How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoidthem

BOOK: How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoidthem
8.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

How to Not
Write Bad

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

About Town:
The New Yorker
and the World It Made

Will Rogers: A Biography

The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of
Literary Journalism
(coeditor)

All in a Lifetime: An Autobiography
(with Ruth Westheimer)

How to Not
Write Bad

The Most Common
Writing Problems and
the Best Ways to
Avoid Them

BEN YAGODA

RIVERHEAD BOOKS

New York

RIVERHEAD BOOKS

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)

Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.)

Penguin Group (Australia), 707 Collins Street, Melbourne, Victoria 3008, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty. Ltd.)

Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi—110 017, India

Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, Auckland 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.)

Penguin Books (South Africa), Rosebank Office Park, 181 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parktown North 2193, South Africa

Penguin China, B7 Jiaming Center, 27 East Third Ring Road North, Chaoyang District, Beijing 100020, China

Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

Copyright © 2013 by Ben Yagoda

Cover design by Alex Merto

Book design by Tiffany Estreicher

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

RIVERHEAD is a registered trademark of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

The RIVERHEAD logo is a trademark of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

First Riverhead trade paperback edition: February 2013

ISBN: 978-1-101-60212-6

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Yagoda, Ben.
How to Not Write Bad / Ben Yagoda.—First Riverhead edition.
pages   cm

1. English language—Rhetoric—Handbooks, manuals, etc. 2. Report writing—Handbooks, manuals, etc. 3. English language—Grammar—Handbooks, manuals, etc. I. Title.
PE1408.Y34   2013
808’.042—dc23                  2012043126

ALWAYS LEARNING
PEARSON

To David Friedman

with thanks for being in my corner all these years

CONTENTS

Introduction

Part I:

How to Not Write Bad: The One-Word Version

Part II:

How to Not Write Wrong

A. THE ELEMENTS OF HOUSE STYLE

1.
Numbers and Abbreviations

2.
Capitalization

3.
Italics

4.
There Is No Reason Ever to Use Boldface in a Piece of Writing, Except for a Section Heading (Like This)

B. PUNCTUATION

1
.

2
.
-

3
.

4
.
,

5.
;

6.
:

7.
“ ”

8.
( )

C. WORDS

1
. The Single Most Common Mistake Is the Most Easily Fixable Mistake

2
. Spelling

3
. Wrong Word

D. GRAMMAR

1
. Sanitized

2
. Skunked

3
. Still Wrong

Part III:

How to Not Write Bad

A. PUNCTUATION

1
. Quotation Marks

2
. Exclamation Points, Dashes, Semicolons, Colons, Parentheses, Italics, and Rhetorical Questions…

B. WORDS AND PHRASES

1
. Really Quick Fix: Avoid These Words!

2
. Short Is Good (I)

3
. Precision: Words That Are a Bit Off

4
. Avoid Clichés Like the Plague

5
. Euphemisms, Buzzwords, and Jargon

C. SENTENCES

1
. Word Rep.

2
. Start Strong

3
. End Strong

4
. Short Is Good (II)

5
. The Perils of Ambiguity

6
. What Is the What? Or, the Trouble with Vague Pronouns

7
. When You Catch a Preposition, Kill It

8
. To Use
to Be
or Not to Use
to Be

9
. What the Meaning of “Is Is” Is

10
. Tone

D. SENTENCE TO SENTENCE, PARAGRAPH TO PARAGRAPH

Author’s Note

INTRODUCTION

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
handle
the truth, Nicholson said. Well, most students, I’ve found, can’t
handle
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
good-enough mother
(now more commonly and equitably expressed as
good-enough parent
). 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
able
. 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.

BOOK: How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoidthem
8.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Bali 9: The Untold Story by King, Madonna, Wockner, Cindy
The Witch's Market by Mingmei Yip
ShakenandStirred by Viola Grace
Badlands by C. J. Box
The Dark Side of the Sun by Terry Pratchett
The Sons of Adam by Harry Bingham
Bourbon Empire by Mitenbuler, Reid
Kitty’s Greatest Hits by Vaughn, Carrie