If It Catches Your Eye, Catch It With Your Pen

Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life is Douglas Wilson’s latest contribution to the bookworm’s universe; it’s also to one of the gifts I received for Christmas. Awesome. And while I may give it a more in-depth review at some point in the future, my verdict (in a nutshell) is this: it’s phenomenal.

I don’t care if you plan to make a career of writing, or merely have a passing interest in it – this book should be on your shelf. It might be specifically targeting those who want to “sling ink” full time, but many of the tips are ones which anybody can profit from.

In his pithy little book, Wilson lays out and explains what he terms “a veritable Russian doll of writing tips”: seven exhortations for people who wish to learn the wordriht life. One of those tips is to keep a commonplace book.

Interestingly enough, a commonplace book is where you get to keep uncommon tidbits.

Write down any notable phrases that occur to you or that you come across. If it is one that you have found in another writer, and it is striking, then quote it, as the fellow said, or modify it to make it yours. If Chandler said that a guy had a cleft chin you could hide a marble in, that should come in useful sometime. How could it not come in useful? If Wodehouse said somebody had an accent you could turn handsprings on, then he might have been talking about Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland. Tinker with stuff. Get your fingerprints on it…

The writer’s life is a scavenger’s life. A little here and a little there, diligently pursued, and pretty soon you have a lot to work with. When you come across a striking phrase (and if you are reading properly this will happen a lot), make a note of it. Use it yourself in conversation. If there is no opportunity to use it in conversation, or in something you are writing, then you need not worry because you wrote it down in your commonplace book. You can always use it later. (pp. 107-108)

Before I read this, I already had a commonplace book. Sort of. Except I used mine to record clever, inspirational, or provocative quotes from men like Teddy Roosevelt and G.K. Chesterton.

That’s all well and good, of course; I still have that book and I still plan to use it. Nevertheless, Wilson’s advice set me thinking, and I soon resolved to start another commonplace book – one dedicated entirely to gathering fodder for my own wordriht life.

I’m glad I did. As of right now, this second commonplace book is not even a week old, and I can already see its usefulness.

One of the things I happen to be reading at the moment is Cherie Priest’s award-winning novel Boneshaker. It’s excellent: one of those books that propels you onward with its gripping plot, while simultaneously tempting you to savor its finely-polished prose. Having established that I wanted to catch the “table-scraps” of other, better writers, I began paying more attention to fragments and phrases that struck me as particularly neat or creative.

“He finished chasing her words with his pencil…”

“The contents of his stomach threatened an escape attempt.”

“The shift from grim, watery daylight to full-on night was sudden and loud.”

“The investigating motion of her swinging boots pushed it aside…”

“… the clattering calamity of her descent…”

“Rudy slipped up behind the smaller man, seized him, and wiped the sharp edge of the blade across his throat…”

“… the chattering patter of conversation…”

“… a drip of water would ping and splash its way to the earth.”

Pretty cool, huh? Some of those phrases may not strike you as anything special, but they caught my eye and I wrote them down. Just in case. Just in case…

“When I was teaching writing – and I still say it – I taught that the best way to learn to write is by reading. Reading critically, noticing paragraphs that get the job done, how your favorite writers use verbs, all the useful techniques. A scene catches you? Go back and study it. Find out how it works.” – Tony Hillerman

22 thoughts on “If It Catches Your Eye, Catch It With Your Pen”

  1. Great suggestion Corey. Without these kinds of good little tips trying to express yourself may be as frustrating as “trying to push a rope”. lol!

  2. This was really interesting. I’ve never been big on writing down different quotes and such unless they REALLY hit me. However, I don’t carry a special notebook with me to write things down in, either. So perhaps its mostly that. In any case, I’ve been inspired to do better at writing down sentences that catch my eye.
    I’m thinking that the 2nd, 4th, and 6th sentences that you shared were the most interesting. A very good use of different words that makes each sentence more alive and helps make it pop out instead of fade into the rest of the text… (course, since you underlined them, that might’ve helped to. haha! ;)

    1. It feels a bit weird (and slightly annoying) at first – taking the time to write a sentence down instead of rushing onward through the book. But I think it definitely pays off in the end. Big time. :D

  3. Great post! Since I have a shelf of my own commonplace books. One benefit is that I can release books more easily if I feel like I’ve sucked the marrow out of them by writing down the best quotes, phrases, and words.

    I read every book, even library copies, with a soft pencil. When something strikes me, I mark the margin with a line. After I’ve read the book, I go back and review (and erase, unless I own the book and intend to keep it) the passages I had noted. As I read over the sentences I write them in my commonplace book. I err on the side of writing too much. But sometimes when I come back to a sentence it doesn’t strike me as being *that* good and I cheerfully erase the mark.

    What I prefer about this method is that when I’m reading, I’m reading. Uninterrupted. And the second time through the book (I flip through every page) I solidify my understanding of it.

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