Arrant Pedantry

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Book Review: What the F

whatthef Disclosure: I received a free advance review copy of this book from the publisher, Basic Books.

I was a little nervous when I was asked to review Benjamin K. Bergen’s new book, What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves. Unlike many of my linguist and editor friends, I’m not much of a swearer. I was raised in a fairly conservative religious household, and I can count the number of times I swore as a child on one hand with some fingers left over. Even now I swear pretty rarely. When someone asked me if I’d like to contribute to the group blog Strong Language (tagline: a sweary blog about swearing), I politely declined simply because I wouldn’t have much to add.

But even for someone with as clean a mouth as me, What the F is a fascinating read. Bergen starts by looking at the different realms swear words come from, like religion, sex, bodily effluvia, and disparaged groups. Most swear words across cultures probably fall into one of these categories, but different categories are weighted differently across cultures. For example, in French-speaking Quebec, some of the most offensive words are religious terms, even though most Quebecois nowadays are not very religious. Japanese, on the other hand, is said to lack dedicated swear words, but it still has ways to express the same ideas.

Bergen then dives into what makes a swear word a swear word, exploring concepts like sound symbolism to see whether there’s something innately sweary about certain words. In English, at least, there are some strong tendencies—our swear words tend to be monosyllabic and end with a consonant, especially consonants lower on the sonority hierarchy, like stops, affricates, and fricatives. That is, a word ending in k sounds swearier than a word ending in m. But this doesn’t necessarily hold across other languages, and it doesn’t offer a complete explanation for why English swear words are what they are. There are certainly other words that fit the pattern but aren’t swears. To a large extent it’s simply arbitrary.

Similarly, gestures like flipping the bird are largely arbitrary too, despite what appears to be some striking iconicity. But rude gestures vary widely, so that a gesture that seems harmless to Americans, like a thumbs-up or an A-OK, can be just as offensive as the bird in other countries. Even swearing in sign language isn’t as symbolic or iconic as you might think; signs for the f-word are quite different in American and British Sign Language, though the connection between signifier and signified is perhaps a little less arbitrary than in spoken language. Swear words are swear words because convention says they are. If you hear people use a certain word a certain way, you figure out pretty quickly what it means.

Some of the most fascinating parts of the book, though, come from what swearing tells us about how the brain works. Most students of linguistics probably know that some stroke victims can still swear fluently even if their other language abilities are severely impaired, which tells us that swearing uses different mental circuitry from regular language—swearing taps into much more primal neural hardware in the basal ganglia. On the flip side, Tourette’s syndrome, which involves dysfunction of the basal ganglia, can cause an overwhelming urge to swear. Some deaf people with Tourette’s feel the same urge, but the swearing comes out via their hands rather than their mouths. And the fact that the brain reacts to prevent us from accidentally saying swear words shows that we have a built-in censor monitoring our speech as it’s produced.

In a later chapter, Bergen debunks a paper by a team from where else but the School of Family Life at my alma mater, Brigham Young University, that purported to show that exposure to swearing actually harms children. Although there’s evidence that slurs can harm children, and verbal abuse in general can be harmful, there’s actually no evidence that exposure to swearing causes children harm. And Bergen ends with a thoughtful chapter titled “The Paradox of Profanity”, which argues that profanity gets much of their power from our attempts to suppress it. The less frequently we hear a swear word, the more shocking it is when we do hear it.

Throughout the book, Bergen maintains a nice balance between academic and approachable. The book is backed up by copious notes, but the writing is engaging and often funny, as when a footnote on the “various other manifestations” of the chicken gesture (“bent elbows moving up and down to depict chicken wings”) led to this Arrested Development clip.

Come for the swears; stay for a fascinating exploration of language and humanity.

What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves is available now at Amazon and other booksellers.

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Book Review: The Subversive Copy Editor

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the University of Chicago Press.

subversiveI have a terrible editor confession:1You can choose to read that either as a terrible confession for an editor or as the confession of a terrible editor. until now, I had not read Carol Fisher Saller’s book The Subversive Copy Editor. I also have to take back what I said about But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”?this is the best book on editing I’ve ever read.

