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Beth Fowler

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Getting Beyond Pencil Work
by Beth Fowler   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Posted: Wednesday, October 13, 2010

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No writer fires up the computer and says, "Today I'm going to write tepid sentences.” In spite of great intentions, sometimes we do exactly that.

One of Sherwood Anderson’s detractors accused him of pencil work: "He could do what writers call 'pencil work' on his manuscripts, changing a word here a word there, but he couldn't delete weak passages, sharpen the dialogue…"

If you recognize the pencil work syndrome in yourself, there is hope. Writers who are determined to achieve a higher caliber of writing can learn how to go beyond pencil work. They learn to work the words and make the words work.

Functional vs. Comprehension Vocabulary

A functional vocabulary consists of the words we use regularly. For most people the average functional vocabulary is a thousand or so words.

Our comprehension vocabulary, however, contains words we understand when heard or read, but we don't typically write or say them.

During the creative heat of writing first drafts, authors rely heavily on words from their functional vocabulary. The time to expand the variety and range of words used comes next in later drafts.

Enter the obvious tool, a thesaurus. Avoid using a synonym if you're not familiar with it. Words have connotations, associations and traditional usages that imply nuances not explained in thesauruses or dictionaries. One slightly off word can sour the rest of the sentence.

The words holocaust and grassy knoll, for example, have associations turgid with emotional, cultural nuances. They’re used advisedly and for effect.

To understand the importance of connotative meanings, read something that's been deciphered into English by a person who relied on a translation book. “Occasion wings while you’re retaining exuberance." Ah, so close, yet so far from, “Time flies when you’re having fun.”

Which of the following two sentences would most men rather have spoken about them? "His physique reminded her of a thoroughbred horse." Or "His figure reminded her of a purebred pony." Your answer probably has to do with connotative meanings.

Activity: Pick a word from your functional vocabulary that you use frequently. (Forage through first drafts or journals for your faves.) Look the word up in a thesaurus for suitable synonyms. Maybe the over-used word can be deleted. I formerly wrote just too often, as in “He just wanted a chance to enjoy his day off.”

Activity: Collect words. While reading, I came across inconsequential, a word I know, but rarely use. Now that I’m conscious of that fact, I’ll use it.

Housebreaking Pet Words

Every writer has pet words. Tabitha King's pets in The Trap are hooked and hauled, as in "She hooked off her socks," and "He hauled his boots on." Strong verbs used in unconventional ways are refreshing until they’re overworked and become annoying to readers.

Pronouns, one breed of pets, are especially vague. "I hate and mistrust pronouns, every one of them as slippery as a fly-by-night personal-injury lawyer," writes Stephen King in ¬On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. And in The Book Alan Watts refers to the pronoun it is a spook, as in "It's raining outside." What exactly is it?
King, Watts and other successful authors use it when it's unavoidable or natural sounding. Character dialogue, for example, sounds natural with a sprinkling of the neuter, singular pronoun.

Overusing it causes confusion, as this passage from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland demonstrates.
"…The patriotic archbishop of Canterbury found it advisable — "
"Found what?" said the Duck.
"Found it," the Mouse replied rather crossly: "of course you know what 'it' means."
"I know what 'it' means well enough, when I find a thing," said the duck: "it's generally a frog, or a worm. The question is, what did the archbishop find?"

If it is one of your pet pronouns, replace it with the true subject of the sentence or phrase. The sentence, “It was the boss who inspected the books,” can be revised as “The boss inspected the books.” (When it disappeared so did other pets—was, who.)

Other easily housebroken pets include the rest of the pronoun menagerie: all, some, this, those, they, what, anything, everyone.

Words indicating a story's point of view require vigilance. No doubt you've read stories written from the first person point of view and were distracted from the plot because the singular pronoun I, I, I, I swarmed the pages. Similarly, stories from the third person point of view can fall into the trap of overusing characters' names and the pronouns he and she.

Activity: Rewrite it sentences found in your own work. Or rewrite these two sentences to eliminate the neuter, singular pronoun.

The little man chuckled when he told the Texan that it would take guts and determination to learn to walk again.
It was midmorning when they became entangled with a convoy.

Eliminating Weak Words

Abstract mental processes (knew, thought, realized, recognized and words of similar ilk) are candidates for editing. Abstract words of perception can muddy up clear writing, so consider rewriting sentences to avoid overusing seemed, appeared and their kin.

Get tough on auxiliary verbs would and could. Replace wishy-washy verbs made, began, became with specific verbs that carry meaning.

Boot out adverbs such as suddenly, obviously, and other –ly words.
Rewrite sentences beginning with There.

Activity: Change or eliminate the italicized words to strengthen these sentences when you rewrite them.
• The fireman realized a baby was trapped on the second floor of the blazing house. (Refer to some of the fireman’s five senses to show how he realized a baby was trapped.)
• He seemed excited. (A better sentence would show the reader physical evidence of excitement.)
• Every morning at 5:30, he would raise the American flag.
• The cabinetmaker made the cupboards a rich maple hue.
• She actually didn’t know her boyfriend’s last name.
• There are few people who get their Christmas shopping done before Halloween.


An element of fiction — a word, a scene, an image — repeated to achieve a desired result is an echo. On the one hand, writers want to curb their use of pet words and over-reliance on weak words. On the other hand, writers can purposely repeat words for an intended effect. We’ll look at word echoes here.

As you read the passage from All the Pretty Horses, ask yourself, What was the intended effect of repeatedly using “and" instead of breaking the passage into shorter sentences?

"When the wind was in the north you could hear them, the horses and the breath of the horses and the horses' hooves that were shod in rawhide and the rattle of lances and the constant drag of the travois poles in the sand like the passing of some enormous serpent and the young boys naked on wild horses jaunty as circus riders and hazing wild horses before them and the dogs trotting with their tongues aloll and footslaves following half naked and sorely burdened and above all the low chant of their traveling song which the riders sang as they rode, nation and ghost of a nation passing in a soft chorale across that mineral waste to darkness bearing lost to all history and all remembrance like a grail the sum of their secular and transitory and violent lives."

One sentence; fourteen ands. Why?

Cormac McCarthy strung phrases together nose to tail with and to syntactically resemble horses plodding nose to tail along the trail. Sentence structure simulates the very thing the paragraph describes. And as echo in this instance illustrates the architect's maxim: Form follows function.

McCarthy used the echo technique again in "The south fence was standing in water up to the top wire. The cattle stood islanded, staring bleakly at the rider. Redbo stood staring bleakly at the cattle."

Does McCarthy need to enlarge his vocabulary or are the echoes intentional?

Standing and stood, and staring bleakly underline the shared experience between the cattle and the man. The cattle and the man are "staring bleakly" at each other in their mutual predicament.

Activity: Write about a sitting in a waiting room or shopping for a gift or driving through the desert. Use echos to support to the literal meaning of words.

Even an author as renown as Sherwood Anderson slipped into writing mediocre passages. Overall though, Anderson is credited with influencing Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, John Steinbeck, and other giants through his body of work and personal mentoring. Anderson died in 1941. His literary legacy survives.

Choose words that will work hard for you. Eliminate those that are slackers. And may you never be accused of doing mere "pencil work."

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Books by
Beth Fowler

Ken's War

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