New Perspectives: A Senior Moment – “Stringing Words Together”

Earlier this week, I was given the honour of critiquing a fellow writer’s work. In itself, this was not a new experience; over the past year I have helped edit two large, non-fiction manuscripts and, for a mature student returning to the classroom, proofread several university-level essays. What was quite different about this week’s request? The writer was 14 years old.

I had met this young student only briefly at a funeral and that was two years ago. She lives in another part of the Province and surprised me a few days ago with an emailed six-page poem she had written as a first major assignment within her school’s enrichment arts and language program.  “Susan” already has developed a self-described “passion for writing” and asked me to read her initial work, then offer an honest evaluation. Having once wished for any published author to have reviewed my own juvenile efforts, I enthusiastically did so.

Susan’s teacher had already given her an A grade. As I am obviously a junior high school instructor, I immediately faced the challenge of not having any accurate measuring stick to critique the writing ability of a 14-year-old student. My only reluctant recourse and familiar template was to look at the work as if she were an adult.

My second concern was that today’s adolescents have often been described as rather thin-skinned, not taking kindly to constructive criticism (the everyone-gets-a -trophy philosophy.) Obviously, I would easily be able to affirm and reinforce any evident abilities and skills. But would my standards for critical assessment be unfairly set too high and risk squelching Susan’s future motivation and creative muse? Will she react with defensiveness and view my comments for suggested improvements only as a judgmental personal attack?

I was much relieved when, having studied my lengthy emailed evaluation, Susan quickly responded with a note of appreciation and a loud, clear reassurance that my critique was both welcomed and helpful for her improvement as a developing writer. It was most gratifying to have played a small part in celebrating this “rookie” scribe’s initial introduction to our fascinating world of words.

What is so fascinating about stringing words together? Readily admitting that I am still a humble “work in progress,” I would describe three requisite components of good writing by comparing this process as similar to completing a jigsaw puzzle:

MANY PIECES: Just as a skilled jigsaw hobbyist surveys and selects the right one of 500 tiny pieces spread over a large square table, so too does a writer scrutinize and choose from among the estimated 30,000 words in his or her vocabulary. When the famed English lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, published his Dictionary of the English Language on this very day in 1756, it contained about 40,000 words. Today, estimates of the number of available words in our language range from 250,000 to over a million, depending on whether a long-suffering researcher includes every tense, all obsolete words and colloquialisms.

The writer’s first challenge is to wisely pick and choose a few from this massive selection and then string them together to form a coherent sentence— add more for a paragraph and ultimately make a complete work.

PROPER FIT: Most of us have desperately tried to force a jigsaw piece into an empty space to which it does not belong. The result doesn’t just look right. Writers must not merely select words; they also need to make them properly fit into a sentence by using established (albeit ever-evolving) rules of grammar.

BEING CREATIVE: Here is where my analogy to the jigsaw puzzle breaks down. Those 500 pieces must eventually reproduce and conform to the already-defined picture portrayed on the box. Not so for the gifted writer. Rather than merely reproducing what already exists, he or she strives to avoid over-used clichés, guards against word repetition and seeks to use description in a creative way. As an exercise in creativity, try to describe the “waves crashing” on our Lake Huron shoreline without resorting to those predictable, well-worn, boring words.

My young writer-acquaintance already possesses a vocabulary advanced beyond her years. Her work required only minor grammatical correction. Her gift is originality of expression. While these first two literary tools, vocabulary and grammar, can be acquired through hard work, mentoring and the discipline of relentless practice, verbal creativity is a gift of imagination, not available to every seeker. I look forward to the pleasure of reading more of Susan’s work, part of this next generation of inspired writers.