The book, now in its second edition, has been revised and expanded with new chapters. In the introduction, Saller explains just what she means by “subversive”—rather than sneaking errors into print to sabotage the writer, she aims to subvert the stereotype of the editor locked in an eternal struggle with the writer or so bound by pointless rules that they can’t see the forest of the copy for the trees of supposed errors.

I find Saller’s views on editing absolutely refreshing. I’ve never been a fan of the idea that editors and authors are mortal enemies locked in an eternal struggle. Authors want to share their ideas, and readers, we hope, want to read them; editors help facilitate the exchange. Shouldn’t we all be on the same side?

Saller starts with a few important reminders—copy editors aren’t the boss, and the copy doesn’t belong to us—before diving into some practical advice on how to establish good author-editor relations. It all starts with an introductory phone call or email, which is the editor’s chance to establish their carefulness, transparency, and flexibility. If you show the author from the beginning that you’re on their side, the project should get off to a good start.

And to maintain good relations throughout a project, it’s important to keep showing that you’re careful, transparent, and flexible. Don’t bombard the author with too many queries about things that they don’t know or care about like arbitrary points of style. Just make a decision, explain it succinctly if you feel the need, and move on. And don’t lecture or condescend in your queries either. Saller recommends reading through all of your queries again once you get to the end of a project, because sometimes you read a query you wrote days ago and realize you unintentionally come across as a bit of a jerk.

Too many editors mechanically apply a style without stopping to ask themselves whether they’re making the manuscript better or merely making it different. Sometimes a manuscript won’t perfectly conform to Chicago or whatever style you may be using, but that can be okay as long as it’s consistent and not wrong. (If you’re editing for an academic journal or other publication with a rigid style, of course, that’s a different story.) But there’s no reason to spend hours and hours changing an entire book manuscript from one arbitrary but valid style to another equally arbitrary but valid style. Not only have you wasted time and probably irritated the author, but there’s a good chance that you’ve missed something, introduced errors, or both. Rather than “What’s the rule?” Saller suggests asking, “What is helpful?” or “What makes sense?”

And Saller doesn’t have much patience for editors who get “hung up on phantom issues and personal bugaboos,” who feel compelled to “ferret out every last which and change it to that2I saw this happen once on a proofread. Remarkably, I don’t think the author used a single relative that in the entire book. The proofreader hunted down every last restrictive which and changed it to that—and missed a lot of real errors in the process. And changing that many whiches to thats surely would have wreaked havoc with the copyfitting.—if you’re still relying on your high school English teacher’s lectures on grammar, you need to get with the times. Get some good (current!) reference books. Learn to look things up online.

I also appreciated the advice on how to manage difficult projects. When faced with a seemingly insurmountable task, Saller recommends a few simple steps: automate, delegate, reevaluate, and accept your fate. See if you can find a macro or other software tool to save you from having to grind through long, repetitive tasks. Delegate things to an intern if possible. (Sorry, interns!) Ask yourself whether you really need to do what you think needs to be done. And if all else fails, simply knuckle down and get through it.

There’s also a chapter to help writers navigate the copyediting process, along with chapters on learning to use your word processor better, managing deadlines, working as a freelancer, and more. And throughout it all Saller provides sensible, practical advice. Some of my favorite bits come from a chapter called “The Zen of Copyediting,” which aims to help editors let go of the things that don’t really matter. When faced with an apathetic author, one of Saller’s colleagues tells herself, “You can’t care about the book more than the author.” Saller herself dares to suggest that “some of our ‘standards’ are just time-consuming habits that don’t really make a difference to the reader.” And finally, one of Saller’s former mentors liked to say, “Remember—it’s only a book.”

Whether you’re a seasoned editor or a novice just breaking into the field, The Subversive Copy Editor provides sage advice on just about every aspect of the job. It should be a part of every editor’s library.

The Subversive Copy Editor is available now at Amazon and other booksellers.

