▸ writing

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.

Read: Style - Lessons in Clarity and Grace

Maybe two or three years ago I already read “Style - Toward Clarity and Grace” which is a version of Style for a more general audience based on an older textbook edition. By now I have read quite a few (text)books on writing, especially on writing in economics; it is, at the end of the day, how I earn my living. So I should put some effort in it. Reading the 9th edition of the textbook is, however, not really an effort. It is quite enjoyable. The reason, of course, is that Williams put quite some effort into writing and over the years constantly revising it.

Unfortunately, just reading the book is not enough. Williams himself gives a nice metaphor explaining why: Knowing all the ingredients does not make you a good cook. And, I have to admit I did not do the exercises.

Nevertheless, I think I learned at lot from his advise. I noticed how my personal style and approach of revising my texts changed since I left school, since I finished my studies, and since I first read Style. I wish there was something similar in content and style for my native tongue. And that it would be taught at school and first year courses at universities – for both languages.

An interesting and important part of the later Style editions is a chapter on the ethics of style. How we can be fooled by an author’s rhetoric. How we can see through such attempts.

Gelesen: They Say / I Say

Sachlich und kompetent Argumentieren, und das auch noch schriftlich und auf akademischem Niveau, ist nicht jedermanns Sache. Soll man dies auch noch in einer anderen als die eigene Muttersprache vollbringen, wird es noch schwerer. They Say / I Say von Graff und Birkenstein füllt die Lücke zwischen fehlender Sprachkenntnis und der Kunst des Argumenierens. Graff und Birkenstein präsentieren eine Reihe von thematisch und anlassorientiert sortierten Templates – Vorlagen, die nur noch ausgefüllt werden müssen. Diese Templates können jedoch nur der erste Schritt sein. Bei ihrer Nutzung, also der Übung, dem schriftlichen Argumentieren, muss und wird sich ein eigener Stil entwickeln. Ansonsten wirkt das Schriftstück hölzern und tot. Durch die Struktur der Vorlagen wird der Novize bei der Anwendung schliesslich auch an die Kunst des Argumentierens herangeführt.

Als Einstieg, insbesondere für werdende Autoren, deren Muttersprache nicht Englisch ist, eignet sich dieses Buch wohl gut. Der nächste Schritt sollte dann aber der Griff zu “The Craft of Argument” von Williams und Colomb sein.

Gelesen: How to Write a Lot

Nur durch Zufall bin ich zu Paul Silvias “How to Write a Lot” gekommen. Silvia ist Psychologe und sein Buch richtet sich direkt an seine Fachkollegen, obwohl die Ratschläge durchaus nicht fachspezifisch sind. Der “praktische Wegweiser zu produktivem, akademischen Schreiben” lässt sich auf einen einzigen Ratschlag reduzieren: “Schreibe regelmässig zu festen, eigens hierfür reservierten Zeiten”. Zur Unterfütterung nennt Silvia noch einige Strategien, die das anfängliche Durchhalten eines regelmässigen Schreibtermins erleichtern und einige Strategien zur Organisation des Schreiben selbst.

Zwei Dinge haben mich an dem Buch überrascht. Paul Silvia – warum muss man eigentlich seinen akademischen Grad auf dem Cover nennen? – ist gerade mal mein Alter. Ich schreibe zu wenig, war daraus resultierend meine erste Reaktion. Die zweite Überaschung kam nach dem Lesen. Ich habe das Buch am Stück an einem Abend – nachdem ich bereits einige andere Bücher etwas weitergelesen hatte – vollständig gelesen. Silvia hat einen erstaunlich angenehmen, unterhaltsamen Schreibstil. Schreiben kann man lernen.