A Conversation With Patricia T. O'Conner

by Claire E. White

Photo of Patricia T. O'Conner

Writing wasn't always Patricia T. O'Conner's first love. Growing up in Iowa in the Eisenhower era, she wanted to be Annie Oakley. But when she grew up she put her chaps aside, and went off to Grinnell College, where she majored in philosophy. In 1973, after a side trip to obtain a graduate degree in journalism, she got a job as a reporter at the Waterloo Courier, a daily paper in northeast Iowa. Later she became an editor and moved to the Des Moines Register, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times, where she worked for 15 years, 11 of them on the Sunday Book Review Section.

While she was working at the New York Times, Jane Isay, then the publisher of Grosset/Putnam, asked her to write a lighthearted grammar book. Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English was published in 1996 and was a national bestseller; Pat appeared on Oprah to talk about the book. Woe is I is an unusual book: a grammar guide which is highly entertaining. Using such chapter headings as, "Comma Sutra: the Joy of Punctuation," and "Plurals Before Swine: Blunders With Numbers," the author teaches the rules of grammar with wit and humor.

Patricia left the Times the following year when Isay, now the Executive Editor of Harcourt Brace's adult trade division, asked Patricia for a book about writing. Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know About Writing was published in October, 1999, to rave reviews from readers and critics alike. Words Fail Me features the same delightful style as Woe is I, and contains invaluable help for writers looking to polish their style. Patricia is known for her ability to take what some would consider a very dull subject -- grammar rules, for instance -- and make it sound like the most fascinating thing in the world. She is fond of puns, and loves to read most anything -- as long as it is well-written, of course. When she's not writing, you can find her working in her garden, spending time with her husband, or curled up with a good book. Pat spoke with us about how she got her start in the newspaper business, what inspired her to write her bestselling writing books, and gives some great tips for writers and book reviewers.

What did you like to read when you were a child?

I devoured fairy tales, especially the violent, gory ones. Later, as my reading skills improved, I liked to sneak a peek at my mom's bedside reading. In fact, I learned about sex -- the mechanics of it, anyway -- by surreptitiously reading a steamy novel, Ten North Frederick, that I'd smuggled out of my parents' bedroom.

I noticed that Words Fail Me is dedicated to your mother. How did she influence you in your choice of career?

Her greatest influence on my work life, and on my life in general, has been her encouragement and her calm acceptance of whatever I wanted to do (I'm excluding things like playing with matches). I can imagine her saying, "You want to be a trapeze artist? How interesting!" Her own work life has been much more wide-ranging than mine, by the way. She's been a Pinkerton's detective, the editor of a scholarly historical journal, and finally a certified respiratory therapist. She's retired now.

How did you get your start in the newspaper business?

I majored in philosophy in college, which did nothing to enhance my marketability when I started to look for work. So after a year or so of futzing around, I went to graduate school in journalism, staying there just long enough to land a reporting job. (The only thing I remember about graduate school is sitting in the student lounge and watching the Watergate hearings on TV.)

In 1973 I began working for the Waterloo Courier, a daily paper in northeast Iowa, then switched from reporting to editing and moved on to the Des Moines Register, the Wall Street Journal, and finally the New York Times, where I worked for 15 years. I left the Times in 1997 to write my second book, Words Fail Me. My first one, Woe Is I, a grammar guide, was written on nights and weekends while I was working full time.

How did you choose which books to review for the New York Times? Which genres did you review?

Although I did evaluate books and assign them to reviewers on occasion, and although I did write a review myself once in a while, my job at the Book Review was primarily to edit reviews after they were turned in. For the most part, Book Review pieces are written by outsiders, not Times writers. Since I left the paper, I've enjoyed reviewing more often - books in a variety of genres, both fiction and nonfiction.

As a book reviewer, what really excites you about a book?

First, the book has to be well written. Second, it has to hold my interest. It also helps if the ideas are fresh and original.

What was your inspiration to write your first grammar book, Woe Is I?