Notes   [ + ]

1. You can choose to read that either as a terrible confession for an editor or as the confession of a terrible editor.
2. I saw this happen once on a proofread. Remarkably, I don’t think the author used a single relative that in the entire book. The proofreader hunted down every last restrictive which and changed it to that—and missed a lot of real errors in the process. And changing that many whiches to thats surely would have wreaked havoc with the copyfitting.

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Book Review: But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”?

chicagoq&a

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the University of Chicago Press.

I have to admit that I was a little skeptical when I heard that the University of Chicago Press was putting out a collection of questions and answers from the popular Chicago Style Q&A. What’s the point of having it in book form when the online Q&A is freely available and easily searchable? And yet I have to admit that this charming little gift book is one of the best books on editing I’ve ever read.

If you’re not familiar with the Chicago Style Q&A, it’s a place where anyone can submit a question to the staff in the manuscript editing department at the University of Chicago Press. Selected questions and answers are then posted monthly. I don’t read the Q&A regularly, but when you search Chicago’s website, answers from the Q&A appear in the results. It’s a great repository of answers to questions that aren’t necessarily covered in the manual itself.

Because the book is simply a compilation of questions and answers, the organization is necessarily somewhat loose, though the books editors have grouped them into topics such as Possessives and Attributes, How Do You Cite . . . ?, and, one of my favorites, Things That Freak Us Out. If you’re not familiar with the Chicago Style Q&A, you may not know that the editors have developed a bit of a snarky voice. Maybe it’s a result of staring of pages and pages of text all day or of dealing with recalcitrant authors. Or maybe the editors have just been asked one too many times about something that could have been found in the manual if the person asking had just looked. Whatever the reason for it, it makes reading the answers a lot of fun.

For example, when someone asked if an abbreviation with periods should then be followed by another period if it appears at the end of the sentence, they respond, “Seriously, have you ever seen two periods in a row like that in print? If we told you to put two periods, would you do it? Would you set your hair on fire if CMOS said you should?” Or when someone asks innocently enough, “Can I use the first person?”, they answer, “Evidently.” And when someone asks why it’s so hard to find things in the manual, they write, “It must just be one of those things. If only there were a search box, or an index . . .” And when a US Marine threatened to deploy a detail of marines to invade Chicago’s offices and impose the outdated two-spaces-after-a-sentence rule, they reply, “As a US Marine, you’re probably an expert at something, but I’m afraid it’s not this.” The editors at Chicago clearly suffer no fools.

But in between the bits of dry wit and singeing snark are some truly thoughtful remarks on the craft of editing. For instance, when someone says that they don’t think it’s helpful to write out “graphics interchange format” in full the first time when referring to GIFs, the editors simply respond, “You never have to do anything that isn’t helpful. If a style guide says you do, you need a better style guide.” Or when someone asks if you always need commas after introductory phrases like “in the summer of 1812”, they answer, “Rejoice: everyone is correct. Higher authorities are not interested in legislating commas to this degree. Peace.”

Even at a thousand pages or more, The Chicago Manual of Style can’t provide answers to everything, nor should it. Editing that relies on a list of black-and-white edicts tends to be mechanical and to miss the forest of the text for the trees of commas and hyphens. If you want to be a good editor, you have to learn how to use your head. As the editors say, “Make your choice with a view to minimizing inconsistencies, and record them in your style sheet.” There’s not always one right answer. Sometimes you just have to pick one and stick with it.

But perhaps my favorite answer is the last one in the book:

Q. My library shelves are full. I need to make some difficult decisions to make space for new arrivals. Is there any reason to keep my CMOS 14th and 15th editions?
A. What a question. If you had more children, would you give away your firstborn? Find a board and build another shelf.

Here’s my bookcase of editing and language books at home. Obviously it’s time for me to build another shelf.

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But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”? Advice from the Chicago Style Q&A is available now. You can buy it from Amazon or your favorite bookseller.

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Book Review: Perfect English Grammar

Disclosure: I received a free review PDF of this book from Callisto Media.

perfectenglishgrammar

Grant Barrett, cohost of the public radio program A Way with Words, recently published a book called Perfect English Grammar: The Indispensable Guide to Excellent Writing and Speaking. In it, Barrett sets out to help writers like himself who may not have gotten the best education in grammar or composition in school, ranging from middle-school students to “business professionals and community leaders who need a refresher on grammar points they last thought about decades ago.”

