On Style, part 2 (aka: A few sources worth mentioning)
Author’s note: This is the second post in a two part series. However, if you’re reading this blog via RSS or some other reader, and not at phase3profit.net, the posts may appear out of order. Read this post second, after you’ve finished the first post, which can be found here.
Because I had so much to say about language, I thought a “part 2” follow-up post was in order. I listen to a lot of podcasts and I read a bunch. Although I went to law school, I am not employed in the legal field right now; consequently, I have time to read for pleasure. With all my ranting about style and usage, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen one WoW site out there yet that actually told people how to write and to write well. So, a short list of resources seems in order.
First, however, I want to insist that correct usege and style matters, especially outside the scope of Elitist Jerks and WoW. Good writing matters because people write and read more now than at any time in history. Email, text messaging, twitter, blogs, facebook/social media generally… the proliferation of these methods of communication means that people write all the time. I’m sure that everyone who’s reading this writes multiple e-mails a day at the very least, and probably takes advantage of many other written modes of communication. Since you’re writing, take a little time and do it well!
Onto the resources! Let’s start at the beginning- Strunk and White’s legendary “The Elements of Style”.
This is probably the only book you’ll need to write and to write well, unless you’re in a field that requires a specific, technical style or set of conventions, ie: academia, legal writing, etc. Go buy this book! Really, you need it, and it’s all you need. If you don’t want to buy it, it’s available free online, right here:
“The Elements of Style” free online (Yes, I broke it out so that everyone will see it and click on it. This book is that good.)
Do you want more? Are you really into language? Do you cringe when you see phrases like “the fire department evacuated 120 people?”* Well, if you do, or if you need more, then the only other guide I can recommend is Brian A. Garner’s “Modern American Useage.” It is the most thorough modern guide that I’ve ever seen, and it will make you a better writer if you consult it. Brian A. Garner is one of the most prominent lexicographers and writing instructors in the US today. He’s particularly influential in the world of legal writing, but his usage guide is simply amazing and can be of use to anyone who wants to write well. Even David Foster Wallace thought it was excellent (see his Harper’s review), and you can’t get higher praise than that.
(*Why shouldn’t the fire department “evacuate people?” Well, as the article points out, there is a school of thought that says that you can’t evacuate people, only buildings or areas. People evacuating? That’s people defecating. As David Simon says, writing about the fire department “evacuating 120 people” means you might be saying that the fire department gave enemas to 120 people, and that’s exactly the kind of thing you don’t want to mistake when you’re writing.)
But, what if you don’t want to buy a big style guide? What if you have a specific question, like whether or not it is “mute point” or “moot point,” or if you should say “an historic occasion” or “a historic occasion”… what do you do? Well, I recommend going here: Common Errors in English Usage. It’s a great website maintained by some good folks over at Washington State University. (P3P shoutout to Wazzu for hosting such a handy guide!) It’s very easy to use and I find that it answers most questions I have about a word or phrase I’m having trouble with.
But, you ask, what about something to read? Maybe you’re thinking about writing something more substantial than an e-mail. Maybe you’re considering writing a blog, or a story, or you have to edit a newsletter or draft an announcement for work, and you’re just not sure how to start. Well, I don’t write professionally (not even in the legal field at the moment); however, when I write this blog, I try to write it well. These are some authors and sources I look at and recommend. Consider reading them:
Elmore Leonard’s Rules of Writing: A few years back, the New York Times asked various writers about writing. The result is that Elmore Leonard gave us a group of rules that is invalueable. While the rules are tailored around novel-writing, they are applicable to shorter forms as well.
David Foster Wallace: DFW is, in my opinion, the best writer of his generation. His death in 2008 left me devastated for a week. He’s not always easy to read, and his longer fiction (especially Infinite Jest) can be downright daunting. However his short writing and journalism is excellent and very accessible. If you’re going to spend money because you read this post (and if you’re not going to spend that money on Strunk and White), you should spend it on Consider the Lobster. In it you’ll see a master writer writing accessible nonfiction, and doing so nearly perfectly. Also, much of his online writing can be accessed though his fansite, the Howling Fantods.
Chuck Klosterman: He’s popular, he’s funny, he’s written for Spin Magazine (among many others)… and he’s a really good modern writer. He has a style and perspective that is all his own, and his books have great timing and wit, which is not easy to accomplish. I really liked Fargo Rock City, and, unlike most reviewers, I also enjoyed Downtown Owl. Both have good, accessible writing that shines at moments and is a good example of a writer finding his style.