Cover of
Woe is I by Patricia T. O'Conner
A wonderful book editor (Jane Isay, then at Putnam) asked me to write a lighthearted grammar guide, and I jumped at the chance to share what I'd learned in 20 years of editing. I wanted to explain the most common grammatical mysteries in simple language, avoiding the technical terminology that intimidates so many of us -- "subjunctives," "intransitives," "coordinating conjunctions," "independent clauses."

What kind of response did you receive after Woe Is I was published? Did it surprise you that a grammar book would be so popular that it would lead to a sequel?

The response surprised everybody involved, I think. The book seemed to strike a chord among people who hadn't studied grammar in school (everybody under 40, that is), and among those who had been turned off by more pedantic books. Many teachers tell me they use it in their classrooms.

In Words Fail Me you discuss one of the surprising effects of the electronic revolution -- the showcasing of America's poor writing skills. Many people treat email as if it were a spoken conversation, using slang and omitting basic sentence structure. Others approach drafting an email as they would a written letter. What is your opinion on this subject?

Email seems to fall somewhere between speech and formal writing. But when you're writing an electronic message of any kind, you should first consider your audience. Who's on the other end? If you're emailing your Senator, your professor, or a prospective employer, be just as careful as you would in a written letter -- that is, do your best with the grammar, spelling, punctuation, and composition. If you're emailing your best friend, you can relax a bit, just as you would in speaking to that person. But don't send anything that could be hurtful or embarrassing if it fell into the wrong hands. Especially at work!

The subject of grammar is an intimidating one for many people. Why do you think this is true? Who is to blame for the fact that recent studies show that most high school students are incapable of writing a coherent sentence?

Many people are needlessly frightened away from the subject by all the bulky terminology, which I referred to above and which makes English grammar seem more complicated than it really is. A reader once told me that you don't have to know all the parts of a car to be a good driver.

As for America's incoherent youth, the blame lies with our schools, which have de-emphasized the teaching of English grammar and composition since about the late 1960's. The idea was that children learn language in the process of using it, and that correcting their speech or their writing would impede their creativity, spontaneity, and self-esteem. This may have sounded good 30 years ago, but unfortunately it doesn't work. What's worse, many of today's teachers were schoolchildren in the 60's and 70's; naturally, they're ill equipped to teach what they never learned themselves. School districts are learning that while it's easy to remove a subject from the curriculum, it's very difficult to put it back.

If you had to choose your all-time top three grammar pet peeves, what would they be?

First, using "I" when "me" is correct. Here's an example: "Dad took Freddie and I skiing." It's a common mistake, but if you want to be correct, just mentally eliminate the other guy: "Dad took ... me skiing."

Second, confusing "its" and "your" and "whose" (possessives) with "it's" and "you're" and "who's" (contractions). Here the apostrophes stand in for missing letters, so if the word is short for "it is," go for "it's; if the word is short for "you are," go for "you're"; if the word is short for "who is," go for "who's."

Third -- and this isn't actually a grammar problem -- I cringe when I hear or read non-words like "irregardless." And I shiver when I come across bloated, empty language, as in "The parameters of his fiscal dynamic were negatively impacted by his involuntary separation." In other words, "He was broke after he was fired."

What is the greatest challenge you've faced in leaving your job to write full-time?

Paying the bills.

What do you love most about being a writer?

The best part about writing something is finishing it and being satisfied with what you've done.

What words of advice do you have for a budding novelist? For an aspiring nonfiction author?

The advice is the same for both: Read the very best fiction (or nonfiction), as much of it as you can. Keep your expectations reasonable and don't set impossible goals. Be prepared to work harder than ever before, because writing well takes great effort -- the better the writing, the greater the effort. Expect a lot of rejections. And don't expect to make a living as a writer, at least not right away.

What advice can you give us about beating writer's block?

Cover of
Words Fail Me by Patricia T. O'Conner
Writer's block is no joke, which is why it gets a whole chapter in Words Fail Me. The cures, of course, depend on the causes, which are many. One source of serious writer's block is fear of the reader. The cure -- and this is a gross oversimplification -- is to know your audience. Imagine a friendly reader, one who's on your side and wants you to succeed.

