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Useful Set of Lessons in Print

Posted on Friday, November 29, 2013 at 12:28 AM

Three noteworthy books to add to your library.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I've been restocking the library, and there are books to tell you about.

How to Not Write Bad...

Ben Yagoda is out with another useful set of lessons in print. He's the journalism professor at the University of Delaware who earlier gave you When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It. The title (and substance) of his new book is How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them (Riverhead Books).

Focus on the Basics

Yagoda sums up his goal in a lively introduction, and "lively" is a descriptive word that fits the texture and tilt of all that follows through 175 pages; he seeks to stimulate. "Words are the building blocks of sentences," he proposes, "and sentences are the building blocks of any piece of writing; consequently, I focus on these basics. As far as I'm concerned, not-writing-badly consists of the ability, first, to craft sentences that are correct in terms of spelling, diction (that is, word choice), punctuation, and grammar, and that display clarity, precision, and grace. Once that's mastered, there are a few more areas that have to be addressed in crafting a whole paragraph: cadence, consistency of tone, word repetition, transitions between sentences, paragraph length. And that's all there is to it! (I know, that's plenty.)"

Good Writers Read

Moving along into the body of the book, he urges the would-be writer to read. "Almost without exception," Yagoda says, "good writers read widely and frequently." And then, yes, he advises: "The most effective short-term way to improve your writing is to read it aloud, sentence by sentence and word by word." Now, where have you heard that before? It's not a panacea, he adds, and it takes development of the ears, as do musicians. "But eventually, you'll start to really hear your sentences, and at some point, you'll be able to shut up and listen with your mind's ear."

Punctuation and Grammar

Punctuation and grammar dominate quite a few pages in How to Not Write Bad. So, too, Yagoda deals with brevity, word choice (including those to avoid, like "unique" and "literally" and "myself"), clich├ęs, euphemisms, and jargon. And he devotes a whole section to the construction of sentences. The approach is basic, to the point, and helpful.

The Sound on the Page...

And that reminds me of another Yagoda book, one of previous vintage, one that isn't so basic but is helpful in a different way. His 2004 The Sound on the Page, Great Writers Talk about Style and Voice in Writing (Harper) is a fascinating weave of Yagoda lessons enriched by recommendations and examples from a slew of the best contemporary writers.

His aim is to prove this thesis: "It is frequently the case that writers entertain, move and inspire us less by what they say than by how they say it. What they say is information and ideas and (in the case of fiction) story and characters. How they say it is style."

Plain Words

In The Sound on the Page, Yagoda has gathered thoughts of writers that suggest struggle in the process and predilections. Susan Orlean, one of the era's most respected magazine writers, says: "I have this philosophy -- I like plain words like tall and guy. I like rehabilitating words that have been so overused that they don't get used anymore."

Polite Persuasion

Novelist and essayist Elizabeth McCracken notes: "In my own voice, I come out as way too tentative. I keep saying things like 'I think' or 'it seems to me,' and I have to keep cutting them out.... The dilemma is to be strong enough to persuade people but still polite enough not to be assaultive."

Revisions and Drafts

Toure, a cultural critic, music writer, and co-host of a show on MSNBC, discussing revision explains: "I look at it like popcorn. In the first draft, you lay out the kernels. They're small and hard. That's the general direction you want to take. And then you put heat to it. Can this sentence be better? Can this word be better?.... It becomes an improvisational thing. That's when you put the style to it, the intellectual heat to it. That's when it becomes popcorn. Each part of the sentence explodes."

Beware of Your Voice

The journalist and novelist Anna Quindlen says: "If you have a discernible writing voice, you must beware of your own tics. I use of course too much, and the word seem to cover up my failure to commit, and sometimes my sentences are so baroque that they leave me breathless, which is why I read everything aloud when I'm done with it, so that I can tell intuitively where it diverges from my natural voice."


Both of these Yagoda books are worth your attention, as is one I mentioned above and wrote about a while back, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It, The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse (Broadway Books). I'll simply quote his introductory paragraph to the chapter on pronouns, to give or remind you of the attitude in that, again, lively little book: "When people get upset over language, more often than not the crux of the problem is a pronoun. This makes sense. Pronouns are words used in place of a noun or noun phrase, and in that act of substitution, you can find a world of attitudes and belief."

I leave it to you to go from there. More for your library next month.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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