We copy editors like to think of ourselves as guarantors of accuracy, protectors of the reader, guardians of the language, and other noble roles. But the plain fact is that our basic task is to keep people from making asses of themselves in public.
Now, of course, our numbers are much diminished, something like half of the nation's newspaper copy editors having lost their jobs in the past decade. (Of course, not all of them are selling their plasma today, many contriving to make a living as freelance editors.) You're pretty much on your own these days.
Fortunately, Ben Yagoda understands that the trick of achieving what he calls "good-enough writing" is to avoid the errors that make you look like an unskilled writer. In How to Not Write Bad (Riverhead Books, 175 pages, $15, published this week), he identifies a clutch of about fifty problems areas, plentifully illustrated by selections from students' prose. Train yourself to avoid those hazards, he argues, and you will produce respectable prose and be able to move on to more sophisticated effects.
He is no mere rule-monger. Though I regret his advice about singular they, for example, I see the merit of it: "I predict that it will be accepted in American publishing within ten years. But it isn't yet, and for my purposes it counts as bad writing." You are bound to run into some editor or boss who is a stinking stickler, and armed resistance is not always practicable.
He runs through the basics of punctuation. He goes over the words misused and the words confused, the skunked words, the eggcorns. He covers some common problems in grammar, and he has no truck with the split-infinitive and split-verb superstitions. He advises against the false-genteel myself where grammar calls for I or me and similarly warns against overdoing the Latinate vocabulary. Cliches, euphemisms, and buzzwords take their lumps.
You will not, I think, find much novelty in his categories and examples, since they are by definition the most common solecisms, treated in other books as well. The student sentences, though, are illuminating, because they represent the kind of slipshod, casual, not-thought-out writing that we bump up against every day, not only in student papers but, sadly, in professional publications. (Mr. Yagoda teaches over on the other side of the Chesapeake, at the University of Delaware, and I nod in recognition at his examples.)
Once you have paid attention to the words, he says, you can concentrate on building effective sentences, and from there proceed to construct effective paragraphs. His advice is straightforward, plain-spoken, lucid, and sound: "Relatively short sentences should be the default ... but too many of them in a row produces a staccato ersatz-Hemingway sound. ... A series of long sentences is even worse. ... It's like walking in the jungle and finding that all of a sudden the vegetation has gotten impassably thick."
But perhaps his most valuable advice comes at the beginning, before he gets to those commonplace lapses. Bad writing is all around us, he points out, and bad writing produces "boredom, annoyance, incomprehension, and/or daydreaming." There is so much of it because "the general wordiness that characterizes so much writing today has got to be related to the incredible ease of using a keyboard to create shapely and professional-looking paragraphs." (Note that looking.)
The real key to avoiding bad writing, to go on to achieve good writing, is widespread and intensive reading. Not reading just anything, since so much bad writing abounds, but reading quality, edited prose. If Malcolm Gladwell is correct about mastery of a discipline requiring 10,000 hours of practice, he says, then to be a sound practitioner of writing, you should put in 10,000 hours of reading the good stuff.
"The benefits of reading," he explains, "extend far beyond protocol and rules. When you have read all kinds of (preferably good) prose by writers with diverse styles and approaches, your inner ear gets exposed to an amazing range of ways to perpetrate a sentence. They subtly but surely become part of your own repertoire. Trying to be a not-bad writer without having read your share of others' work is like trying to come up with a new theory in physics without having paid attention to the scientists who came before you."
Before you take up your pen and write, take up your book and read.
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