Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Words, Words, Words

I’m exhausted. I’m generally an early-to-bed-early-to-rise kind of person but this week, I’ve been staying up to watch The Democratic National Convention. Lest you think this is going to be a blog entry about politics, never fear. I’ll be just as tired when the Republicans have their turn. I’d stay up late if the Independents had a convention.

No, I’m a speech junkie. (“Hi, my name is Muriel, and I’m a speechaholic…”)

I love a good turn of phrase probably because I grew up listening to some mighty good lines:

“I have a dream…”

“Ask not, what your country can do for you…”

“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

I studied great speeches:

“Four score and seven years ago…”

“…a day that will live in infamy.”

I even played records by groups named after speeches:

The motto of my publishing business is “Words are Magic”. I really believe that.

Words can do so much. They put us down:

“You’re fat.”

“Are you kidding?”

“No, thanks.”

They lift us up:
“Nice job!”

“Love your hair.”

And, one of my personal favorites: “We’d like to offer you a contract for your book.”

They make us cry:
“Pay this amount:[of taxes]” “We regret to inform you...”

I love to listen to a speaker move an audience. Hence my addiction. Generally, when the big guns speak at political conventions, you’re going to get some good stuff. Why? Because they work at it. Last night, for example, it was reported that Hillary Clinton was tweaking her speech until about 20 minutes before she was due to give it. Her party gave her a big job: bring unity out of division. No matter what our political leanings, we all understood what kind of pressure this woman was under. The people who make a living at reviewing this stuff seem to feel she did the job.

I wasn’t just curious about whether the former first lady would pull it off, however. I was looking for other stuff and I got it. I like memorable phrases that make me laugh and make me think:

“We don’t want 4 more years of the last 8 years.”

“…and to my fellow members of the sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits…”

“My mother was born before women had the right to vote and my daughter got to vote for her mother for president.”

So, what, you wonder, does this all have to do with being a writer for children? Notice that every memorable speech is succinct. We not only remember ideas. We remember actual phrases. Listening to good speakers reminds us what takes to be good writers: a willingness to edit and a working delete button. Imagine if John F. Kennedy had said, in his inaugural address: “My fellow Americans, don’t bother to ask the federal government to take care of all of your problems because that’s not going to happen. Instead, we should all think about the ways we can help the federal government accomplish its goals.”

Not quite as snappy, is it? That's the point. Great writing is snappy. Now, go cut a bunch of words out of your manuscript.

1 comment:

Sally said...

And, I might add, that's what makes Mur such a great editor!!