On Sisters, Words, and Writing

Last Friday, my big sister flew to see me. From the airport, we drove thirty-eight miles to the beach, checked into a historic hotel, exchanged our street clothes for swimsuits, dashed out to the pool, and lingered, cool beverages in hand. Freedom persisted. Our feet hit the sand. The tides rolled in with the ocean breeze. Seashells appeared to be found. Fish tacos beckoned, and we answered the call. It was a weekend of sisterhood, a salve for my soul, a respite by the sea, one last hoorah before the inevitable back-to-school.

As I unloaded my deepest, darkest secrets, I heard my speech sprinkled with words like—actually, honestly, literally, ironically, hopefully…. When had I picked up this nasty adverb habit? An overuse of basically unnecessary words? (I meant to do that). When I say honestly, does that mean I’m not being honest the rest of the time? And if something is literally happening, isn’t it happening either way? And who knows if whatever seemed to me ironic was actually ironic? Even my computer (as I typed the last sentence) says: More concise language would be clearer for your reader.

Even at the beach, Steven King’s words echoed across time and place:

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Stephen King

By the way, King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is a worthwhile read. Apparently, it didn’t break me of my verbal adverb compulsion. But you know what they say—the first step is admitting you have a problem. Obviously, I have teaching on my mind.

A summer ago in my last Creative Writing class, my professor said words that resonate still. I wrote them down:

“Stories are made from words. Your story is only as good as you have command of the language.”

Dr. James Boyleston

I love words, and I love the beach. Where better place to study? These words I found online:

“When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are far apart.”

Mark Twain

“Poetry is all nouns and verbs.”

Marianne Moore

Now, I can’t read without seeing how the author uses adjectives. I hope my students will see the same. This year when we read poetry in class, we’ll test Marianne Moore’s theory about the nouns and verbs. Mark Twain, I see your adverb, and I think anything in moderation works fine.

These words I found in a book about writing called, Sin and Syntax:

“A dependence on is and its family screams ‘rough draft.'”

Constance Hale

The key word is dependence. My past students have counted be verbs “am, is, are, was, were, be, been being” in their writing and reduced the number through revisions. Constance Hale suggests an 8:1 ratio of action verbs to be verbs. I think I’ll have my students test this idea with the stories we read.

And these words I found in my all-time favorite book about writing, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer:

With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.

Francine Prose

The word-studying English teacher in me notices a few adverbs above, but also the parallelism of the adverb/adjective pairs: “seemingly obvious” and “oddly underappreciated.” I also see a number of those “be” verbs, “is” and its family, and that’s okay. Sometimes an “is” makes our clearest points. Other times our writing advances with action.

And these words I found in a comment on my blog:

We wouldn’t teach piano without having the student listen to Chopin or teach painting without looking at great art. Too often, English teachers give assignments without enough models of the form first.

Evelyn Krieger

I’m betting Evelyn Krieger has read Francine Prose, but as I head back to school, I appreciate her reminder.

My big sister headed home Sunday. Goodbyes are hard. I can’t help thinking my mother conspired from on high to make the trip possible and see her girls together, beachside.

As the days of summer dwindle, part of me is grateful for a new school year beginning, and part of me is sad for the vacation ending. Such is life. For everything there is a season. The waves come and go, the moments come and go, the feelings come and go. Everything is temporary.

47 thoughts on “On Sisters, Words, and Writing

  1. There are a lot of adverbs in young people’s speech. I bet you picked them up from teaching. I found myself saying “dude” a lot when I was coaching youth.:-) (To look at granny-me, you’d think that word would never leave my lips.) Thanks for the beach video, so soothing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Glad you had sister time and musing time. We all pick up bad language and writing habits over time and because we do not always listen to ourselves, they come as a surprise when we take the time to hear our words. People take short cuts, mispronounce words and just plain elide over syllables, because they get a bit lazy. My son (a speech language pathologist) says that language is evolving and as an old coot, I guess I better get sued to it. But I do not have to like it. Happy Thursday Crystal. Allan 🌞

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow this blog actually comprises of the three things which is family(your sister), words(by your professor) and writing tips. I like how you wrote in the past tense in all these 3 items above. Its like you are telling a story of the events that happened in your past life. Well written😋

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  4. Glad you had some wonderful time with your sister. I do think we pick up words like that from young folk and I guess you must have done so from your students.

