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

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 essay models, as Charlotte Mason recommended. I especially like working with excellent essays, as they tend to expand not only vocabulary and usage skills, but also because they expand thought.

Essayist Steve McClure writes, “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.” (From the essay “On the Rapscallions Who Misuse Words,” which appeared on the blog of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan.)

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.

Although Steve McClure’s essay seems to no longer be online, I suggest reading the outstanding Essay; In 750 Words by William Safire with your teenage writer and suggest he or she use the Benjamin Franklin’s model-based writing method* to work with it. This should result in not only an expanded vocabulary, but also broadened knowledge and a deeper understanding of the art and craft 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 Excellence in Literature 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 [lacked] 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.” Read more . . .

You may also enjoy Charlotte Mason on Copywork as well as Charlotte Mason’s Education Manifesto.

3 Responses

  1. Jenn says:

    Hi Janice, the link to the essay above is 404’ing and a google search isn’t producing anything. Do you have a copy we could read?

    • Thank you for letting me know, Jenn. I couldn’t find the McClure essay anywhere, so I linked to another favorite essay by William Safire. Like the original essay model, it offers food for thought, as well as some delightful word play. Safire’s column on writing was one of my favorites for years — he’s master of his craft, and whether or not you are interested in his subject, his writing can pull you in. I hope you enjoy it!

  2. Jenn says:

    Thanks Janice, looking forward to reading it tonight!

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