Thursday, September 20, 2012

Expression, Expressiveness, and Good Writing Habits

"Expressiveness is the goal. Expression is what we use to get there." --Arthur Plotnik

I've come across another "favorite" book on writing to add to my list: Arthur Plotnik's The Elements of Expression, Putting Thoughts into Words. Are you familiar with it?

From Goodreads: "Whether the subject is love, mortality, or anything in between,putting your thoughts into words that demand attention isn't as easy as pouring water into a pitcher. That's where this book comes in. Written with humor and wit, it offers many engaging examples of adventuresome language that not only get you noticed, but also communicate a wide range of feelings, thoughts, meanings, and experiences vividly and forcefully."

So far I've only progressed through the first five chapters but already I'm hooked. A sample:

"Anyone who has seen Pygmalion or My Fair Lady knows how quickly expressiveness can flower when love and a wager come into play: On a bet, Professor Henry Higgins tutors a Cockney loudmouth named Eliza Doolittle in Snob Speech 101, and Eliza achieves enough courtly elegance to pass muster at a ball. If we ask no more than that of expressiveness, then the Higgins Method will suffice.

"Of course we do ask more, if we hope to engage distracted listeners and readers. And while small steps toward expressiveness yield quick rewards, the quick fix for mush-mouthed language doesn't exist...Instead the fix involves a number of long-term commitments worth keeping in mind:

Read--Listen--Savor--Keep a Journal.

"These are the acts to which expressive people must commit themselves. And if the word commit smacks of twelve-step recovery, think of these acts as acquired habits of highly expressive people."

Ah, long-term commitments. But with an eye toward more vivid, meaningful expressiveness? Worth it. And although the past week was a busy one over this way, I happily discovered upon reflection that I had  been able to continue fostering some of these habits. A short synopsis:

1. Read. Books I enjoyed included Killing Lincoln by Bill O'Reilly (great reading for those interested in all things Civil War), A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (how did I miss this gem when Burnett's The Secret Garden is such a favorite classic on my shelf?! Sweet and endearing, a must-read), and the first few chapters of Ann Voskamp's One Thousand Gifts (which is proving to be a beautiful read).

2. Listen. Quite a few opportunities to "listen" presented themselves, including a college reunion around a chilly night's campfire (had a great time, Paula!), an Amish auction benefiting a county home, and a bit of time spent in a Greyhound bus station.

3. Savor. I love how Plotnik describes this: "When a delicious piece of expression comes their way, whether by written or spoken word, expressive people do not simply wolf it down. They chew on it to savor its essence, and thus make it theirs."

An example from my readings this week worthy of savoring includes this: "The English language has a million words, but only one for the two kinds of forgiveness. This is a major failure. The two kinds may be similar at the molecular level but they are far removed in magnitude. Like a candle flame and a volcano, an April shower and a hurricane, a soft tremor beneath your feet and the great San Francisco earthquake..." (Thomas Lake, 'The Boy They Couldn't Kill,' Sports Illustrated, Sept. 17, 2012.) Lake's story, which I recommend reading if you get the chance, is a powerful story of a horrendous tragedy, a grandmother's love, courage and determination--and forgiveness--and speaks for itself. But at the same time the writing is amazing, too.

4. Keep a Journal. I journaled about some of the events of the week. I wrote haiku. I made notes of phrases that struck me, bits of conversation that intrigued me, stories that others related. If we writers accomplish only one thing each day, it would be to journal our thoughts, impressions, and ideas--and with that foster the writing habit and keep the writing wheels oiled.

It turns out that a busy week yielded up valuable writing material--simply because of a commitment to think as a writer as I went. Thank you, Mr. Plotnik.

And that's only part of the book's premise. "Read, listen, savor, keep a journal--these are ongoing habits of expressive people," Mr. Plotnik writes. "The next five apply during acts of expression."

Oooh, there's so much more ahead in this book. I'll keep on reading, digesting, and (hopefully) applying. How about you? What writing book has impacted your writing, writing habits, expression and expressiveness? Are you able to read, listen, savor and journal consistently most of the time, or not?


  1. So far I have read 3 writing books. All 3 of them have taught me how to write better.

  2. As always, so much for me to learn!


  3. Wow. You sold me on this book. I'm going immediately to download it to my Kindle. I'm also going to put your post in next Friday's link roundup. My friend Kim is a wordsmith, as you are. She will love to read this post.

    I'm not so much into wordsmithing, but I do think I would enjoy Plotnik's book. I also know that one of our local authors, N.D. Wilson, who writes MG fantasy, plays a lot with language and indeed, that is probably why his publisher picked him up in the first place, and why he is one of their stars.

  4. I have quite a few writer's books. I haven't read any of them all the way through but "pick and choose" as I need inspiration of one kind or another. One book I have liked is Crafting Stories for Children by Nancy Lamb. She also talks about the value of journal writing (which I never seem to find enough time to do, though I love the idea of it), and recounts a story of seeing an owl on the beach. "We all encounter the extraordinary in the ordinary. It happens all the time. But caught up in the demands of our daily lives, we often fail to take the time to see them, to envision them in a story or to open ourselves to the possibility of mystery" (p. 14).

    Kenda, I don't think you'd miss the owl on the beach. But you often remind ME to look for it! Thanks!

  5. Rachna, Glad to hear how writing books have helped you. I've read several and enjoyed each one.

    And Debbie, no matter how many books on writing I read, I agree--there's so much more to learn about the craft. More than that, tho, I want to take what I've already learned and apply it. There's got to be a point where there's more writing being done and less just reading about it :-)

    Cathy, glad this has sparked your interest in Plotnik's book--I think you'll really like it. And thanks for your kind words, and for the upcoming link to your blog! And sounds like I need to check out N.D.Wilson's work...

    Peggy, I DO love the image of an owl on the beach. Thanks for sharing. Let's agree to encourage each other to look for the extraordinary in the ordinary. It's part of what makes writing so much fun. Have a great week :-)