Writing

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Read: The Art of Nonfiction

Rand’s The Art of Nonfiction is not about writing (with) style, it’s about the writing process. This “Guide for Writers and Readers” is not a textbook guide on writing, it’s a transcript of a lecture series. It’s not even written and edited by Ayn Rand, it’s written by one of her “students.” The result is maybe less than what an accomplished and skilled author would have produced were he tasked with writing a writing guide for nonfiction texts. Maybe it is more.

If you manage to get past her personal philosophy that bleeds through every paragraph you will receive some very valuable advice on how the process of writing could be organized, on what an orderly method of thinking may look like in order to produce an effective piece of nonfiction.

The actual advice could be summarized on just a fraction of the pages that the book comprises. Yet, the true value of the guide lies in the construction and deconstruction of Rand’s own and other’s writing to illustrate her points. (Rand is a merciless, arrogant critic. She knows better and proves it.) By deconstructing her own writing, by illustrating her outlining, drafting, and editing process the reader may indeed learn a valuable lesson that the pure abstract advice may have failed to convey.

The examples are out of date, her philosophy and her demeanor may alienate, her advice on the writing process is sound.

Read: Stylish Academic Writing

This is the kind of book I should not be reading when I have to grade students’ essays.

Helen Sword discusses several different stylistic elements of academic writing, from the choice of words and titles, crafting sentences and selecting a structure that supports the author’s intent.

She introduces her work with some original research, showing that the standard structure and choice of perspective, tone, and language may not actually be the (only) standard. More importantly, the perceived standard may quite often be a poor choice – given the available alternatives.

An interesting observation is the more personal approach in the (hard) sciences: “I discovered” versus the objectifying, impersonal approach in the humanities and social sciences: “This article argues”. Do social scientists really need to try so hard to sound like stereotypical academics?

The book is sprinkled with examples of good writing from different disciplines. Unfortunately, as good as these examples are to illustrate the various styles of spirited writing, clear language, and supporting structures they are also constantly interrupting the flow of the book itself. They are a bad example of a choice of structure.

Stylish Academic Writing is not a guidebook. It’s a research article. It’s a plea for making bolder choices. It’s a reminder that there are choices.

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Read: The Glamour of Grammar

Not too long ago I stumbled upon the observation that “Grammar books [are] read principally by keen foreigners.” Clark’s “The Glamour of Grammar”, however, seems also to have attracted a large audience within the English-as-native-speakers crowd.

In 50 short chapters Clark offers his observations and advise on grammar in the most broadest sense possible. Thus Glamour is not only about punctuation, words, and word order; it is about meaning, rhetoric, and effect. Most of the chapters feel like longer blog-posts. The language is more casual; there are more examples than rules, and rules are only introduced to show the effect of breaking them; each chapter can stand alone and has its own take-away-message, or Keepsakes as Clark lists them at the end of each chapter; and “grammazons” are not spared the occasional criticism. And, indeed, Clark has a blog on writing where he published his ideas before he put them into the book. It seems he was not spared criticism as well… and used the feedback he got to improve the final version of his book.

All in all, even though Glamour may not be the ultimate grammar guide, not the last book you will need on grammar (it’s about as much on rhetoric as it is about grammar), it is entertaining and instructive. After having read the book, the link between glamour and grammar does not seem so far-fetched any more.

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Read: Eats, Shoots and Leaves

“Grammar books [are] read principally by keen foreigners; native speakers who require their help are the last people who will make the effort to buy and read them.” Hit and sunk.

Obviously, I am not a not a native English-speaker. I read all those improve your writing-style books; none of them for my own language. Most of my writings, nowadays, are in English anyway. However, some things seem to be more universal: “It’s tough being a stickler for punctuation these days.”

Only after I had read Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots and Leaves did I notice that this enjoyable little book on punctuation – it promises a zero tolerance approach and is not at all a grammar book – was an international best-seller. I got a first printing in a second hand bookstore in NYC. The best-seller status is well earned.

Here is finally a text that focuses on good writing at the figuratively truly atomic level of a text, it’s punctuation. Can you image a smaller unit of a text than, say, the comma? There is a lot of good advice and a bit of history on the apostrophe, the comma, the semicolon, and dashes to be found in this book. However, it was not the advise that made this book worthwhile to read. At least, it was not the main reason. Rather, it was the feeling that somehow I could relate to Lynne Truss’ quest. I cannot help but notice the Deppenapostroph everywhere (in Germany) around me. And, I always feel the urge to comment on it. It seems the same problem persists in the English speaking world.

Another parallel that I noticed is the apparent neglect of punctuation in curricula in Britain and Germany. I cannot remember to have had any classes on the finer art of good punctuation (neither in German nor in English). Quite the contrary, I remember that in English classes we were explicitly told to put a comma just where we thought (in the sense of a gut feeling) we should put one, or omit it. No one expected the rise of written self-expression back then. Thanks to the internet (and the text message), now, everyone’s a writer. Even those who cannot write due to their partial ignorance of grammar, punctuation and lack of an active vocabulary do write today. It becomes pitiable, when you observe the rise of blatant mistakes in professional texts (e. g., news paper headlines and articles, signs, …), too. We need more sticklers!

In the end, Truss’ advise was not without impact on me: I believe I began to use the semicolon more often now.

Read: It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer's Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences

Casagrande’s witty writing style – it is actually rather colloquial, that is refreshingly non-technical – lured me into buying her It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences when I was browsing the shelves at a local Barnes & Noble. I guess, I would not have bought it online. And, I am not sure whether buying it was a good idea after all.

Casagrande tries to focus on sentences. Yet, her explanations often involve whole paragraphs that, in my opinion, are the more important fragments of a text. Yes, the sentence is an important building block. Yes, good grammar (her main point about good writing) helps to reader. And yes, most things she writes are right. Most, not all. Often she seems not to be really sure of herself and qualifies her statements. If she is not sure when she gives advice, how should her reader when he becomes a writer be sure about the best way to write a text?

Other texts on style and grammar do a better job. Look for example for the books by Williams and coauthors and Strunk and White’s Element of Style.

Read: The Craft of Argument

Rhetoric is a craft that seems to be the natural talent of some, most (including myself) have to train to achieve any level of proficiency. Williams and Colomb’s textbook The Craft of Argument is a wonderful complement to Williams’ Style – Lessons in Clarity and Grace and Booth, Colomb and Williams’ The Craft of Research.

While the Craft of Research shows how to structure, plan, and execute the more general task of pursuing one’s research, The Craft of Argument advises on how to structure, plan, and write one’s articles (or report, or books …), and Style, finally, advises on how structure, plan, and write single paragraphs and sentences.

Good, persuasive and ethical writing is a hard task. This task is somewhat alleviated by Williams and Friends. Their textbooks are always a pleasure to read adducing evidence that they master[ed] their craft.

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