The book is designed as a reference book, something to be pulled out and consulted in those moments when you can’t remember the difference between a present perfect and a past perfect or between an initialism and a conjunction. The book is well organized, with chapters like “Verbs” broken down into topics like person, number, mood, linking verbs, and so on. The different topics are also very clearly marked, with bold colors and clear headings that make it easy to flip through in case you’d rather browse than use the table of contents or index.

Barrett starts with some general principles of writing like writing for your audience rather than yourself, avoiding using a thesaurus to learn fancy new words, and sticking to whichever style guide is appropriate in your field. He then moves on to the basics of composition, with a reminder to be aware of register and some good tips for getting started if you’re feeling stuck.

One weak spot in the chapter on composition was the section on paragraph and essay structure. Though Barrett says that paragraphs don’t have to be a certain length, he says that a paragraph should have a topic sentence, supporting sentences, and a conclusion sentence, and he explains that the classic five-paragraph essay has a similar structure. I’ve never been a fan of the five-paragraph essay as a way to teach composition. Perhaps it’s a necessary stepping-stone on the way to better composition, but to me it always felt more like a straitjacket, designed to keep students from hurting themselves and their teachers. But the chapter ends with some good advice on writing transitions, avoiding common mistakes, and having your work edited.

The later chapters on parts of speech, spelling and style, and sentence structure provide helpful introductions or refreshers to the topics, and I like that Barrett uses more current linguistic terminology. For example, he talks about verb tense and aspect rather than just tense (though I think the explanation of aspect could have been a little clearer), and he groups articles, possessives, quantifiers, and others under determiners. He also defends the passive voice, saying, “Both active and passive voices are essential to everyday writing and speaking. Broadside suggestions that you should avoid the passive voice are misguided and should be ignored.”

Though his treatment of various aspects of grammar is sometimes a little brief, he uses grammar mostly as a way to talk about frequent problem areas for novice writers, and this is where the book is most valuable. You have to have at least a basic understanding of what an independent clause is before you can identify a comma splice, and you have to be able to identify a subject and verb and be aware of some common tricky areas before you can identify a subject-verb agreement problem.

However, I found a few pieces of usage advice a little less helpful. For instance, Barrett advocates the singular they (which I was happy to see) but warns against sentential hopefully—even though it is, as he says, fully grammatical—because some people have been erroneously taught to dislike it. He also recommends following the rule requiring the strict placement of only, which Jan Freeman (among others) addressed here. In that column, published in 2009, Freeman asked for readers to send her examples of truly ambiguous onlys. I was apparently the first person to send her such an example, nearly five years after her column was published.

Most of the usage advice, though, is solid, and some of it is even quite refreshing, like this passage in which he addresses the usual advice about avoiding adverbs: “There is nothing whatsoever intrinsically wrong with adverbs. In fact, avoiding them leads to bland, forgettable writing. You can and should use adverbs.” My biggest complaint with the chapter on usage and style is simply that it is too short; there are many more usage items that a novice writer may need help with that aren’t covered here.

Despite these quibbles, I think the book is full of good advice that will be helpful to both novices and more experienced writers who may need a refresher on basic topics of grammar, usage, and style.

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Book Review: The Sense of Style

Full disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher, Viking.

The Sense of StyleI was intrigued when I first heard that Steven Pinker, the linguist and cognitive scientist, was writing a book on style. I’ve really enjoyed some of his other books, such as The Stuff of Thought, but wasn’t this the guy who had dedicated an entire chapter of The Language Instinct to bashing prescriptivists, calling them a bunch of “kibbitzers and nudniks” who peddle “bits of folklore that originated for screwball reasons several hundred years ago”? But even though it can be satisfying to bash nonsensical grammar rules, I’ve also long felt that linguists could offer some valuable insight into the field of writing. I was hopeful that Pinker would have some interesting things to say about writing, and he didn’t disappoint me.

