Reading about writing

Every now and then, a student asks, “Do you know a good book on writing?” Writers love books about writing, and we all have shelves of them. Mine hold two dictionaries, two books on editing and one style guide; “The Oxford Book of Idioms” and “Word Histories and Mysteries”; Lynne Truss’s popular “Eats, Shoots ands Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation”; and “English for International Journalists,” by Mike Gandon and Heather Purdey. My e-book library includes yet another dictionary and “The Elements of Style,” the Strunk & White classic. While I recommend them all, I never found any single, comprehensive book that covered everything our J-school’s students need to know.

Now I have: “A Writer’s Coach,” by Jack Hart (Pantheon, 2006, available in paperback and e-book). It seems to be the book you’ve all been asking for. Hart, a former managing editor and writing coach at The Oregonian,  edited two Pulitzer Prize winners and two other finalists, so he knows what he’s talking about.

The 12 chapters cover grand themes, from “Method” to “Mastery,” but they’re filled with specific advice. “Humanity” may be an abstraction, but Hart teaches writers how to inject the human element into their stories through anecdotes and quotations. He spends almost three pages in “Clarity” on how to avoid danglers like this one in The New York Times Magazine’s recent issue “The Lives They Lived”:  Less than five years after graduating from Black Mountain College, in North Carolina, Ruth Asawa’s industrial-wire sculptures were getting notice in the national press. The grammar guide in  “Mechanics” could stand on its own.

Hart is especially conscious of the sins journalists commit. In “Voice,” he lampoons the pompous ways we sometimes structure sentences.  (“The administration is known to believe that the time is fast approaching when a decision about a military option must be considered.”) He includes a glossary of journalese and a “Cliché Watch” that stretches to seven pages.

There is very little in the book that I would dispute — in fact, only one sentence, in the acknowledgments: “Nobody’s more obnoxious than somebody who corrects your English.”



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