The Most Common Writing Problems
and the Best Ways to Avoid Them
Riverhead. 192 pp. $15 paperback
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Reviewed by Elizabeth Mosier
Reviewing Ben Yagoda's book is like cooking for Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LeBan. I imagine him, pen in hand, scrawling "awk" in the margins of this column, critiquing my critique of his writing guide,
How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them
Bring it on.
I welcome Yagoda's instruction. As a writer, I've long admired his work (including About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, The Art of Fact, Memoir: A History, and many pithy pieces on language for the Chronicle of Higher Education's Lingua Franca blog).
As a teacher, I appreciate the strategy he employs here. "Telling someone how to write well is like gripping a handful of sand," he argues in his introduction, before taking on the far harder - and more helpful - task of showing writers how to find and fix the trouble spots in their sentences.
His jokey book title belies a serious lesson: "Not-bad writing" requires that you pay attention (spelling and punctuating correctly is a measure of mindfulness, he says) and "cultivate an attitude of deep skepticism about your own word use."
If Yagoda's approach is forged in frustration - his experience correcting a narrow set of similar mistakes in 10,000 pieces of student written work over 20 years of teaching journalism at a selective university - it's also experimentally valid. He samples from his students' errors to prove an important point: language lives and its usage changes constantly.
Old-school guides like The Elements of Style, The Little Brown Handbook, and The Bedford Handbook (which, at 818 pages, qualifies as a handbook only "if you have a really big hand," he says) are packed with comically outmoded examples and advice for solving problems that rarely arise in student work. These books won't help today's writers, whose main problem is that they don't read enough well-edited prose to counteract the bad influence of reading online and writing on a computer screen.
Misspellings and misconstrued words OKd by spell-check programs. Missing or extra words resulting from backspacing or using the cut/copy function. Imprecision compounded by plucking words from a simplified online thesaurus. Teachers will recognize these examples of sloppy errors enabled by word processing but, Yagoda insists, most student writers won't.
We all have our blind spots - and so Yagoda provides lists: the most commonly confused words, the homophone or near-homophone mistakes nicknamed "eggcorns" (such as heroine attic for heroin addict), and "skunked" words with traditional meanings that differ from how they're used popularly (bemused, which actually means bewildered, for amused). Study these, he advises. Better yet: when in doubt, "Use a dictionary, preferably a paper one, and look up not only the spelling, but the definition."
Words matter to Yagoda - and it's his geeky enthusiasm for euphemism, buzzwords, jargon, Britishisms, and minor points of punctuation that reveal a delight in language that he wants his readers to share. But he's no prescriptionist; in fact, he's as impatient with "hoity-toity" hypercorrection as he is with mindless writing. Yagoda reports the rules of punctuation and grammar while noting the exceptions, and even includes draft passages from his own book to demonstrate that revision is sometimes a matter of hearing the right rhythm or feeling a sentence flow. "Which do you prefer?" he asks the reader after presenting two equally correct options for using a verb with a collective noun. "I would go with 2."
He reminds the reader on every page that writers make choices to achieve desired effects - and that the best way to learn the rules is to read a genre's best practitioners.
"A good homemaker doesn't just fling silverware and plates on the table, but arranges them consciously and carefully," he advises. "A stylish dresser chooses an outfit carefully. Be that kind of writer. Read each sentence aloud - literally, at first. Eventually, you will develop an inner ear that will allow you to note the awkwardness, wordiness, word repetition, and vagueness that are the hallmarks of mindless, bad writing."
Ben Yagoda, a masterful writer and a generous mentor, does not simply blame high school English teachers for the problem of bad writing, toss out a few inspirational quotations, and call it a day. "That's why they pay me the medium bucks," he jokes.
I forgive him for his occasional snarky humor - not only because I'm tired of making the same corrections in the margins of my students' papers, but also because his writing guide is refreshingly sincere. He attempts to reach his readers where they are, and in that sense, his book is better than inspiring; it's empowering.