Sunday, November 3, 2013

Same Sin, Different Girl

Included in most lists of weak or dead words are very and any form of get. As a middle school English teacher, a thirteen year-old's leap from very to a more accurate word is often confused with mild adjustments: incredibly, extremely, really, and hugely.

For instance, instead of very happy a student might revise their text to really happy. I try to help students understand that if a writer suggests that something is more than happy (very happy) or that degrees of happiness exists...then a more accurate word or phrase exists. I have seen gaskets pop out of young heads when suggesting, "perhaps a simile or metaphor would be more helpful to the reader?"

Very, in all of its forms, stagnates writers--and it allows young writers to develop lazy habits. Really happy is no better than very happy.

Same sin, different girl.

In the case of get, I find students paralyzed by it. When challenged to invoke a stronger verb in its place, students think in terms of precision bombing their text rather than carpet bombing it. They think of the pen (or keystroke) as a surgeon does a scalpel--cut out the ugly growth, stitch up the wound, and perform a little plastic surgery.

Unfortunately, revision is not that clean. Revision, even of singular words, can be messy. I want kids to see writing, and the revision of writing, as more like playing in the mud and less like performing surgery.

This is the opening of an essay by a student currently in my class:

A lot of people in less developed countries don’t get many chances, unlike the people who get advantages. We are those people, and are educated, get a decent meal, and clean water, some things that those people desperately need. But the fact is, that we overlook those things.
While it is a solid thought marred by some structural issues in the second sentence, my eyes only see three words: get, get, and get. I want her to revise this--but the common knee-jerk reaction by students would treat get like a blemish and seek the best product to cover it up. In this case, my student might revise:
...countries don't receive many chances...
...people who receive advantages...
...receive a decent meal...
For many years, students have asked, "How do I find that many different words for get?" So, they settle on the one word that camoflauges the problem.

Same sin, different girl.

After twenty years in the classroom, I finally feel confident in articulating how help students beyond suggesting find a better word--which is misleading and feeds into a student's sense of a writer as surgeon. My hope is for my current students to understand that they need to disentangle their text from those words.

Get and very, in all of their forms, are not a writer's words. They are words reserved for speech. We speak those words because time is a variable when we talk. When our brains grapple for the right word, we pause, stutter, or stall. In most cases of speech, our brain settles on the lightest words: get and very. And that is acceptable to most. I imagine less than 1% of the population would halt someone  during conversation and ask, "--get? what do you mean by get?"

As an aside, while such a person might be booed and hissed out of society, the intentions deserve a closer look. The Oxford-English dictionary lists well over 250 possible definitions for get. Quite simply, get is one, vague verb.

As writers, we have a commodity that does not exist when we speak--time. We have the time to open a dictionary or a thesaurus; we have the time to confer with peer; and we have the time to put our writing aside, and think about what we would like to write. Imagine being midstream in a reply during a conversation with a friend and walking away--to mull a better combination of words other than very happy.

No one would do that.

Yet, when we are writers, we must. Teaching students to avoid these weak words is more than a practice in developing vocabulary. We are teaching them patience and perseverance, and, more importantly, we are teaching them to stretch themselves--to not be satisfied with the first, and often lightest, word grasped. Yes, those weak words are fine during the draft stage. Yet, as a regular part of the final stages of our surface revisions, help young writers by pressing them to dig to disentangle the weakest words from their text.

And remind them, writing is more like playing in the mud then performing surgery.

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