Maybe your problem is that you've gotten bogged down in research (perhaps in an unconscious attempt to avoid writing). Or maybe you've run out of material and petered out. Or gone off on the wrong track. Or gotten sidetracked by trivial problems. Just pass over the small stuff and come back to it later. Finally, your whole approach might be wrong: you could be writing about the wrong subject, making the wrong case, trying to prove the wrong point. The truth is sometimes hidden in the underbrush.

Let's talk about another important skill for writers to have -- editing. What tips do you have on this subject?

In your first draft, anything goes. The real work of writing is in the revising. In a revision, you don't just fix what's wrong; you make what's on the page better, then better still, then better still.

The last chapter of Words Fail Me is about revision, and it has a checklist of editing tips aimed at sharpening things like clarity, tone, rhythm, logic, verb use, imagery, sentence structure, and economy.

Who are some of your favorite novelists?

There are so many wonderful novelists that it's hard to choose. I admire all the big guns, of course: Tolstoy, Flaubert, Austen, Trollope, George Eliot, Henry James, Mark Twain, Proust. The modern novelists I like best are William Trevor, Saul Bellow, Muriel Spark, Zora Neale Hurston, Dawn Powell, P.G. Wodehouse, Barbara Pym, Kingsley Amis, E.F. Benson, Graham Greene, Patricia Highsmith, Raymond Chandler, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Kazuo Ishiguro, Anthony Powell. Great storytellers, every one.

How much do you use the Internet?

I use the Internet to do research, but it's not the kind of research where I have to be absolutely certain
"There are a lot of clichés in book reviewing that I would urge a reviewer to avoid, phrases like "richly woven tapestry,"... And always think less about the impression you're making as a reviewer and more about what the author is trying to do. "
of my facts. It's more for general research, such as familiarizing myself with common ways that people express something. There's a lot of misinformation on the Internet, and it's sometimes difficult to separate the reliable information from the unreliable. It's not that difficult to set up a beautiful-looking website; anyone can do it. You have to be wary of some of the information that you come across. So when I do use the Internet, it's to see what's out there, to see what people are writing, what they are saying -- that kind of thing. I use it a lot for correspondence. I email people constantly, as everyone does these days. When my husband and I first started using email, we only used it once in a while. But it's just burgeoned, and now we use it all the time. Why make a long-distance call to someone when you can simply email? You don't have to worry that you're intruding, that you're calling at dinnertime, or at bath time, or some other inconvenient time. And you're free to answer email at your leisure. For example, someone might call me to help her with a problem. If she emails me instead, I can think about the problem and answer it the next day, when it's convenient. I'm not so fond of instant messages, however. Those can be incredibly intrusive if you're trying to work. I think the kinds of people who enjoy sticking their heads into your office to see what you're up to really love instant messages. So I've had to block those out when I'm busy working.

I'd like to talk about a new trend: self-publishing on the Internet, either in an electronic form or in a print form using print-on-demand technology. Some of the companies that offer e-publishing also offer editing services for the books; some do not. What is your opinion of this trend? Will people read unedited books?

That's a tough question to answer. For people who are content to write books without editing (and some of them need a lot of editing), there's probably an audience out there that either doesn't care whether a book is edited or just doesn't notice the egregious errors. Who knows? But one valuable service that traditional print publishing companies provide (and "print" can be a somewhat pejorative term these days as far as technical people go) is editorial advice. When someone just jumps onto the Internet with a book that hasn't had any going over structurally, any line editing or anything like that, the chances of that book's making it are marginal. I think we're going to see a lot of very poor-quality books.

What is your opinion of all the recent mergers in the publishing industry? How are the mergers going to affect the number of quality fiction books that are showing up in the bookstores?

That's an interesting question. I know there is a feeling out there that with all the mega-publishing companies, quality has really slipped, especially with literary fiction. And that may be true. But it's a funny thing. Wherever there's a gap, someone will jump in and fill it. In the last ten years, the university presses have gotten more and more involved in literary fiction. Small publishers that produce quality fiction pop up all the time. They don't always last, but they're out there. Readers who are looking for quality will always be able to find it. It may not be the big mega-companies that are doing the publishing, but the books will be out there.

