Some writers and teachers among us, praise be to all of them, are obsessed with writing, grammar, syntax, and our English language. They argue for concise diction, debate the use of “like” versus “as,” condemn sloppy usage, and are horrified by misspellings. Recently, for instance, a reader of one of my book reviews chastised me for spelling Mary Chesnut of Civil War fame as Chestnut, a mistake that brought an immediate “mea culpa” from me.
Many bookstores devote several shelves to these books on writing and composition, ranging from such classics as Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” to the recently released “Dreyer’s “English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.” (Some guardians of the language would shoot down “utterly,” arguing redundancy.) In these works, we find writers who love the English language with the fondness of children for their mother.
A score or so of these guides share a home on the shelf above my desk. Robert Hartwell Fiske wrote four of these volumes: “To the Point”; “The Best Words”; “Silence, Language, and Society”; and “Elegant English.” Fiske was the founder and editor of Vocabula Review, an online site devoted to the encouragement of clear expression. I am proud to say that several of my articles passed Fiske’s discerning eye and appeared on Vocabula.
That Fiske was obsessed with writing and composition is evident in the prepared statement he wrote before his untimely death from melanoma in 2016:
Robert Hartwell Fiske, owner and editor of the Vocabula Review since its genesis in September 1999, has died. Vocabula, I am sorry to say, will die along with him. My apologies. I have taken great pleasure in getting to know you, my readers. And I will miss you mightily. I wish you all an auspicious fate, a long-lived life. (Even though many people pronounce long-lived with a short i sound, the long i is correct. Long-lived derives from the word life, not the word live.)
Now there, my friends and readers, is a man who departed this world displaying courage, wit, and class.
Here are five other books I frequently examine or else have used when teaching composition to students. In purchasing these books, my reasoning proceeded as follows: If I learned just one new trick or technique, that advice was worth much more than the few dollars I’d spent.
Five Winning Resources
Constance Hale’s witty “Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing” reminds writers that verbs are the engines of a sentence. She begins by quoting the verbs used by Julius Caesar, Saint Matthew, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Saul Bellow, and even her dog Homer, who “understands the commands sit, stay, heel, and fetch.” Dull verbs, dull writing.
Next up are two books by Stephen Wilbers: “Keys to Great Writing” and “Mastering the Craft of Writing.” The first I used with upper-level high school students in my final years as a teacher; the second I bought because of the pleasure the first book delivered.
Wilbers addresses the fundamentals for constructing sentences, paragraphs, and essays, all with exercises designed to underline the lessons taught. In the book “Keys to Great Writing,” Chapter 4 “Music” with its emphasis on beat, rhythm, and composition, along with dozens of practical tips, is particularly valuable both to the novice and the veteran writer.
The fourth edition of “Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace,” written by Joseph Williams and revised in this edition by Gregory Colomb of the University of Virginia, offers excellent lessons in sentence and paragraph cohesion, emphasis, and concision. On page 58 of my copy, alongside six principles of concision like “Replace a phrase with a word” and “Change negatives to affirmatives,” a note remains from the days I taught style in the classroom. “Drum these into students,” the note says. After reviewing these six points, I hope I beat that drum good and loud.
Gregory Roper’s “The Writer’s Workshop: Imitating Your Way to Better Writing” harkens back to the practice of copying the style of other writers, or sometimes literally copying their work, until you find your own voice and rhythm. My Advanced Placement Composition students often undertook Roper’s exercises, often with productive but hilarious effects, by modeling passages from such works as Geoffrey of Vinsauf’s “Poetria Nova,” “The Ten Commandments” from the book of Deuteronomy, and Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectations.”
Roper enrolls his readers in a true writer’s workshop, with many well-constructed exercises, which, for those willing to pitch in and do the work, can help boost composition skills.
Finally, let me recommend “Style: The Art of Writing Well.” Here F.L. Lucas, a British classical scholar and writer who died in 1967, left us a book that bestows the twin pleasures of fine writing and excellent advice. Though I have not read “Style” cover to cover, I have returned to it again and again, drawn, in particular, by the charm of Lucas’s writing and by his stress on “Courtesy to Readers,” that duty owed by all writers, from the poet to the CEO, to write as clearly and as truthfully as possible for their readers. Lucas’s self-deprecation, his many examples, his humor, and his deep knowledge of literature make him a joy to read. A grand treat, but too advanced for most high school and college students.
In the Information Age, as some have labeled the 21st century, our ability to communicate via the written word is vital. Good writing is important not only in commerce—poor communication costs businesses billions of dollars per year, according to Inc.—but also in our personal affairs. Which of us has not sent an email or text we regretted, or misinterpreted one sent to us by a friend or family member?
Few of us possess the talents of a Leo Tolstoy or a Jane Austen, but through practice and diligent revision, and through the study of such books as those reviewed here, all of us can become better writers.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, North Carolina. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Virginia. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.