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Step aside, Strunk

The problem with giving a book called Writing Tools as a gift is that its recipient assumes you think she’s a bad writer.


I do not think you’re a bad writer.

Over the years, I’ve purchased and given away probably ten copies of Writing Tools. It’s, by far, the best book on writing I’ve ever read—smarter, richer and more useful than even (GET READY FOR IT) The Elements of Style. Its author, Roy Peter Clark, teaches at the Poynter Institute, where both Matt and I used to work (and learn), and so I heard many of its lessons in person. But they come across so clearly and crisply in the book that it is almost—almost—a substitute for Roy himself.

A few things worth noting:

  • This is a practical book. It’s not theory or fusty prescription. It’s a box of chewy ideas you can digest and put to use instantly.
  • The ideas are so chewy, in fact, that many of them easily make the leap to other domains. The ladder of abstraction, for instance, isn’t only useful in writing; it’s a great way to build a presentation. (And as you’ll see if you click that link, the L.O.A., like many of the tools, isn’t Roy’s invention. He’s as much a curator as a coach in this book.)
  • The tools apply across the board: from newspaper writing to fiction writing to blogging. Jeez probably even tweeting.
  • Finally, the book is simply a great object. If you buy it, I implore you: buy the hardcover. The materials that Little, Brown chose for this thing are just perfect. It feels good in the hands; it feels like something you could use for years.

I bring it up now because Roy’s new book, The Glamour of Grammar, is out and newly reviewed in the NYT. There’s a Paper Cuts blog post as well, which I like even better because it brings Roy’s voice into the mix. I haven’t read the new book yet—but the old one is sitting here, right next to my keyboard, within arm’s reach.

P.S. I’m really only setting Writing Tools up against Strunk & White for effect, and to clearly communicate its insta-classic character. The truth, of course, is that the books are entirely complementary.


I venture into this terrain gingerly, and only briefly at that, to ask whether you’ve found any of the arguments against the canonization of Strunk & White persuasive?

I have to admit, I have. There’s a fair introduction at the Chronicle of Higher Education, and a growing field of criticism abroad online.

P.S. I know a great Roy Peter Clark story, too, but it’s too long for this post.

Tim Carmody says…

The thing about Strunk & White is that it’s not really a style guide. I mean — if the Chicago Manual of Style is an atlas, Strunk & White is two dudes at a vistor’s center saying, “I’m tellin’ ya, don’t take the interstate, take Route 1. Hey, ya listenin’?”

I mean, those guys are probably right. But you’d never want to pull up alongside somebody on I-95, roll down your window, and say “Strunk & White clearly told you, do not take the Interstate; Route 1 is the only way to reach Princeton.” That makes you a jackass.

Style guides, whether Chicago or MLA or APA or AP or whatever, are directions for local traffic. They say here, at this intersection, don’t turn right on red. Does that mean you can never turn right on a red light? Of course not, or Woody Allen’s jokes about LA in Annie Hall would be terrible.

Incidentally, Geoffrey Pullum, the author of that Chronicle of Higher Ed article, co-authors the wonderful blog Language Log, which just today featured a guest post by Roy. (Roy’s been savaged a few times over the years at the Log.)

I’d describe Pullum and the Language Log crew as descriptivists (although I’m not sure that’s how they’d describe themselves), by which I mean linguists who contend that language is ever-evolving, and that it’s more important to learn from and understand that evolution than it is to try to enforce rules of usage. A hardcore descriptivist loves nothing more than catching a grammar cop in the act of violating his own arbitrary rules. The quintessential descriptivist defense is “You understand exactly what they’re saying, so what’s the problem here?”

That’s the thing about Geoff Pullum’s S&W takedown, which is masterfuul but seems to miss the point. We understand what S&W are saying, so what’s the problem? Sure, they rail against the passive voice when what they really hate is the verb “to be,” but we got the gist, and it made us better writers. Like Tim, I’d say Strunk & White is best read as good overall advice than as a strict series of commandments. There’s really only one rule: strive to be clear and simple in your writing. Most of the other contents of the book are ways of restating that point.

But I also think most grammar teachers and copy editors should read Pullum’s stellar critique. S&W is taught as a series of commandments, and it shouldn’t be.

And then they should read David Foster Wallace’s rousing defense of prescriptivism, especially the part when he defends it to a classroom of black students.

And then they should read LanguageHat’s takedown of same.

The end result of that whole tête-à-tête should be to convince you of the value of humility when prescribing language suggestions to others. Which humility, to finally get to the point, is the best part of Roy’s recent writing on language. Writing Tools is – and I imagine The Glamor of Grammar will be – the perfect antidote to the Lynne Trusses of the world. Roy writes about the possibilities of language, not problems of usage, and it’s refreshing and eminently useful.

Tim Carmody says…

Man, Matt just pulled a double Carmody, full-on, all the way across the sky!

It’s so beautiful… What does this mean?

I appreciate the recommendation! I really enjoy Anne LaMott’s Bird by Bird, but mostly because it’s so casual and story-filled, which appeals to my sensibilities.

Yes! Agree; I love it. Bird by Bird belongs on the shelf next to Writing Tools. Again: totally complementary.

So, not to be a tease, here’s a Roy Peter Clark story as related by an old friend who was, at the time, a network television correspondent:

Assembled at Poynter, as so often happens, is a sizable group of journalism stars, in this case TV reporters with a reputation as being great storytellers. Amongst the group is one of whom my pal said, “You couldn’t help but hate him. He’s younger than you and better looking, he’s a better reporter than you, and he’s a hell of a nice guy.”

He presents his stuff. His peers applaud, but have no questions; they’re just overwhelmed by what he’s shown them. Into the question-free breach steps RPC, adopting the slightly tweedy professorial persona some of you may recognize.

“Well, so Mr. X, there really are only four or five basic stories, don’t you agree, and all we do is tell them to one another over and over in different ways?”

Several seconds of silence. Then the star looks up mischievously and replies, “Oh, that’s deep man. Let’s go out and smoke some dope by the truck.”

Dozens of TV reporters, nearly all of whom had likely visited the control truck with their cameraman, exploded in laughter.

50 of these are available free on iTunes University via the Poynter Institute as ‘Roy’s Writing Tools: 50 Writing Tools.’ I didn’t recognize them as the same until I saw the same hospital green and little pencil on the book cover, maybe it’s the beginnings of the book? They average about 2.5 minutes each for the first 20 or so then get double that length.

Bird by Bird, totally reading that right now, she’s hysterical.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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