Sunday, December 28, 2014

Write Right

I just read Ben Yagoda's How To Not Write Bad.  It's sort of a follow-up to Strunk and White's classic Elements Of Style.  Yagoda gives pithy advice on avoiding traps so many fall into, and he should know--he's taught journalism at the University of Delaware for years and has seen all sorts of bad writing.  In fact, many of his example of what not to do come from (anonymous) students' papers.

I guess the book's name gives it away.  He has rules, but he's cool enough to recognize standards change, and writing style should fit the circumstance. The title, after all, splits an infinitive and uses "bad" where proper usage is "badly." More important, he doesn't say he's going to teach you to write well--that may be the goal, but first you've got to learn how not to write bad.

He's also up to date.  There are a lot of writing manuals, and he notes that many, especially older ones, list problems that are rare today, and ignore newer ones.  For instance, we live in an age of spellcheck, which gets rid of a lot of old mistakes, but gives people false confidence and therefore creates new ones.

His main advice for writers is to read.  Though he admits in the age of the internet, where most writing doesn't go through any editing, this advice isn't as sturdy as it once was.  He also wants writing to be mindful--go over what you wrote, correcting mistakes and looking up things when you're not sure.

The book starts with the basics, such as punctuation, spelling, word choice and grammar (which he considers overrated as a cause of bad writing--all native speakers have a basic understanding of grammar).  Then he goes into question of style--using precise words and short sentences, avoiding repetition and clichés, etc.  This section is the most entertaining part of the book, particularly when he gives examples of bad writing and shows how he'd fix them.

The book is short and easy to read (it better be), and though he doesn't lecture, exactly, he makes it clear that there's good and bad writing.  I don't know if it'll become the new standard, but it'll at least do for now.

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