book review

Writing Style Books
Reviewed by: T.J. Nelson

W hat if you want to create a web page, but suck at writing? The obvious solution is to read a book. That may not help you write any better, but at least it will keep you from mangling the English language for a while.

The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed
by Karen Elizabeth Gordon

W ith such a weird title, you'd expect a creative vocabulary. The author obviously loves words, and her writing shows a rich and creative use of interesting words.

Unfortunately, stripped of the fancy verbiage, this book is a naked grade school primer. The book may be fun to read, but it won't help much with writing manufacturing specifications for the T37-4314 Adjustable Laser-guided Widget. Its real purpose is not to teach what every child already knows, but to inspire you to use words in an unusual and creative way. Read it if you're an aspiring writer of bodice-rippers. Or if you're Buffy.

The Technical Writer's Handbook: Writing with Style and Clarity
by Matt Young

S entences should be short and simple,” says the author, a scientist from NIST and the author of Optics and Lasers. “Write the way you talk, then polish.” Chłodny!

The back cover of this book is wrong on two counts. First, the book is not written in two parts: it is entirely in alphabetized format, as in a reference work, preceded by a brief (11 page) introduction. Second, the cross-references are not “exhaustive,” but adequate, mostly.

Although the topics are presented in alphabetized format, they contain excellent advice for writers of scientific and engineering articles. However, the encyclopedia-style format detracts from the usability and narrative flow, and scatters closely-related subjects at random throughout the book. Some important topics, such as the use of commas in appositives, will be difficult for readers to find. It's as if the author couldn't bear the thought of creating an index. The book is also poorly made, with bad typography and pages bound so tightly that glue partially covers the text.

Even so, Young's advice is usually helpful and often dead-on. If only I could get my boss to steal this book from me, and give back my damn quantum mechanics book, the world would be a better place.

Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing
by John R. Trimble

T here's something about this tiny book by a professor of English at UT Austin that made me think that those apocryphal book-burners we keep hearing about just might have been on to something. Whether it's the overtly political shes that litter almost every page, the self-satisfied one-sentence paragraphs, or the fact that about half the writers he quotes from are moonbat feminists, I'm not quite sure. Mostly, I think it's the long runs of one-syllable words that he recommends. Here's a typical sentence from a movie review that he cites as an example of “electric prose”:

It's not what I want not because it fails (it doesn't fail) but because of what it is. (p.15, quoting Pauline Kael)

Horrible sentences like that make even me reach for a blue pencil. Electric, no. Electric chair, maybe.

Here's another one:

How can I tell what I think till I see what I say? --E.M. Forster (p.17)

In any other field, this approach would be called reductionism. Even terrible writers like me know this should be avoided like the plague. It makes your readers hate you.

It's a shame, because later on, once the author gets past the urge to tell the reader what a good progressive he is, he lets herself be himself, and he/she makes some good, albeit basic, points. About writing. The rest, I do'wanna know about.

The Elements of Style, 4th ed.
by W. Strunk and E.B. White

W aste no words,” say the authors of this classic text. The authors practice what they preach: the writing style is a masterpiece of clarity. Far more than a mere book of rules, Strunk and White, as it's called, is the bible of writing style. Read it before the mandarins of political correctness get ahold of it and mangle it.

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, 30th anniv. ed.
by William Zinsser

A book that is still useful 30 years after it was originally published must be doing something right. To write good nonfiction, says William Zinsser, requires courage, confidence, creativity, and clarity of vision. There's an important insight there. Those qualities are also the qualities that make a good leader. So, what Zinsser is really saying is this: writing is leadership.

Zinsser also asks: “Who are you writing for?” Never mind that his sentence starts with who instead of whom and ends with a preposition. Write for yourself, says Zinsser; be a leader. Say it plainly and honestly, and they will read. Says Zinsser: “If your values are sound, your writing will be sound.”

Zinsser takes what Strunk and White said and explains why and how, using examples mainly from famous writers of the 1950s and 60s. No dictionary mode here. His style reflects years of writing light popular nonfiction for magazines like Life. “I write entirely by ear,” says Zinsser. Good advice, if you can manage it. The problem with that technique is that you can't see the page.

Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, 9th ed.
by Joseph P. Williams

T he main theme in this one is the tension between reducing complexity and oversimplification. Williams' advice not to simplify your writing to Dick and Jane sentences is spot-on. But writing with grace as he defines it can't be learned from his rules; to get where Williams wants to go would require studying rhetoric. And he makes some embarrassing mistakes: forgetting his earlier discussion of principal and principle, he titles a section on page 207 “A Basic Principal of Clarity.”

Lapsing Into a Comma: A Curmudgeon's Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print--and How to Avoid Them
by Bill Walsh

I f you've seen some of the sentences that make it into the newspapers these days, you might not be inclined to think of journalists--or their editors--as particularly good writers. But there's still a bunch of 'em left, even though they have to call themselves curmudgeons to keep from being sent to an Old Writer's Home to tend after the IBM Selectrics, or sent to Tuktoyaktuk to get the exclusive scoop on Global Warming.