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    1. 😂 I see what you did there, Christine. I just added all of these quotes into a PowerPoint, and this year before students ever write a paragraph or an essay, we’re going to start with a discussion of words, then sentences. Year 22 in the classroom. Still trying to get it right.

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  5. How wonderful that you and your sister spent time together at the beach! I love the quote from Francine Prose: “[W]ords are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.” I note that this short sentence paints a picture using two strokes of the verb “to be.” As you say: “Sometimes an “is” makes our clearest points.” I agree.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Rosaliene! Thank you! For the longest time I always tried for the action verb until one day I realized I sounded awkward—and I started paying more attention to author’s I admire. The 8:1 ratio is new to me, but I look forward to testing that idea.

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  6. It takes insight, Crystal, admitting Adverbs’ thrall. Break their tyranny!

    Like, you should totally do it.

    Lest you mistake this for mockery, we all lean on our crutches, either in reliance or in aversion.

    Passive tense populates my nightmares. Between my ears, a roar echoes, “avoid passive tense like the plague” As you might guess, triteness also wins top honors..

    But passive tense is to be fled from.

    Alright, Teach, how many red marks for that last sentence?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This year, I’m going to try more revisions and/or one-on-one conferences before grading. The problem is keeping the others busy and quiet enough to do that during class. Send me your number, Keith, and let’s talk about that sentence.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Great idea, Crystal, consistent with giving high school students a thrilling sample of grad-school quality. One of many reasons for your lessons’ immortality. How many stories, told around 2072 or so, will open with “Probably the best teacher I ever had, and all the way back in high school too, was Ms. Byers…”?

        Now, your challenge, here and now: finding a way to keep twenty kids quiet. Sure, they’re smart, creative and often are mature beyond their years, but still, they’re…teens.

        As for my number, it’s seven. This works only from a rotary phone, though. If it doesn’t connect, wait for the operator to come on the line and tell her to patch you through to seven. You’ve seen “The Waltons,” you know how it goes.

        Me and my triteness will wait for the call with baited breath. A trout, hence the bait.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I was thinking—a trout, hence the breath. As for numbers, my childhood number on (a rotary) local call was five digits. Now to locate that rotary phone. The youngins have no idea what we’re talking about.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Hello Crystal, Great Essay. William Zinsser four points for non-fiction writing; clarity,simplisty,humanity, brevity.
    please have your students read his boo, “On Writing Well. And all the best for the new school year. jerry

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  8. I could put your ocean video on a loop and soak up the calming vibes all day. 😌

    I appreciate how you weave a story, about visiting with your sister, around a topic your are passionate about, writing.

    I need to notice my use of adjectives, adverbs, and being verbs. Most of the time I’m not aware of the parts of speech I’m using. I simply try to write succinctly and not be too wordy. It’s also helpful to tell a story. People like stories, especially when they can relate to them personally.

    Who wants to listen to an English teacher talk about grammar and syntax? Me either. But I’m willing to read a post three times that’s about that same teacher, and her sister, who rekindle their relationship at the beach. Oh, and she slips some great writing quotes and advice in for free. And I don’t mind.

    I’ve been meaning to comment after reading this, but it’s taken me hours. There, I did it. 😃

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    1. The class I took a couple of weeks ago has me thinking about words, then sentences, then paragraphs, then essays. I’ve been guilty of expecting kids to go straight to the essay, timed in class then graded. I’ve also skipped many-a-grammar lesson. This year I’m building in time to recap what kids should know on their way to becoming competent, confident college students. Thanks so much for the kind words, David. Have a great weekend!

