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My Dirty Little Secret

In the heyday of my youth (in seventh grade) I was a kickass speller. Neck and neck with Spencer Allaway in a spelling bee, I vied for first place. Classmates, defeated spelling bee contestants, and teachers sat motionless, their heads angled in our direction. My opponent had freckles, and ice-blue eyes, the kind that made you want to climb inside them and float there awhile. The last word was "latitudinarian" and it was his go.

Dampness gathered on my palms and temples as his mouth spelled out the word. Then it was my turn. I had learned to break up lengthy words, sounding them out in my head. All big words were really just collections of smaller words put together, I would coach myself. Not this time. For all I know I could have recited my phone number. Or belted out Ya Got Trouble from the Music Man.

I was crushed as I had wanted to beat him. Not only because I like winning, but also because I had a crush on him, and figured that if I could just win first place then maybe he would go out with me. At that time, "going out" meant almost holding hands in the school yard when nobody was looking, and kissing after school, again, out of eyeshot.

Although, even if I didn't win the spelling bee (I did win the guy!), I learned something much more precious than any trophy. I learned that words are sexy.

Think about it. The anti-Hallmark cards some special people send you with their own words inside. The hot texts from a significant other at some ungodly hour. The reason you can't put a good book down, or why you decide to buy one thing over another thing. It's all because words are sexy. They draw you in, making you feel special, cared for. Like you want to climb inside them and float there awhile.

When you write clearly chances are you also think clearly. It's not easy to present your ideas in a way that people understand. Often it takes a few drafts, then some finessing, tweaking, pairing down. During that process you have to think and rethink your ideas through, so it becomes good practice not only for writing but also for thinking. Hopefully at the end of it, what you have is something that's compact, evocative, and strikes a chord with your readers.

Whether you're a writer or an entrepreneur, moving readers or customers with words, can be of tremendous benefit to you. There's lots of noise out there, and if you can rise above it in this way, then you'll be ahead of the game.

Even given my short-lived career as a star speller, I'm not the wordsmith you might think. I have a friend who sometimes asks me how to spell words. I'm flattered she thinks me a word genius, or word nerd (which I am), yet she doesn't know my dirty little secret.

I'm not a perfect speller.

The plain truth of it is, up until last year I was spelling the word "input" as "imput" and I still often misspell "consensus." I spell it as "concensus" most of the time. Did you know that "consens" is Latin for agreement? So apparently I know the origin of the word yet still can't write it!

Like spelling, writing takes work. I can be lazy; at times my brain lags behind my typing, and out comes a jumbled mess. Yes, dear reader, it can EVEN happen to a seasoned writer. Lately I've been receiving email messages from a handful of people telling me to excuse their spelling errors as they're on their phones and in a rush (They actually put this in their signature.). I guess I'm a bit of a fusspot when it comes to good spelling, as I feel like responding, unless your hands are literally tied, you've been kidnapped, and are typing with your tongue, you should at least try to spell things properly. But then that's just me.

Here are a few tips to help you write well.



  1. Listen to your voice in your head saying the sentence to see how it sounds before writing it down. Don't underestimate the importance of music in writing. The sounds of words rolling off the tongue. Read poetry to develop an ear for your writing.
  2. Use power verbs, such as sashay and gambol in place of go, or devour instead of eat hungrily. Read the sports section of a newspaper for ideas about how to use power verbs.
  3. Read books about writing from writers, such as Steven Pressfield to learn how to keep going no matter what those voices in your head say; Natalie Goldberg who offers exercises to keep creativity flowing, and Annie Dillard to make you realize you're not crazy. Or perhaps you are, but at least you're in good company.
  4. Study sentences. When you read a particularly wonderful sentence, jot it down somewhere to read over later.
  5. Murder your darlings. This is an expression which means that if you're really attached to something you've written, that probably means you should kill it. Or as Kurt Vonnegut says, "Have the guts to cut."
  6. Use a mix of short and long sentences to add impact. As an example of short sentences that pack a punch (sorry!), Mohammed Ali said, “I am the astronaut of boxing. Joe Louis and Dempsey were just jet pilots. I’m in a world of my own.” Clearly the use of pithy sentences here is impactful and fitting coming from The Greatest. In the following example, Joan Didion follows a longer sentence with a snappy one when describing the Santa Ana winds in her book : I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too. We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks.
  7. Try to give yourself at least a few days to edit your pieces before turning them in. It's amazing how much better your writing is when you work and then rest in between. When you do this you'll see things you wouldn't normally see if you squeezed out a piece in a few hours.
  8. Practice. Practice. Practice. If you want to write well then schedule writing as a daily activity like brushing your teeth or exercising. Writing is a muscle that requires consistency to become strong. Even 30 minutes a day is a great start.
  9. Use active, not passive construction. For instance, "It was a dark and stormy night” is less appealing than "Rain pelted down on horse and rider as the sun set behind the mountain." Instead of,“It was cold today” you might say, “the winter air froze her lashes." Remember to use strong nouns and verbs.
  10. Pair up with an editing buddy. Even professional writers have a person they show their writing to. Whether it's a blog post, piece of poetry, non-fiction or web copy for your new business page, consider giving your writing to someone you trust, who is good with words, and who can offer constructive feedback.

And, finally, try to enjoy the process. When you do it makes for better writing.