Bill Simmons: A very good modern writer who writes ESPN’s popular The Sports Guy column. He’s one of the first writers in any field who came to prominence through the internet originally. He’s also the first sports columnist to write about sports the way that I believe most American guys think about sports. (As an aside, he has one of the best podcasts about sports around, and he gets very interesting Hollywood guests, in part because of his connection with Jimmy Kimmel and the Jimmy Kimmel Live! show. I recommend the podcast because I enjoy it, even if I don’t think a podcast will make you a better writer.)
William Goldman: He wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride, among many others. He was a working writer for most (all?) of his career, and was successful over the long haul where many others were not. And, if you’re particularly demoralized about writing, just remember his summation of the entertainment industry: “Nobody knows anything.” Maybe that will make you feel better, and encourage you to keep going. (I know it helps me when I can’t think of anything to write for this blog.)
Raymond Chandler: He made the detective story as we know it. He also gave us the immortal advice of, “When in doubt, just have a man with a gun come through the door.” While this advice probably isn’t applicable to your usual work e-mail newsletters, the guy did know how to add tension to fiction, and could crank out good writing with the best of them.
Robert F. Jones: Magazine writer, novelist and essayist, best known for his work at Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated and Field & Stream magazines. He was a contemporary of Hunter S. Thompson, George Plimpton, Jim Harrison, and later Annie Proulx. He also reputedly coined the term “Hippie” originally (to an editor at Rolling Stone). He’s not as well known as those other authors, but he wrote in multiple genres and did so excellently; he’s one of the few writers I’ve ever read who could publish, simultaneously, both short- and long- fiction and non-fiction. All of his SI articles should be available online. Here’s a link to an editorial about him, and I recommend searching for “Robert F. Jones” in the SI Vault and then sorting by relevance. If you want to buy a book of his, A Roaring in the Blood was published after his death and has excellent excerpts of his writing.
Do you see a theme in this list? This isn’t a list with Hemmingway, Raymond Carver, “All Quiet on the Western Front”, and “The Great Gatsby.” Everyone should read those books and authors, as they’re among the best writers and written works in English. But the writers my list are working writers, not novelists (no offense to novelists). They’re professional writers who write all the time, as journalists, screenwriters, joke writers, columnists… they’re not trying (with the possible exception of DFW) to be masters. They’re trying to be consistent, to write well, and to do so over the long term. These are the types of writers that will make your blog, e-mail, or newsletter better. (Also, I’ve tried to include writers who have online publications available so everyone can at least read some of them.)
What do I recommend against reading? Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, and newspapers. Why? Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy I recommend against because they don’t use punctuation. They’re great writers, and I’m personally a fan of McCarthy (Faulkner… not so much, but I digress). However, the chances are that you’re not as good a writer as either of them. They’re among the best of their respective generations, and when you’re that good, maybe you can skip quotation marks. Until then, however, stick with conventional grammar. The readers of this imaginary blog/newsletter/e-mail that I keep referencing will thank you.
Why do I recommend against newspapers? Well, frankly, the modern newspaper is putting out a product that is of lower quality than ever before. People are getting their news online and newspapers are hemorrhaging money. There are fewer in-depth and investigative stories than ever, more lifestyle (read: “trash”) pieces, and fewer copy editors than ever before. I’ve only found two exceptions to this: The Economist (which is British and probably won’t help you with writing style, but dang can they write!) and Bloomberg News (which has maintained their standards of late, even if I don’t like their reporting style personally).
ANYWAY, that’s it. That’s my list. It’s not all-inclusive, but I think it is good. If you enjoyed this two-part series, or if you disliked it, please let me know. Put a comment in this post or the previous, and tell me what you think. If you want me to keep writing about things other than WoW gold, I might do that. If not, I can do that as well. As always, thanks in advance for taking the time to comment.
PS: The first part of this two-part series can be found here.
Edit: A final note, re: typos. I am the only person reading this essay before it goes up. Consequently, I’m sure there are a few typos in here that, even after multiple re-reads, I simply can’t see. It’s very hard to proofread your own writing. So, while typos in a piece about excellent writing are particularly embarrassing, I imagine that they’re going to happen and I ask for your understanding.