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Why am I so struck by your last sentence? How sad is the fact that EVERYTHING is temporary.
    I’m so happy that you are your sister had a great time and I would love if you were my daughters ELA teacher. You get it and I love that! My girls have always loved ELA and so far they have both had wonderful teachers. Hoping that my 7th grader’s ELA teacher will be great this year as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. The best view ever!! Love all the sounds of the beach!! I feel such a closeness with my sisters as well and feel so blessed they are both so near to me (in distance and relationship)! Seeing them both tomorrow for a family gathering! 🙂

    I am fairly certain Mr. King would have much to say about my adverb-soaked writing lol….

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  11. There is nothing better than sister time, the ocean, and adverbs to galore. There so appealing, as if a chameleon, they fit everywhere. Everything is temporary except kindness, that lasts forever! Hugs, C

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  12. This is a wonderful post, Crystal. I had “rules” drilled into me in high school. I still agree with not using the passive tense when you can use the active tense. All of the above advice is interesting, and I know my own writing would benefit from spending some time absorbing it. I also think your approach for the coming year of breaking writing down before expecting a whole essay will be valuable to your students. In the back of my mind, however, there is an itch that says that word choice is an important part of a writer’s style, and it may even vary from one piece to the next depending on subject, mood, etc. For example, I like descriptive writing that uses a lot of adjectives, and maybe even some adverbs, in establishing a setting or bringing a character to life. On the other hand, I loved your writing about your time with your sister, and I have no idea what she looks like. That wasn’t important to what you shared. Your post has given me a lot to think about. I hope you and your students enjoy the coming semester.

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    1. Yes, yes, word choice! I used to have kids make lists of words they like (just by sound), which reminds me about an animated YouTube video I’ve seen called Bulbous Bouffant. It’s just a couple of guys waiting for a bus and entertaining themselves with words. My lesson on words keeps growing. Thanks for visiting, Linda, and giving me more to think about.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I LOVE words. I had to go see Bulbous Bouffant. Actually I watched three different versions. I started out with the oldest as I figured it was probably the original. Unfortunately the sound was not clear (and I wear hearing aids making it a little harder). So I tried one that was just a sound track, and I missed the actors. My last was my favorite–3 high school kids performing it for a talent show. It is funny; I’m so glad you mentioned the video.

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  13. Adverbs seem to reinforce emotional content and position. Useful to the user.
    Language and written language provide so much power for self-expression. But, for me, they will always remain tools for self-expression, not the container for self-expression. Great post.

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  14. Hey there Crystal, I can’t wait to hear what you think of William Zinsser.- On Writing Well And here is some more homework for you. Goggle Steve Hartman On the Road and watch his story about Ellen Jovin. You may also enjoy a movie called The Ron Clark Story free on you tube. And remember the books Between Teacher and Child by Hiam Ginott and Teacher Man by Frank Mccord . Both of these are great for English teachers. That’s all your homework for now. I’m betting you’ll be teacher of the year. All the best for a red clown nose super doddle day. Jerry

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  15. Thank you for sharing!!.. your sisters visit is not temporary, you have memories stored in your heart so you can visit your sister anytime you wish, even if you grow too old to dream… as for writing, I just let my fingers do the walking and my heart do the talking, rarely go wrong… 🙂

    Until we meet again…
    May the sun shine all day long
    Everything go right, nothing go wrong
    May those you love bring love back to you
    And may all the wishes you wish come true
    (Irish Saying)

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  16. I work at not using adverbs. I know I’m not supposed to, but… occasionally… sporadically… haphazardly they get my point across! Happy to know you had a good time with your sister.

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  17. Free as the mind is can take a writer from sisters and beaches to notes on writing! Loved the easy flow of talk😊

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