Do you ever buy books online?
"As for America's incoherent youth, the blame lies with our schools, which have de-emphasized the teaching of English grammar and composition since about the late 1960's. School districts are learning that while it's easy to remove a subject from the curriculum, it's very difficult to put it back."

I don't like to admit it, because I try to support local independent bookstores, but yes, I do. So far, I've only ordered from Amazon.com. It's so efficient, it does such a good job, that it's hard to find fault. I do go to my neighborhood bookstore often, but sometimes I'll ask for a book - not an obscure book - and the store doesn't have it. And it can take a couple of weeks to get it, if the staff special orders it. I do sympathize with their plight, and I love small, independent bookstores dearly. But sometimes I need a book quickly. I would even pay a bit more if the store could get me the book fast - it's not a question of price. It's availability and speed that make Amazon so appealing. It does the job. It can even help you find out-of-print books.

Do you have any tips for book reviewers that you would share with us?

There are a lot of clichés in book reviewing that I would urge a reviewer to avoid, phrases like "richly woven tapestry," "stunning debut," and "keen eye for detail." Never call a book "redemptive" or "transcendent," and don't call something a masterpiece, unless it's War and Peace. And always think less about the impression you're making as a reviewer and more about what the author is trying to do.

Have you ever considered writing fiction? If you did tackle fiction, what genre would you pick?

That's something I haven't thought seriously about. Maybe in a few years, but not right away. I have no idea what genre I would pick. I like all kinds of fiction: humor, mysteries, serious contemporary fiction, 19th-century fiction, even children's fiction. If it's well written, I like it.

Do you think there will be another grammar or writing book in your future?

My husband, Stewart Kellerman, and I are working on a book about communication in the computer age. We're still hashing out ideas for that. It's at least a couple of years away from completion.

Is it challenging to write with a partner?

I've never actually team-written before, but my husband has been with me throughout the writing of the other two books. He's been right at my side as an editor, adviser, and rewriter. So for me it seems perfectly natural; we've practically done this before. I don't foresee any problems, but it's amazing how many people ask me that! It's just not an issue for us. Cooking a meal together? Now that's an entirely different story. One kitchen, one cook. Or driving? That's not a team sport either!

Let's talk about the creative process. What are your surroundings when you write?

I write on a computer in my office, which is a separate room quite apart from the rest of the house, and do most of my work in the morning. Sometimes I'll write a little in the afternoon, but I seem to run out of steam by about four. As a morning person, I find it very hard to write at night. Anything I do when I'm tired has to be thrown out the next day.

What do you find distracting when you write?

Phone calls are distracting. Sometimes it's a call you have to take -- an elderly parent or something like that. I find that if I have a thought going, if I'm on a roll, and then get cut off, I can't just pick up where I left off. I have to work up the energy all over again. Sometimes I like music in the background when I write, sometimes I don't. Mostly I don't. I like classical music, but it has to be the kind that won't make me stop to listen or hum along. Perhaps something like Vivaldi.

What are your favorite ways to relax when you're not writing?

I like to read, take photographs, putter in the garden, walk in the woods with my husband and our dog, then come home and read some more.

How are you going to spend the Millennium New Year's Eve?

I'm going to spend it at home (as I have all of the other New Year's Eves in the recent past), doing what I normally do: having dinner with my husband, having a glass of champagne.

Is there anything special that you'd like for Christmas this year?

Yes -- diamond stud earrings. That's what I've wanted for Christmas for, oh, the last 20 years. I'm sure I'll want them for the next 20 as well.

But it's the turn of the century -- maybe this is the year.

Could be. We'll just have to wait and see.

Any New Year's resolutions?

No. I've tried New Year's resolutions before, but they never work. I just find myself disappointed on January 3rd. If I can't make a resolution about something at any other time during the year, then it's not going to stick just because I make it on New Year's Eve! (laughs)

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