Substance vs. Style: Fanfare for the Common Word

By Julie Wu

There was a flurry of rustling as we all took out our Graham Greene essays for Freshman English.

“Now,” Mrs. B said, “Look through your paper and circle your favorite word.”

I scanned my words, hand written on blue-lined paper. The best I could come up with was “seldom.”

Mrs. B clicked back and forth in bright red pumps that matched her lipstick, nails, and sweater set.  She had no notes, and I wondered whether she was doing this exercise with us because she hadn’t prepared for class.

“What if I can’t find a favorite word?” a girl asked.

“Well, then that should tell you something,” said Mrs. B.

We took turns reading our words out loud.  I was embarrassed about “seldom,” especially once we got to my friend Margaret,* whom I’d known since we were seven and seemed to have been born with a preternatural facility for language.

“Actually, I have two favorite words,” Margaret said.  “They’re together in a phrase—‘uncompromising enmity.’”

We all stared at Margaret.  Mrs. B looked off into the distance, stunned.

Next, Mrs. B asked us to read our favorite sentences.  I don’t remember anything about mine, but Margaret’s not only included her favorite words, it also had an incredible structure—long, complex, ending with rhythmic dependent clauses: “. . . uncompromising enmity between blah and blah, blah and blah, and blah and blah.”

Holy smokes.  No wonder I didn’t consider myself a writer.

For me, writing was just a means of communication.  I did not much care about words for their own sake, as people like Margaret seemed to, and I was obviously not as innately skilled at manipulating them. I wrote school assignments as required to convey my knowledge or understanding of school subjects, and I wrote privately in my journal to sort through my feelings and thoughts.  I didn’t write much more than that.  Here’s why: if words themselves didn’t inspire me, content would have to, and I felt I didn’t know enough to express my opinion about many things.  I had had a happy childhood in a successful immigrant family in an affluent suburban town.  I thrived in school and in the arts.  My friends and boyfriends were super nice.  What kind of a perspective was that?

It wasn’t until I was twenty-two that I started feeling I had something to say.  I had gone through college, worked, traveled, and, in trying to find my own path, ended up in conflict with my parents.  I was alone in Bloomington, Indiana, where I felt like an over-intellectualized freak, and where I had unknowingly signed up to study with the most reviled voice teacher at Indiana University’s enormous School of Music.  I had refused financial support from my parents, instead drinking Tang to save money and avoiding McDonald’s because it was too expensive.  I broke my foot while uninsured.

No, I was no Oliver Twist.  These were suburban privilege problems.  Still, I was beginning to live on my own in the world, to know loneliness and love and frustration, and that was when I began writing fiction.  I wrote despite Mrs. B and Margaret and my own insecurities about being a second-string writer.  I wrote so much I got a repetitive strain injury in my hand.  I took a writer’s workshop with a wonderful teacher and writer at Indiana University, Tony Ardizzone, who praised my writing, with or without fancy words, and encouraged me to get an MFA.

An MFA program sounded lovely, indeed, but still I knew that I had not lived enough to write what I wanted to write.  I did not want my perspective to be limited to that of a sheltered writer and musician.  I wanted to experience the core of life—to know people in all their variations and death in its harshness and mercy.  And that, dear admissions officers, is a major reason I went to medical school.

Through the years, I have indeed learned a lot about people.  They are stronger than I could have imagined, like the patient who signed over his car and bank account to his mother so he couldn’t buy any more heroin.  They are noble, like the family suddenly faced with a young father’s acute leukemia, who made sure he died the way he would have wanted.  They are brutal, like the woman who would handcuff her daughter to the toilet.  They are desperate beyond belief, like the crack addict who prostituted herself to a fellow hospital patient for ten dollars.  They are stoic, as unreadable as the immaculately dressed anorexic student who told me what she thought I wanted to hear.

There are so many joys and sorrows in the world–so much valor and so much injustice.  I’ve seen only a little, but that glimpse has given me an urgency to write and a breadth of perspective that I just didn’t have before.  And yes, now I feel that I can, if I try my very hardest, learning all the while, write the stories I want to write.

I’m sure that if my old friend Margaret were writing now she’d scoop up every prize in the Western hemisphere.  But she isn’t writing, as far as I know.  Maybe she doesn’t need to.  And now, this is what I’d like to tell Mrs. B: to me, good writing is more than a fancy turn of phrase.  It’s more than words.

For me, having something to say matters just as much as saying it well.  I happen to believe that a piece of writing is only as good as its meaning is true.  I happen to dislike writing that values style over substance.

And I happen to believe that “seldom,” if used well, is a perfectly lovely word.



*Names changed to protect the innocent.


  1. Seldom do I agree more. ;-)

  2. Kathy Crowley says:

    Amy’s got the perfect reply. Ditto and well said.

  3. Enjoyed this article so much, Julie. Thank you.

  4. “For me, having something to say matters just as much as saying it well. I happen to believe that a piece of writing is only as good as its meaning is true. ”

    Love it. Thanks for this great, great post.

  5. What a great post. Content matters. Writing may or may not be able to be taught, but I am convinced that voice can be found. And you have certainly found yours. (My favorite line? “And that, dear admissions officers, is a major reason I went to medical school.” You can guess why.)
    Thanks, Julie

  6. Casey N says:

    “It’s more than words.”

    Well said! Lovely post, Julie. Now I’m going to go pout because Amy already used “seldom” in a sentence.

  7. What you said!

    I love a well turned phrase, and a great story told artfully will always impress and (I hope) move me. But I’ve never worshipped words themselves. If there’s no story or meaning (hopefully both) behind the words, then it’s all just lyrical masturbation as far as I’m concerned.

    So nice to find another writer who feels the same.

  8. Liz Flaherty says:

    Even though I don’t EXACTLY (I really love wonderful turns of phrase, even if they don’t really…you know, mean that much) agree with you, I love how you said it.

  9. Normandie says:

    Such fun, Julie (and Amy, hey, there). Love of words can make a poem dance, but too many of the writers whose books I edit seem overly self-conscious, so in love with their words or phrasing that this reader gags. Something to watch out for in my own non-poetical craftings.

  10. Julie Wu says:

    Glad you enjoyed this, Normandie! I think we’re all guilty, at one point or another, of stringing little darlings together. Thanks for your comment!