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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

Take time for what really matters – like connecting

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

 

 

“When you’re not feeling well,” said Carol Burling of Pathways, “details are not your friend.”

 

Pathways is a healing center in Uptown that serves people with “life-threatening or chronic physical illness” who “seek healing for body, mind, and spirit.” I went there in the fall of 2016 with someone who is very dear to me, and I remember thinking this place lives up to its mission. It really did provide “a safe, warm, creative, and nurturing environment.” And it wasn’t just “for people affected by health crisis.” It was also for caregivers. Like me.

 

It wasn’t until Carol’s voice wrapped around me like a warm soft blanket that I realized how much I was hurting. Beyond all the medical detail and the minutia of practical decisions, I thought, what would it be like to lose the most important person in my life? What really matters in the end?

 

Details are not your friend when you have so much to deal with, Carol said. Like getting well. Like staying alive.

 

Now as I reflect on how details affect (not effect) us, I realize I’ve spent a good deal of my own life teaching the details of language – the rules of grammar and punctuation, correct word choice, and the mechanics of good sentence structure. I’ve taught thousands of students and writers how to check to see if their verbs agree in number with their subjects, how to identify and eliminate comma splices (especially with the words however and therefore), and how to maintain parallel structure in a series or a vertical list (She was healthy, wealthy, and athletic, not She was healthy, wealthy, and an athlete).

 

But when you’re feeling stressed and rushed, when you feel pressured to meet a deadline or to get the job done, language rules are not your friend. Who cares where the apostrophe goes as long as the reader understands your message? What really matters in the end?

 

As I told a group of writers with MnDOT a couple of weeks ago and another group with the Wilder Foundation a few weeks before that, it isn’t the rules that really count. You can break any rule you like as long as you do so for stylistic effect (and as long as your departure is appropriate for your purpose, your audience, and the occasion). The rules are only a way of getting to where you want to go. They’re the means, not the end.

 

What really matters, I said to those writers, is that we begin by talking about language – well-turned sentences, distracting errors, persuasive strategies – and before long you’re telling your stories. You’re sharing your values and goals, your hopes and dreams, and then you’re describing the kind of world you want this to be.

 

What a privilege for me to be granted permission to snoop on your professional (and personal) lives. Language, which is a construct governed by myriad rules, is a beautiful and wondrous thing, but our words are only a means of arriving at our destination. In the end, we want to connect.

 

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