I should be clear, though, that this is not your ordinary book on writing advice. It isn’t a quick reference book full of rules and examples of what to do and what not to do (for which I recommend Joseph Williams’s excellent Style). It’s something deeper and more substantial than that—it’s a thorough examination of what makes good writing good and why writing well is so hard.

Pinker starts by reverse-engineering some of his favorite passages of prose, taking them apart piece by piece to see what makes them tick. Though it’s an interesting exercise, it gets a little tedious at times as he picks passages apart. However, his point is valuable: good writing can only come from good reading, which means not only reading a lot but engaging with what you read.

He then explores classic style, which he calls “an antidote for academese, bureaucratese, corporatese, legalese, officialese, and other kinds of stuffy prose.” Classic style starts with the assumption that the writer has seen something that they want to show to the reader, so the writer engages in a conversation with the reader to help direct their gaze. It’s not suitable for every kind of writing—for example, a user manual needs just a straightforward list of instructions, not a dialogue—but it works well for academic writing and other kinds of writing in which an author explains a new idea to the reader.

Then Pinker tackles perhaps the most difficult challenge in writing—overcoming the curse of knowledge. The cause of much bad writing, he says, is that the author is so close to the subject that they don’t know how to explain it to someone who doesn’t already know what the author knows. They forget how they came by their knowledge and thus unthinkingly skip key pieces of explanation or use jargon that is obscure or opaque to outsiders. And to make things worse, even being aware of the curse of knowledge isn’t enough to ensure that you’ll write more clearly; that is, you can’t simply tell someone, “Keep the reader in mind!” and expect them to do so. The best solution, Pinker says, is to have test readers or editors who can tell you where something doesn’t make sense and needs to be revised.

The next chapters provide a crash course on syntax and a guide to creating greater textual coherence, and though they occasionally get bogged down in technical details, they’re full of good advice. For example, Pinker uses syntax tree diagrams to illustrate both the cause of and solution to problems like misplaced modifiers. Tree diagrams are much more intuitive than other diagramming methods like Reed-kellog, so you don’t need to be an expert in linguistics to see the differences between two example sentences. And though the guide to syntax is helpful, the chapter on coherence is even better. Pinker explains why seemingly well-written text is sometimes so hard to understand: because even though the sentences appear to hang together just fine, the ideas don’t. The solution is to keep consistent thematic strings throughout a piece, tying ideas together and making the connections between them clear.

The last and by far the longest chapter—it occupies over a third of the book—is essentially a miniature grammar and usage guide prefaced by a primer on the supposed clash between prescriptivism and descriptivism. It’s simultaneously the most interesting and most disappointing chapter in the book. Though it starts rather admirably by explaining the linguistics behind particular usage issues (something I try to do on this blog), it ends with Pinker indulging in some peevery himself. Ironically, some of the usage rules he endorses are no more valid than the ones he debunks, and he gives little justification for his preference, often simply stating that one form is classier. At least it’s clear, though, that these are his personal preferences and not universal laws. The bulk of the chapter, though, is a lucid guide to some common grammar and usage issues. (And yes, he does get in a little prescriptivist bashing.)

Despite some occasional missteps, The Sense of Style is full of valuable advice and is a welcome addition to the genre of writing guides.

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Book Review: Schottenfreude

German is famous for its compound words. While languages like English are content to use whole phrases to express an idea, German can efficiently pack the same idea into a single word, like Schadenfreude, which means a feeling of joy from watching or hearing of someone else’s miseries. Well, in Schottenfreude: German Words for the Human Condition, Ben Schott has decided to expand on German’s compounding ability and create words that should exist.

Every right-hand page lists three made-up German compounds, along with their pronunciation, their English translation, and a more literal gloss. On the facing left-hand pages are explanatory notes discussing the concepts in more depth. For example, the first word is Herbstlaubtrittvergnügen (autumn-foliage-strike-fun), meaning “kicking through piles of autumn leaves”. The explanatory notes talk about self-reported rewarding events and the metaphorical connection between fallen leaves and human souls in literature.

