Thursday, December 12, 2013

Review: How to Not Write Bad

Ben Yagoda. How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them. New York: Riverhead Books, 2013. xiii + 175 pages. $15 paper.

I am always looking for new and better books to use when I teach prose writing to college juniors and seniors. Thus I found my way to Ben Yagoda’s How to Not Write Bad. Its premise — that novice writers can improve greatly by learning what not to do in their prose — is sound. But the book is a disappointment.

I found an examination copy of the book in the mailbox one morning last month, right before meeting this semester's writing class. Feeling the show-and-tell spirit, I brought the book to class and opened at random to page 52 and a discussion of the semicolon. I read the first two sentences aloud:

My initial thought is to limit this entry to one sentence: “If you feel like using a semicolon, lie down until the urge goes away.”

That is because when my students utilize this piece of punctuation, a substantial majority of them utilize it incorrectly.
My students winced, at least some of them. I winced too. We winced for the same reasons: the condescending tone, the ponderous diction. Utilize ? My students know better. And substantial majority ? Why not most ? What’s especially puzzling: elsewhere in this book, as I was to discover, Yagoda advises against such ponderousness. He even recommends use for utilize. It may be that the diction in the sentences I’ve quoted is meant as a joke, but the joke, if there is one, will likely be lost on a reader who wants to understand the use of the semicolon, a mark of punctuation that many teachers of writing would say is not so much misused in student writing as merely absent.

Yagoda's brief treatment of the semicolon is not likely to be of much use to such a reader. The passage continues:
[W]hile it is tempting to outlaw semicolons and just move on, that would be too easy. For one thing, there is a particular circumstance when a semicolon absolutely has to be used. This is a series of three or more items, one or more of which contain a comma.
It’s an odd presentation that begins with this relatively exotic matter before discussing the semicolon's use in joining complete sentences. And why particular circumstance? Why absolutely ? Elsewhere in the book, Yagoda says of particular that it “usually adds nothing to a thought except four syllables.” And he says that absolutely and similar qualifiers make a writer sound “mealymouthed.”

On to the primary use of the semicolon:
A semicolon can be used to connect two independent clauses if the clauses aren't already linked by conjunctions (and, but, although, etc.).
This advice is highly misleading, because it fails to distinguish between coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet) and subordinating conjunctions (such as although, because, whenever): the latter cannot introduce independent clauses. Yagoda leaves unmentioned the words that often signal semicolon territory: conjunctive adverbs (such as however, nevertheless, therefore) and transitional phrases (as a result, even so, in fact). Thus his presentation of the semicolon is grammatically confused and alarmingly incomplete. And a brief discussion of comma splices a few pages earlier in the book gives no indication that however is a word often found somewhere to the right of a semicolon. To the contrary: the sample sentences in that section of the book carry the unintended implication that because however is not a conjunction, it plays no part in joining sentences:
Tuition will go up again next year, however, it will be the smallest increase in five years. [Given as wrong.]

Tuition will go up again next year. However, it will be the smallest increase in five years. [Given as correct.]

Tuition will go up again next year, but it will be the smallest increase in five years. [Given as correct.]
The sentence that’s conspicuously missing:
Tuition will go up again next year; however, it will be the smallest increase in five years.
Or better:
Tuition will go up again next year; the increase, however, will be the smallest in five years.
The problems in my randomly chosen passage are present throughout the book. The writing is breezy and often condescending: “I certify this is an actual student sentence,” Yagoda writes of one especially bad sentence. How great to be the sap who’s responsible. Yagoda’s presentation of the word mindfulness (the idea of the mindful writer runs through the book) would not pass muster in an essay for freshman comp:
A word you see a lot nowadays is mindfulness. I confess I don’t know exactly what it means; something having to do with meditation and/or yoga, I believe. But the concept can definitely, and profitably, be adapted to writing.
Has Yagoda not heard of Thich Nhat Hanh? Or even Wikipedia? But also: why does he give mindfulness a pass and not count it with deal breaker, difference maker, and meme as a contemporary cliché? Try a Google search: mindful asset planning, browsing, cooking, driving, exercise, facilitation. Mindfulness is everywhere. I am lost.