The first half of Lapsing Into a Comma is a collection of essays on grammar and punctuation. Lapsing makes it all the way to page 94 before lapsing into dictionary mode. In contrast to some other books, the 'dictionary' part is actually made useful by an excellent index.

Walsh's bible is the AP stylebook, where the aspiring writer should probably turn first for advice [1]. The essays and short commentaries in this book are well-written, informative, often sensible, and even occasionally amusing, in an “Oh look, Mabel, a curmudgeon!” sort of way. Because it's oriented mainly toward journalists, much of the book will be of little help to technical writers or the average Joe P. Blogger, “Often sensible ... an excellent index!” except possibly by force of example. On the other hand, it's a fun read, and if it'd help keep this guy sane working at the WaPo, I'd say, “Great job, dude!” while gradually inching closer to the nearest exit.

But don't even get me started on this “no year zero” stuff that he mentions. What genius decided that we would skip the year 0? There should have been a year +0 and a year −0 as well. If they had any sense, the time point 0.5 B.C. would be six months before whatever Big Event happened at time zero. But nuuuuu.

Oh, great. Now he's turned me into a curmudgeon too.

[1] The AP book is essential for journalists, but most others would be better off with Strunk and White or The Chicago Manual of Style. AP also has a notorious history of errors. For example, until recently, AP reportedly advised using "innocent" instead of "not guilty" to describe acquittals.

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage
by H.W. Fowler

I f Bill Walsh is a curmudgeon, what does that make H. W. Fowler? This book, written in 1926, is less of a dictionary than an encyclopedic collection of words and questionable sentences, lovingly collected by the great schoolmaster, and then systematically ripped to shreds. The English language has changed since Fowler's time, and much of his advice now seems quaint. But Fowler is still entertaining to read, and no one could ever accuse him of being wishy-washy.

If you read Fowler, get the original or second edition. Robert W. Burchfield has thoroughly bowdlerized the third edition. Burchfield's adulterations to this classic work have earned both him and Oxford University Press much well-deserved scorn.

Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing
by Claire Kehrwald Cook

W hile others tell you what to fix, this one uses examples to show you how to fix your writing. After you read this book, changing useless phrases like in the event that to if will become second nature. Sometimes, though, the extra words are necessary, as in “In case of fire, break glass” (“If fire, break glass”?). And there are always some sentences that just need to be taken out back and shot.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves
by Lynne Truss

T his short, well-written book on the mundane art of getting those commas, semicolons, and apostrophes in the right place became a best-seller, largely because of its clever title and its prickly British humor. But bemoaning, even if only in jest, the absence of punctuation marks in Alphabetti Spaghetti (the British term for alphabet soup), might be taking this punctuation thing a little too seriously.

He said, She said

One topic discussed by each of these authors (with the exception of Trimble, who drowns the reader in randomly selected pronouns) is how to handle the troublesome gender-indeterminate third-person singular pronoun. Cook and Zinsser advocate rearranging the sentence to use a plural, while Walsh recommends the traditional he. Here's my own take on this subject.

I would argue that logic, rather than politics, must prevail. If he is logically inaccurate for cases where the subject's gender is unknown, she, in addition to being overtly political, is doubly inaccurate, since it violates both logic and tradition. As the saying goes, two wrongs don't make a right. Using random shes in your writing is a way of telling the reader that you care more about identity politics than logic and language. It conveys to the reader that you consider your writing to be little more than a vehicle for telling the world you are a wonderful, politically correct person. It's hard to take what such a person says seriously.

Using she and her as gender-indeterminate pronouns looks parochial, outdated and unprofessional; in the past few years using he and she and they (which is used in more informal writing) has become the accepted norm.

Perhaps because randomly interspersing she in your writing is confusing (and sometimes unintentionally amusing), no credible style manual recommends it. Both the Chicago Manual of Style and Strunk and White suggest rephrasing sentences to avoid the difficulty. Otherwise, your sentences can quickly become unwieldy.

This line of thought might be clarified by the following example. Changing the famous Monty Python sentence, “Aye, he was nae exactly a man!” to “Aye, ee arr she war nae exactly a man arr a wooman!”, clearly would make it more awkward. But saying something like, “She war nae exactly a man!” would change the meaning entirely.

Another authority on English grammar, Mrs. Martha Cammish of East Retford, Nottinghamshire, England, maintains that a majority of linguistics experts consider them to be an acceptable substitute: “I'm jus' tellin' ye, them's et knows ain't sayin' eres nowt wrong wi' usin' 'em insteada 'e an' 'she' then, that's all.”

Cammish argues that, in terms of purely structural tagmemic considerations, the importance of the he/she pronoun issue has been overemphasized. This was clearly expressed by Cammish's most recent statement on the issue: “Well yer stop callin' me an' askin me all them daft questions then!”

See also Rhetoric Books