I enjoy Ben Yagoda’s columns in the New York Times now and then. He’s one of the few people who can write an essay about commas and make me laugh. When I was offered a review copy of his newest book How to Not Write Bad I couldn’t say no. I own and have read plenty of books that promise to tell me how to write well. I even own that perennial classic by William Zinsser. But I have never read a book that offered to teach me how to not write bad.
There is a difference, isn’t there, between writing well and not writing bad? Learning how to write well suggests I might be able to rival Strunk and White just by following their rules. Not writing bad says I can feel confident I won’t embarrass myself in public. I don’t really care to write like Strunk and White but I do care about not looking the fool. Yagoda guesses that he has graded somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 pieces of student work in the last twenty years. In How to Not Write Bad he proposes to use his experience to provide us with the fifty most common mistakes he has seen and ways we can avoid them. Simple.
Even simpler is Yagoda’s short answer on how to not write bad: read. Good writers are nearly always good readers who read widely. One can absorb a lot about writing just by reading it. It is also a good idea to read your own work out loud; it won’t fix everything but it will save you from a clunker or two.
No one is going to buy a whole book just to be told to read more and following his short answer Yagoda is kind enough to include the long answer. Those fifty or so pesky and all too common mistakes people make take up the bulk of the book. Starting small with numbers, capitalization and italics, we move swiftly to punctuation then up the food chain to words and grammar. You are probably familiar with many of them, I know I was. Commas and comma splices, semicolons and colons, em dashes and parentheses, their mysteries all laid bare in a short and painless way. Of course there are dangling modifiers to puzzle over and verb tenses to to untangle and prepositions to end sentences with. Yagoda also provides frequent reminders of why we should love our print dictionaries and not trust spell-check.
The final portion of the book focuses on things that aren’t necessarily mistakes but are definitely unforgivably sloppy. Here we have discussions about cliches, qualifiers and intensifiers, long and Latinate versus short and Anglo-Saxon, and ambiguity. The section on ambiguity is a hoot. Examples include headlines from respected newspapers, “British Left Waffles on Falklands” and “Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge” and the classic Groucho line, “Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas.”
Yagoda focuses on the nuts and bolts mainly at the word and sentence level. There is brief discussion on tone and paragraphs that is just enough to be suggestive but not enough to be big picture useful. Throughout the book he encourages us to be mindful writers: stop the multi-tasking, pay attention, figure out what you want to say and then make every word in the sentence serve a purpose. Good advice I too often ignore.
How to Not Write Bad is useful and even fun reading. Yagoda’s light and humorous approach goes much farther than dour finger shaking that makes you feel stupid and ashamed. The book is good for students, bloggers, and anyone who wants to work on not writing bad. This is one I definitely will be keeping at hand on my reference shelf.