Watch Your Words


It was either Flaubert or Oscar Wilde who said, “I’m exhausted. I spent all morning putting a comma in and all afternoon taking it out.” I don’t ponder punctuation quite so ponderously but I do understand the importance of arranging words as you would flowers in a vase, so that each is shown to its best advantage and so that the effect of the whole thing is pleasing.

And yet, yesterday, my publisher sent me a series of graphics that were based on pulled out quotes from a piece of writing I did as an Advent giveaway (You can download it here if you like: and one of my reactions surprised me. First, I was tickled pink to see my words made fancy and pretty. And then, I thought, “I have to watch what I write because someone could make them into a pretty graphic.” Or read my words.

That is the craving of the writer: to simply be read. The rest is gravy (although being paid does actually allow a writer the time to keep writing). But people who identify themselves as writers face some of the same challenges that everyone does: how to take an idea or a picture inside their heads and arrange it into symbols on a page that come close to what they intended to say. Thus the mornings and afternoons with the pesky commas.

But sometimes either we are careless or ineffective in the arrangement of letters and words: I once caused a furor on a former blog with absolutely no intention of being inflammatory. I’ve had times when people’s reactions to my written and spoken words have effectively silenced me for a time. Of that experience, a friend mused, “I wonder if in the end, it is a necessary lesson for a writer to experience feeling ‘silenced’ so that you are reminded of the value you place on expression, and the gift this freedom really is.  It also perhaps provides an opportunity to ‘count the cost’ in advance when you do use your ‘voice’.”

It’s one thing to learn this lesson when readers are mad at you but it was unexpected to be reminded of it in the moment of having my words quoted and made pretty. It comes down to taking care of each word. I often tell new writers that every single word they write needs to justify its existence in the rewriting process. Writers can write whatever they like, but in the rewriting that happens before a story goes out into the world, that’s when a writer needs to carefully decide which ideas and words — and commas — must stay and which can and should go. It isn’t that a writer gets rid of anything that might make a reader angry, or that a writer forms words that will make excellent sound bytes or graphics, but that a writer means what she says and says what she means.





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