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Make Every Word Work for You, Part I with Barbara Davenport

Posted by on Mar 13, 2017 in Blog, Craft Talk, Fresh Ink | Comments Off on Make Every Word Work for You, Part I with Barbara Davenport

Barbara Davenport has a class on Make Every Word Work for You on 3/25!  Sign up now.

The great novelist and short story writer Flannery O’Connor said, “Make every word work for you.” When every word is working for you, your writing is taut and powerful. As you prune extraneous ideas and cull words that aren’t doing maximal work, your piece packs a heftier punch. Characters become more vivid, the action flows convincingly, and your reader wants to stay with you. In my one-day class on Saturday, March 25, you’ll learn the skills and practices that make every word work.

Why does this matter? A manuscript where every word works has a better shot at getting published, and a better shot at keeping its readers reading. The reasons are pretty simple:

  • Editors have too much to read. They have to say no far more often than yes. If your work gets to the point and says what it came to say confidently and gracefully in the space allotted, you’ve made it easier for an editor to say yes.
  • Readers have too much to do. They pick up your book, but Twitter, Facebook, IM’s, Netflix and video games beckon. Your reader has a zillion reasons to put your book down. If what she reads gets quickly into the story and moves along without flabby writing or irrelevant side trips, s likely to keep reading


Making every word work involves knowing very clearly what you came to say and the skills to peel everything else away. The class I’ll teach on Saturday, March 25th will show you the basics of these skills. Here’s one element.


Be very clear what you’re writing about.

  • What is your focus in this passage or chapter or essay? What have you come to say?
  • What do you want your reader to understand when she’s read it?
  • What do you want your reader to feel?

To get as clear as you can about these questions, it helps to write a mission statement. Something like, I want to describe Don and Alice’s first apartment in Albuquerque, so my reader can see its shabbiness and its weird layout, also understand how important a part of their lives it was in those years. A statement like this can help you stay focused on what needs to stay and what should go.

And here’s one of the techniques that help:

Word Choice I: Use 5 and 10-cent words most of the time; use $5 words sparingly We’re talking here about Anglo-Saxon vs. words of Latin origin. Anglo-Saxon words are the majority of the words we use in everyday speech; they tend to be shorter, and closer to how people talk about their experience. Latinate words tend to distance your reader from feelings or from the reality of an event. Bureaucratic prose is full of them. Anglo Saxon words bring your reader in close to what’s happening. If you’re looking to raise the emotional temperature of a passage, you’ll want to use Anglo Saxon words.

Here are a few examples of the differences:

Anglo-Saxon Latinate
Hug Embrace
Jail Incarcerate
Prison Penitentiary
Spot Recognize
Help Enable
Buy Procure
Murder Homicide
Scam Deception
Urge Advocate
Sell Purvey
Count Enumerate


I’ll be back next week with another post on making your words work for you.

 Barbara Davenport is the author of Grit and Hope, A Year with Five Latino Students and the Program That Helped Them Aim for College, UC Press, and as Barbara Rosof, The Worst Loss, How Families Heal from the Death of a Child, Henry Holt. She’s written for Voice of San Diego,  the ReaderCityBeat, the Christian Science Monitor and some exceedingly obscure lit mags. She teaches writing in private groups and in individual consultation. She has a special interest in helping writers learn to edit their work.