creatures and they are multifaceted, yet how many multi-dimensional characters are written for today's reader?

Oskar Schindler from "Schindler's List" was a reprobate, womanizer, carouser, selfish, and an egotistical man, yet he saved the lives of 1209 people from which over 6000 descendents have been born. Schindler was not a good man, or even a great man, but he did do a great thing. What made him rise to the occasion? How did the writer capture the complex subtleties of Schindler's character?

When I was in school, I read "East of Eden" by John Steinbeck. It has been over 40 years since I read that book, but the character of Cathy Ames still resonates in my memory and probably will till the day I die. In the first four paragraphs of Chapter 8, Steinbeck introduces the reader to Cathy without naming her or physically describing her. "I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents...And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?...You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous."

Much of what is written today, I think, is for the elusive twins of fame and fortune, neither of which provides literary or moral quality to our lives. Books are being produced on a production line. The stories are superficial, mundane, and plastic. Is that what our world has become? When a Dickens's writer is born, they attract a small audience because their vernacular is on a higher level, their characters are multi-dimensional, their ideas thought provoking, and their conclusions are not off the cuff, but thought through to the end.

As a writer, do you want to write that great novel? Do you want to change the way the world thinks? Would you love to create a masterpiece? In 100 years, will what you have written be remembered and quoted?

What do you think?

What I mean by increasing your vocabulary.

Just finished a book called "Things that Matter" by Pulitzer Prize author and New York Times bestseller Charles Krauthammer. He is a syndicated columnist, political commentator, and physician. I think he has to be one of the best writers of the 21st century. I was so impressed I am going to start reading his weekly column.

The book is a collection of his articles and essays written from the 80’s to 2013. In one article he wrote “We are involved in the first “lexicological” war. Parry and thrust with linguistic tricks, deliberate misnomers, and ever more transparent euphemisms.” What a great statement on a writer learning to use vocabulary. Writers are fencers and we wield an epee (sword) of words. The more our vocabulary increases our parries and thrusts will become more effective.

His introduction sums up the content of the book with the question, "What matters?"

"What matters? Lives of the good and the great, the innocence of dogs, the cunning of cats, the elegance of nature, the wonders of space, the perfectly thrown outfield assist, the difference between historical guilt and historical responsibility, homage and sacrilege in monumental architecture, fashions and follies, and the finer uses of the F-word.

"What matters? Manners and habits, curiosities and conundrums social and ethical: Is a doctor ever permitted to kill a patient wishing to die? Why in the age of feminism do we still use the phrase "women and children"? How many lies is one allowed to tell to advance stem cell research?

"What matters? Occam's razor, Fermat's last theorem, the Fermi paradox in which the great man asks: With so many habitable planets out there, why in God's name have we never heard a word from a single one of them?"

I like to practice what I preach, so I read Charlie's book accompanied by a notebook and pen. As I tripped through his lexicon minefield, (what a great image) I recorded words that are not a part of my vocabulary in speaking, much less writing. I was blown away by words like opprobrium, calumny, apogee, nadir, scatology, paradigmatic, posit, anachronistic, coterminous, cyclical, Sisyphean, and kerfuffle; not to mention annus mirabilis, imperium, extenuations, and Manichaeism. Most of these words I have never even heard of and was forced to resort to my dictionary.

And what about sentences. For example, “…armor-piercing onomatopoeias and amphibious synecdoches.” Or the tremendous statement “The confusion of language is a direct result of a confusion of policy, which is served by constant obfuscation.”

Now, I am not advocating that we write like Charlie. As writers, we have to be aware of our audience and use vocabulary appropriate to the genre, and we have to be true to ourselves. However, I have discovered that maybe one of my failings as a writer is that I don’t spend enough time thinking about the words I use to express what I want to say. Perhaps, if I increased my vocabulary I could be more effective in my writing and not only have to do less revising, but also lift my reader to a higher plane of visualization.

What do you think?