Mailbag: Being Gutsy in Your Writing

This week I’ve got a quick mailbag, responding to comments about my post “Be Gutsy: Cut Out ‘Kind of’ and ‘Sort of'”. It’s something that my writing teacher noticed; beginning writers in particular tend to apologize for their observations, weakening them by inserting little unnecessary mitigating words. I wondered if this was a trend of our latest generation, affected by the world of social networking; because most of our lives are now a public performance, are we less willing to say anything that is not bland and uncontroversial?

Annie said:

Love this. I know I have a tendency to temper my writing (my word is “just”) and there’s no reason for it.

I know it, Annie! I definitely use “just” as well as the words I’ve mentioned in the post in order to lessen the effect of what I’m writing. Sometimes I tell myself that it’s more realistic to avoid dramatic conclusions, but really, it’s just my way of excusing weaker writing.

Mary said:

I believe this ‘tentative’ writing is a carryover from today’s equally tentative speech patterns. Most people say “kinda like, uhm, you know,…” twelve times in a single statement. No, they say it that many times in a single fragment of a statement.

It drives me nuts to hear this type of speech. Young women are some of the worst offenders. I’ve watched televised events held before assemblies of young female Ivy League college graduates. When it came time for their comments, I could not believe how they spoke. Each had a high-pitched, ‘little girl’ voice & every one of them made assertions sound like questions.

I wonder, too, whether this problem is more of a woman writer’s problem than a man’s, Mary. We’re encouraged to doubt ourselves and the value of our contributions; small wonder that that tentativeness might find its way into our writing. This encouragement to be gutsy should go out to women writers in particular (myself included). If we fear the consequences of our words too much, then we’ll never say anything worthwhile.

Lauren said:

You remind me of that Oscar Wilde quote – ‘Be yourself; everyone else is taken’. If we constantly hold ourselves back for fear of ridicule – and I understand that feeling perfectly – we’re not writing or being ourselves.

Terrific quotation, Lauren! Sometime we need a simple, pithy reminder that the only person we will be successful at being is ourselves. If we pretend to be someone else, we’ll always end up as a lesser version; it’s better to work with what we’ve got and have confidence in our own abilities. It’s amazing how being gutsy can make for stronger writing!

And Eddie reminds us that this trend is not new:

Once again, the old geezer rises up…

In days of yore (1970s), when I was in college, my creative writing instructor told us to eliminate “empty” words and phrases. “Sort of,” “kind of,” and “seemed” were among the worst, he said.

There’s nothing new under the sun.

Thanks, Eddie, for letting us know that this problem is actually older than Facebook! Empty phrases seem to be an ageless problem, part of our human insecurities and our desire to sound smart. In a way, that’s reassuring; this generation isn’t losing its marbles any more than the previous generation was.

Until next week, writers!


One comment

  1. mary brady says:

    Aha! I just now thought of the incredible mistake I’ve seen in certain books/magazines that simply floors me. I could not think of it when I first read your post on “kind of,” etc.

    Certain authors actually write: “I guess I should of listened to you before.”

    Seriously! They do not understand that they’re saying the contraction of the words ‘should have’ when they say ‘should’ve.’ To these writers, it SOUNDS like “should of,” so that is what they write on paper! Astounding. I’ve seen similar gaffes in print with other contractions in which ‘have’ turns into ‘of.’ Example: “I sure would of liked to see that!”
    (No. You would not of.)

    How does this get by editors? Also, do you ever see this in your students’ papers?

    I realize your post was about the use of certain words as ‘diluting qualifiers,’ & I am behind you 100% on getting them out of our writing. First, however, we need to be sure that writers achieve a basic level of literacy.

    As a teacher, you are on the Front Lines, BLH. I salute you. What oddities you must have to read. I’d like to learn what errors are most common in your students’ writing–not plot, but basic literacy. We already know they write about pleasant visits to the beach & other dramatic life experiences…
    (God, that was so funny when you complained about how they just would NOT choose ‘conflict’ as a topic!)

    L&K, MaryB

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