Words Matter: How to Use Good Essay Models to Become a Better Writer

Words Matter Week 2012: "Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind." Rudyard Kipling

It’s Words Matter Week with its accompanying blog challenge and word-related reading, so I’ve been reflecting on the power and importance of words. One of the best ways you can teach writing is to share good models. I especially like working with excellent essays, as they tend to expand not only vocabulary and usage skills, but also because they expand thought.

I have an essay by Steve McClure bookmarked as a good model, and since the topic is the use of buzzwords, I thought it would be appropriate for Words Matter Week. The post, On the Rapscallions Who Misuse Word appears on the blog of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan.

“As journalists we have a special responsibility to watch out for this sort of thing. Forgive the hyperbole, but we should think of ourselves as being in the front line of the unending struggle to preserve the English language from the tide of cant, jargon and buzzwords that constantly threatens to drown the language in a sea of obfuscation and bafflegab.”

Bravo! McClure not only makes an excellent point about a journalist’s responsibility to the English language, but he also demonstrates that there is beauty and delight in a vast, vivid vocabulary. This isn’t the first time a writer has complained about buzzwords, but McClure has done so in a particularly memorable way.

Share Steve McClure’s post with your teenage writer and suggest he or she use the Benjamin Franklin method* for working with it. This should result in not only an expanded vocabulary, but also a deeper understanding of the art of writing. Enjoy!

A mind, once expanded by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.

Oliver Wendell Holmes


*If you haven’t encountered the Ben Franklin method, here’s a short excerpt from a longer article on the Everyday Education website:

“There are many textbooks available for teaching composition, but it is possible for a motivated student to become an excellent writer using what I call the ‘Ben Franklin method.’ In The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Franklin relates how, after his father pointed out his lack of “elegance of expression,” he taught himself to write more elegantly and expressively:

‘About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator – I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to complete the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.

But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned then into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and compleat the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language.’