canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know About Writing
by Patricia T. O’Conner
Harcourt, Inc. Publishers, 2000

Reviewed by Sharon A. Miller

Fellow writers, take notice. Here is a book that the literary-challenged can read, understand, comprehend, and enjoy – all at the same time. P. T. O’Conner has come to the rescue with Words Fail Me: What Everybody Who Writes Should Know About Writing, a treasury of practical and painless advice for unraveling twisted sentences, fixing broken phrases, and salvaging ragged paragraphs. O’Conner’s playful sense of humor and quick wit helps the developing writer make sense of what goes where, along with why, and how it needs to be put there. Her 25 years of experience shines as she walks us through the basics of clear and sensible writing, and then lets us in on the secrets of rhythm, perspective humor, and description. O’Conner states that, “no matter how many people I am writing for, I try to talk to one person at a time” (p. 2). This is what she does in Words Fail Me; talks to you, the inspiring writer.

Words Fail Me: What Everybody Who Writes Should Know About Writing, stresses the importance of knowing your subject and your audience. O’Conner tells us that for better or worse, the audience is everything. Before writing about a subject, know that subject inside and out. She advises putting yourself in the reader’s place, then writing what you would like to read. O’Conner mentions that the process of organizing those scraps of papers and little yellow stickies with ideas and scribble on them will change the longer you write, but never throw an idea away. In addition, she recommends working out a sensible writing schedule, and do your best to stick to it. O’Conner also gives advice for those times when the brain shuts down, and the pen and ink haven’t made it past park. Her suggestions appeal to the reader’s intuit and common sense. She uses examples of what to avoid in writing, tells why, and then explains how to fix it.

Words Fail Me is an ideal introduction to the art of writing for the apprehensive beginning writer. For more experienced writers, it answers a lot of nagging questions that come up all too often. The book analyzes grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, and engages the reader without being authoritative. In chapters such as “Hold the Baloney,” “Verbs that Zing,” “Pronoun Pileups,” and “Misbehaving Modifiers,” O’Conner humorously explains the do’s and don’ts; the whys’ and what nots’, and provides understandable examples that effortlessly blend with the style of her book (p. 44). She’s smart about the little things that are usually overlooked, and helps the novice writer swallow the rules of writing with a chuckle and a knowing grin. “Patricia O’Conner has written a sassy and entertaining guide to the pitfalls, snares, and difficulties of turning one’s thoughts into well-honed and effective prose” (reviewers note: World Wide Words, 2000).

O’Conner's warm and witty approach appeals to both students and professional writers. Her philosophy regarding the art of the writing can be summed up in this poignant statement, “. . . the best writing goes beyond simple mastery of language. It’s power lies elsewhere – in one’s understanding of the human heart and ways of the world, in one’s capacity for making moral judgments, in knowing a thing or two about life, in telling a great story” (p. 5).


Jalongo, Mary R. (2002). Writing for publication: A practical guide for educators. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers, Inc.
Wilcox, Bonita L. (2002). Thinking and writing for publication: A guide for teachers. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.






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ISSN 1494-6114. 


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