The rest of the book proceeds much the same way, with funny and surprising insights into the insecurities, frailties, and joys of human life. Who hasn’t at some time or another experienced Deppenfahrerbeäugung (“the urge to turn and glare at a bad driver you’ve just overtaken”), Sommerferienewigkeitsgefühl (“childhood sensation that the summer vacation will last forever”), or Gesprächsgemetzel (“moments when, for no good reason, a conversation suddenly goes awry”)?

You don’t have to be a German speaker to appreciate this book, but it certainly helps. There are a few puns that you can only appreciate if you have a knowledge of both English and German, such as Besserwinzer (“one of those people who pretend to know more about wine than they do”), which is a play on Besserwisser, meaning “know-it-all”, and Götzengeschwätz (“praying to a god you don’t believe in”), which literally means “idol chatter”. And knowing German will certainly help you pronounce the words better; I found the provided pronunciations somewhat unintuitive, and there’s no key. The words also don’t seem to be in any particular order, so it can be a little difficult to find one again, even though there is an index.

Overall, though, it’s a greatly enjoyable little book, great for flipping through when you have a few idle minutes. Word lovers—and especially German lovers—are sure to find a lot of treasures inside.

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher. My apologies to the author and publisher for the lateness of this review.

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Book Review: Shady Characters

Shady_1e.inddI recently received a review copy of Keith Houston’s new book, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, based on his excellent blog of the same name. The first delightful surprise I found inside is that, in a tribute to medieval manuscripts and early printed books, the book is rubricated—the drop caps, special characters, figure numbers, and dingbats are printed in red. It’s a fitting design choice for a book that takes it readers through the history of the written word.

Each chapter covers a different punctuation mark or typographical symbol, starting with the pilcrow (also known as the paragraph mark, ¶). The first chapter ranges through the beginnings of Greek and Roman writing, the spread of Christianity in Europe, monastic manuscript copying, and the rise of modern typography. Partway through the chapter, I started to wonder where on earth it was all going, but as all the pieces came together, I realized what I treat I was in for. Houston has a knack for turning otherwise dry historical facts into a compelling narrative, picking out the thread of each character’s story while following it down all kinds of scenic side roads and intriguing back alleys.

The rest of the book follows much the same pattern, with trips through the birth of textual criticism in the Great Library of Alexandria, the lasting influence of Roman weights and measures, the invention of the printing press and the birth of typography, the invention of the novel, the standardization of keyboards and telephone keypads, and the beginnings of the internet. And in each chapter, Houston pulls together seemingly unrelated threads of history into a fascinating story of the origin of a familiar typographical or punctuation mark. As an editor and typesetter, I particularly appreciated his lucid treatment of the functions and appearances of the various kinds of hyphens and dashes, including the hated all-purpose hyphen-minus.

Through it all, Houston manages to muster an impressive amount of research (the endnotes take up nearly seventy pages) while keeping the text interesting and accessible. The only part where I got bogged down at all was the chapter on sarcasm and irony, which, unlike the other chapters, focuses on a set of marks that didn’t succeed. It covers various proposals over the years to create a mark or text style to indicate irony or sarcasm. But since it’s an account of failed punctuation marks, there’s an unavoidable sameness to each story—someone proposes a new punctuation mark, it fails to get off the ground, and it’s relegated to the dustbin of history. This isn’t to say that the stories aren’t interesting, just that I found them less compelling than the stories of the punctuation marks that survived.

One other problem is that some of the images are hard to read. I sometimes found it hard to pick out the character I was supposed to see in a faded and tattered Greek papyrus. Increasing the contrast or highlighting the character in question would have been helpful.

Those quibbles aside, it’s a delightful book, full of little gems like this: “In Gutenberg’s day the first rule of Hyphenation Club was that there are no rules.” (Gutenberg’s famous forty-two-line Bible features stacks of up to eight end-of-line hyphens, which would make modern typesetters and proofreaders hyperventilate.) Throughout the book, Houston successfully weaves together history, technology, and design in telling the stories of characters that we’ve seen countless times without giving a second thought to. I highly recommend it to all lovers of typography and the written word.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of Shady Characters from W. W. Norton.

