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VINE VOICEon October 25, 2002
Patricia O'Conner's Words Fail Me presents so many practical insights into effective writing that I suspect it would be valuable to almost any writer. And there's a bonus: she has a great sense of humor. She debunks the faux pas fallacies that snobbishly tell us how not to write -- don't use contractions, don't start sentences with conjunctions, etc. And she tells us how these supposed `rules' came to be. Wisely, O'Conner's most important rule is this:
"Your first duty to the reader is to make sense. Everything else -- eloquence, beautiful images, catchy phrases, melodic and rhythmic language -- comes later, if at all. I'm all for artistry, but it's better to write something homely and clear than something lovely and unintelligible."
I read quite a lot, mostly nonfiction (philosophy, reference, science, theology, and wilderness travel). Inevitably, reading compels me to write -- I've submitted more than fifty book reviews to this forum. Yet I'm never quite happy with my writing. This is not unusual. "Your favorite novel or history or memoir is just someone's last revision," says O'Conner.
As a student I disliked studying the nuts and bolts of English. Words, their accuracy, economy, and artistry, interest me far more now, and this book is the first "how to write" text I have read. At the risk of belaboring the obvious (because good writing doesn't): it was a good choice.
Highly recommended.
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on January 30, 2000
I disagree with the former reviewer who stated this book might be more suited for novice writers. I am a professional writer and found this book a wonderful reminder of lessons learned. I could not put it down.
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on August 12, 1999
I bought a personal copy of this author's last book, WOE IS I. After reading it and realizing how clevely it was written and how useful the content was, I went out and got 5 more for several friends. We have all found it wonderfully helpful for those vexing questions of grammar and usage. Well, Ms. O'Conner has done it again. In her witty, breezy, upbeat style she has written a truly readable book about writing. It seems like literally millions of us are communicating more and more - both instantly and globally - these days thanks to the Internet. Writing clearly and in an interesting manner has become more important than ever. And, since our own written words are often our first introduction to others, it's beneficial to each of us to learn the tricks and tips that make writing flow smoothly and represent accurately what we really mean to say. Ms. O'Conner example's are from all sorts of literature and from her own imagination. I laughed out loud at Kim and Alec in the hot tub. And several quoted passages have inspired me to read the works in which they appear. I hope this book finds a wide audience. It would be useful for anyone who writes and aspires to do it well.
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on September 5, 2002
It's one of life's little ironies that you find yourself engaging in things as you grow older that you hated when you were younger. Maybe hate is too strong a word. It wasn't that I hated grammar, but that I really didn't give it much thought, and felt that time spent in English class doing so was wasted. Since then, I've become not just a writer who wants to be read, but also a teacher of writing, who has to convince his students that grammar is important.
Having resources like this book by O'Conner certainly helps. Rather than the dry stuff foisted off on middle- and high-school students, O'Conner leads through examples. This is a nice companion to her earlier book, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, which covers some of the wrong-headed beliefs that most students emerge from secondary school with (such as the incorrect idea that it is wrong to end a sentence with a preposition, which I just did). It's a good writing book that gets you to thinking it's time to pick up the pen and write something, and that's how I felt several times while reading through this one. In fact, her section on point of view "cured" a bit of writer's block I was having with regard to one story that had been lingering about in my mind for the last four years and which I had been unable to start.
I'd be tempted to do away with the writer's handbook for these two books of O'Conner's, but that wouldn't be smart. These are good, but they aren't a reference so much as they are an explanation for why grammar needs to be observed.
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on March 1, 2005
Reasons to buy/read this book

1. You have writer's block and need help.

2. You feel that you've confused the many rules of writing.

3. Your writing style bores you.

4. It takes you three pages to explain something that's complicated.

I read "Words Fail Me" for motivation while writing my second book. The best way to move past a writer's block is to lift your confidence by sharpening your writing skills. O'Conner delivers writing confidence in about 20 easy-to-digest chapters.

Patricia T. O'Conner's work is neither preachy nor boring. She speaks to the aspiring writer who may have forgotten some grammar rules while queuing you to times when you may not need to adhere to all the rules in the grammar book.

Her writing is witty and makes grammar fun, for once. It's a neat refresher book to add to your writing library.
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on December 24, 1999
I find "Words Fail Me" more useful than any other book about writing I've seen. The only other one that comes close is William Zinnser"s "On Writing Well," but Ms. O'Conner's book is a lot more fun to read. "Words Fail Me" also gets into areas that other books don't, such as the chapter on phoniness, "Pompous Circumstances: Hold the Baloney" and the chapter on math, "Down for the Count: When the Numbers Don't Add Up."
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on October 18, 1999
An entertaining and informative read. Ms. O'Connor is obviously a pro in every sense of the word. Her book is perhaps more geared to novices than to those of us who've been out there writing for a while. William Zinsser's "On Writing Well" still remains a top choice for me -- one of those indispensibles along with Strunk and White. But there's still much to be learned from Ms. O'Connor, not only what she says but how she says it. Bravo!
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on January 30, 2000
I think anyone, from a beginner to a professional, can learn something from Words Fail Me. No, it won't make you a great writer. No book can. But it'll make you a better writer. That's all you can ask for.
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on November 15, 2004
Who would have thought that reading,about writing, could be fun? Patricia T O'Conners' Words Fail Me is a fun reminder of the basic rules of writing. Her clever use of puns makes the information seem seem fresh. Not like some of the musty writing texts I have used in the past.

Read it, use it and enjoy it.
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VINE VOICEon May 19, 2004
After reading Patricia T. O'Conner's grammar book "Woe Is I," I was looking forward to reading what she has to say about the craft of writing. What I found was underwhelming.
"Words Fail Me" is the author's atempt to distill many years of writing in the newspaper realms into a manageable book for would-be writers. Her wit, charm, and way around a pun makes this smooth, fun reading. Tackling issues like writer's block, grammar, writing humor, smoothing out word order in sentences, and more, O'Conner gives us a handy book that nails all the basics.
But therein lies the problem: the book is too basic. There are dozens of books on the market that mine this same territory, a few better, most worse. While "Words Fail Me" is well-written and informative, it simply does not go into the level of detail that will help writers rise above the mundane. Nor does the author dish the dirt that writers need to know to get their work published. It would seem to me with her outstanding experience that O'Conner would do a better job with the "deep knowledge" she possesses about publishing as an industry. While this may be another book that she has in her, any book like "Words Fail Me" has to do a better job of helping writers distinguish themselves from the vast pool of writing talent. Millions are writers, but how do you take the craft to the level needed to stand out from the crowd? You won't be any closer to grasping this after reading this book. And that's too bad.
If you can write a decent sentence, you won't need "Words Fail Me." Sol Stein's "Stein on Writing" is an excellent next step instead, that author providing the inside knowledge sadly missing from O'Conner's book. The only thing unique about "Words Fail Me" is the fact that it may be the only book of its kind ever written that includes a lone appendix containing a joke about a duck in a hardware store. Other than that, it's just not in-depth enough to justify it as a must-read.
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