Read How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoidthem Online
Authors: Ben Yagoda
Tags: #Non-Fiction, #Writing
How to Not
Also by Ben Yagoda
Memoir: A History
When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It:
The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse
The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing
The New Yorker
and the World It Made
Will Rogers: A Biography
The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of
All in a Lifetime: An Autobiography
(with Ruth Westheimer)
How to Not
The Most Common
Writing Problems and
the Best Ways to
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Copyright © 2013 by Ben Yagoda
Cover design by Alex Merto
Book design by Tiffany Estreicher
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First Riverhead trade paperback edition: February 2013
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
How to Not Write Bad / Ben Yagoda.—First Riverhead edition.
1. English language—Rhetoric—Handbooks, manuals, etc. 2. Report writing—Handbooks, manuals, etc. 3. English language—Grammar—Handbooks, manuals, etc. I. Title.
To David Friedman
with thanks for being in my corner all these years
How to Not Write Bad: The One-Word Version
A. THE ELEMENTS OF HOUSE STYLE
There Is No Reason Ever to Use Boldface in a Piece of Writing, Except for a Section Heading (Like This)
. The Single Most Common Mistake Is the Most Easily Fixable Mistake
. Exclamation Points, Dashes, Semicolons, Colons, Parentheses, Italics, and Rhetorical Questions…
. Really Quick Fix: Avoid These Words!
. Precision: Words That Are a Bit Off
. Avoid Clichés Like the Plague
. Euphemisms, Buzzwords, and Jargon
. What Is the What? Or, the Trouble with Vague Pronouns
. When You Catch a Preposition, Kill It
. To Use
or Not to Use
. What the Meaning of “Is Is” Is
D. SENTENCE TO SENTENCE, PARAGRAPH TO PARAGRAPH
Why a book on how to not write bad (or badly, if you insist)?
I’m glad you asked. Simply put, this is a crucial and seriously underrepresented county in the Alaska-size state of books about writing. From the all-time champ, Strunk and White’s
The Elements of Style
, through more touchy-feely works like Anne Lamott’s
Bird by Bird
, texts on this subject virtually all have the same goal. Sometimes it’s implicit, and sometimes it’s right there in the title, as in William Zinsser’s classic guide,
On Writing Well.
That emphasis is fine, but it has its limitations. In a way, it reminds me of the “vanity sizing” favored by the apparel industry—the custom of labeling thirty-four-inch-waist pants as thirty-two so as to make customers feel good about themselves (and buy that company’s pant, needless to say). I have spent the last twenty years teaching advanced journalism and writing classes in a selective university, and the majority of my (bright) students put me in mind
of what Jack Nicholson famously shouted to Tom Cruise in
A Few Good Men.
The Cruise character couldn’t
the truth, Nicholson said. Well, most students, I’ve found, can’t
writing “well.” At this point in their writing lives, that goal is simply too ambitious.
It’s not just my students, either. My colleagues at various institutions say they encounter the same problems I do. And I’ve run into these issues when I’ve taught workshops all over the country and, of course, in that new and universal forum for written expression of every conceivable kind, the Internet.
You can certainly understand why people would want to aim high, especially in the United States, where self-esteem is fed to toddlers along with their Cheerios, and all the children are apparently above average. But you have to crawl before you walk, and walk before you run. And you have to be able to put together a clear and at least borderline graceful sentence, and to link that sentence with another one, before you can expect to make like David Foster Wallace.
In the 1950s, the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott coined the term
(now more commonly and equitably expressed as
). It’s proved to be an enduring and very useful concept, referring to mothers and fathers who don’t have superpowers, who can’t solve every problem and address every need of their children, who make mistakes, but who provide a level of attention, concern, and care that may seem merely adequate but that turns out to do the job quite well. What I’m talking about here is good-enough writing. As with parenting, it isn’t necessarily easy to achieve, but it’s definitely achiev
. And it’s a decidedly worthwhile goal.
* * *
Words are the building blocks of sentences, 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, I know, that’s plenty.)
I’ve mentioned my students but this book isn’t just for classroom use. It’s for everyone who wants to improve his or her prose. Let me be more precise. The best way to measure or think about the badness of a sentence, or an entire piece of writing, is to imagine the effect it has on someone who reads it. This could be a teacher or professor; an editor who’s deciding whether to publish it in a magazine; a hypothetical person out in cyberspace who has just come upon a new blog post; or a coworker confronted with an interoffice memo. In all cases, bad writing will induce boredom, annoyance, incomprehension, and/or daydreaming. The less bad it is, the more that real or imaginary soul will experience the text as clear, readable, persuasive, and, in the best case, pleasing. And the more that reader will keep on reading.