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Book Review: Editor-Proof Your Writing

I recently received a review copy of Don McNair’s Editor-Proof Your Writing: 21 Clear Steps to the Clear Prose Publishers and Agents Crave, which is available now from Quill Driver Books. I’ll be up-front: I was very skeptical of the idea that you could editor-proof your writing by following certain steps, and my opinion hasn’t changed after reading the book.

McNair starts with a basic and intriguing premise: that most writers who get repeatedly rejected are making the same mistakes over and over again without realizing it, and if they could only see what they are doing wrong and make some changes, they’d sell some manuscripts. He even says that some of his critique partners had success after following his tips. It certainly sounds promising, especially to a writer struggling to get published. But I could tell within the first few pages that this book was not going to be the panacea that it claimed to be. A few pages into the introduction, McNair writes,

Most editing manuals are like geography books that give great information about an area, but don’t show you how to get from place to place. This book is a GPS that guides you through the writing wilderness to solve your specific writing problems.

That’s the major problem with this book: it can’t address my specific writing problems, because it has no idea what they are. It may be true that many novice writers suffer from many of the same problems, but those aren’t the reader’s specific writing problems.

But the next paragraph really befuddled me:

Most editing manuals are like dictionaries from which you’re asked to select words to write the Great American Novel. This book shows what specific words to use and what ones not to use.

Why have two back-to-back paragraphs with the exact same formula but different metaphors? Why not pick one and stick with it? (On a side note, McNair frequently mentions writing the Great American Novel, but his advice seems geared more towards writers of pulp romances and mysteries than to aspiring literary greats.) And again, the book does not show which specific words to use. The chapters on “putting words in” are mostly about cramming your first chapter full of hooks and ramping up the tension by making your main characters fight while also making them attracted to each other. McNair gives plenty of before-and-after examples from his own works, but I have to say that I never found any of them very compelling, and some of them I found downright cringeworthy, as in this “after” example of putting in sexual tension:

I wrapped my arms hard around his neck and smothered his face in kisses. At least I hoped they were kisses, and not just slobber. Wren’s arms encircled me, and his hot, Juicy-Fruit breath hit my neck.

The rest of the passage isn’t any better.

The advice gets more specific when it gets to the section on “taking words out”, though I’m not sure it’s any more helpful. McNair provides plenty of words and constructions to avoid—infinitives, present participles, the passive voice, -ly adverbs, the past perfect tense, prepositional phrases, and several pages of phrases that are redundant or otherwise deemed “foggy”. Much of this advice is familiar, though some of it was new to me. Some of it may be helpful to novice writers, but I doubt any of it will editor-proof a truly terrible manuscript. Some of the advice actually seems counterproductive and even contradictory. He says to avoid cliches and recommends replacing a statement like “It was as black as pitch” with “It was as black as the inside of an octopus.” Only a few pages later, he cautions against saying that someone’s eyes were glued to the TV screen, because the reader will be distracted by the image of a pair of eyes wandering out of their sockets and being literally glued to the screen. I wouldn’t give “glued to the TV screen” a second thought, but “as black as the inside of an octopus” is such an oddly specific and random image that I would probably find it distracting enough to put down a manuscript.

The last section, on “sharing your words”, is probably the most helpful. McNair stresses the importance of critique partners and gives several rules for finding good ones. He also discusses the value of hiring a professional editor to help you polish your manuscript before shopping it around. He also gives advice on writing query letters and synopses. Again, all of this advice is probably pretty familiar to anyone who is serious about getting published.

That brings me to another problem: most chapters are only two or three pages long, barely long enough to cover the basics and certainly not long enough to develop the ideas in any depth. The advice feels not just familiar but superficial and even trite. He barely mentions larger issues like character development or plot, assuming that readers already have those things mastered and just need to polish their prose to get out of the slush pile. Perhaps that’s true of some writers, but I suspect that many more will never be published no matter how well they follow the advice in this book. The title makes a very bold claim, and I don’t believe that the contents live up to it.

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