And why does Yagoda clutter his sentences with empty prose additives like definitely (“definitely, and profitably, be adapted”)? Again and again, his writing violates the book’s precepts, not wittily but clumsily, as if neither writer nor editor was paying attention. Words that Yagoda prohibits — actually and the previously mentioned particular — turn up in his sentences often (actually, twelve times; particular, seventeen). The words definitely and simply (which are not on the hit list but should be) turn up five and seven times respectively. The book cautions against clichés, yet there are many: “bad boys” to “smoke out,” “clean bill of health,” “thunderous applause,” “train-wreck,” even a reference to a sentence “riddled” with clichés. Right before advising against unnecessary quotation marks (air quotes or scare quotes), Yagoda uses them: “eventually, you will streamline the process and ‘hear’ yourself write.” He uses such quotation marks elsewhere too: “selected and processed by an editor, and then ‘published.’”

What’s worse is that some of this book’s advice about writing is unhelpful or mistaken. At one point Yagoda recommends quotation marks for titles (“Gone with the Wind”), but elsewhere in the book he recommends italics for titles of “books and other compositions.” (Sample sentences in How to Not Write Bad are always in italics, which would make for maddening complications in showing the use of italics with titles.) Yagoda’s advice about the Oxford or serial comma — “choose a style you like, and stick with it” — ignores the overwhelming support for this comma in American English. Says Garner’s Modern American Usage ,
Although newspaper journalists typically omit the serial comma as a ‘space-saving’ device, virtually all writing authorities outside that field recommend keeping it.
In other words, it’s a question you shouldn’t be deciding for yourself. Yagoda’s presentation of skunked usage casts the possessive followed by a gerund (“I don’t like your talking about the senator in that tone”) as a mistake, but “you talking” is the problem, as the sample sentences make clear. And concerning the use of the word this alone (a pervasive problem in student writing), Yagoda blithely advises substituting the word that : “it can be slipped in,” he says, “without doing any damage. You didn’t hear it from me.” Such advice won’t do.

As with Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence, the real difficulties of writing good prose come in for little attention. Trying to figure out the writing conventions that apply in a field? Read “the best practitioners” and “maybe even copy down some of their sentences and paragraphs. Eventually you’ll get a feel for the expectations.” Tangled syntax? Just be mindful:
If, every time you put down a sentence, you go over it unhurriedly, you’ll learn to pick up on any ambiguities or confusion. To fix them, just shuffle and reshuffle the elements of the sentence, as if you were putting together a bouquet of flowers.
And three pages from the end of the book, we’re told that the “key issues” we now must consider are “cadence or rhythm, variety, novelty, consistency, and transitions.” In the word of many a Brooklynite before me: Sheesh.

Though this book is marketed for use in writing courses, its design alone makes it an unlikely choice for that purpose. Yagoda suggests that a teacher direct a student to “the appropriate entry in the book” to solve a writing problem. But finding, say, II.B.4.d. will be easy for neither teacher nor student: the book has no chapter headings, no index, and only a sketchy table of contents. Section II.B.4., for instance, has five parts, a. through e., none of which are identified by page number or topic in the table of contents. It’s not surprising that Yagoda himself gets lost in this maze, directing the reader to the non-existent II.I.C.2., and referring to II.C.2.d. when he means II.D.2. Imagine the fun I’ve had working out the details of this paragraph.

How to Not Write Bad comes highly recommended, with Cynthia Ozick on the front cover and an unnamed Atlantic reviewer on the back, touting the book as appropriate for the “syntax-obsessed reader and writer” and “copy, grammar, and writing nerds.” But there is little that such readers will learn from this book. And for the student who wants to become a better writer, there are books far more helpful and trust-inspiring. They would include Claire Cook’s Line by Line, Michael Harvey’s The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences about Writing, and Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences. I remain on the lookout for books as good or better.

[Are college juniors and seniors “novice writers”? In most cases, yes. Their writing experience is limited. “Empty prose additives” is a lovely phrase I’ve borrowed from Claire Cook.]

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