Ponderings by Henri Bensussen,
Mendocino Quill's editor, a.k.a. The Maven
New Year’s Day, 2015. A time for the Maven to look back on her years of reading books about How To Write. So many, and which have been really useful?
On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, 6th ed., by William Zinsser, an overview of principles, methods, forms, and attitudes.
Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay, by Adair Lara—entertaining and fun to read collection.
Attack of the Copula Spiders, and Other Essays on Writing (the perfect irresistible title), by Douglas Glover, with small lectures on the novel, short story, memoir, how to read, and critical essays on writers.
The newest effort in this genre, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker, 2014, is very different. It’s a dense treatise, directed mainly to nonfiction and prose writers, but useful to others as well. The Maven appreciates how Pinker attacks the language police for their out-of-date ideas and rote thinking. He focuses on how to write with intelligence, using accessible language correctly, and paying attention to how thoughts are formed so they will be understood by readers.
Using examples from scholarly publications, he points out errors and how to correct them. An example:
Ch. 3, The Curse of Knowledge: After I marched my way through the overgrowth of passives, zombies, and redundancies, I determined that the content of the sentence resided in the term “rabbit illusion,” the phenomenon which is supposed to demonstrate “the integrative nature of conscious perception.”
The authors write as if everyone knows what the “rabbit illusion” is, but I’ve been in this business for nearly forty years and had never heard of it.
Neither had the Maven. Pinker’s book often puts her to sleep, but by p. 187, Ch. 6: Telling Right from Wrong, she’s hooked, or maybe she realizes the due-date to return it to the library is coming up. How you form a sentence is important. Someone may read it and get the wrong impression, miss the point, be confused. Good writers should care about these things.
Pinker makes an excellent case for the use of “they” (citing Shakespeare and Jane Austen as back-ups) as a way to avoid sexist language: “Every sentence requires a writer to grapple with tradeoffs between clarity, concision, tone, cadence, accuracy, and other values. Why should the value of not excluding women be the only one whose weight is set to zero?”
In a section on Diction: “Fewer superstitions have grown up around word meaning than around grammar, because lexicographers are pack rats who accumulate vast collections of examples and compose their definitions empirically rather than kibitzing in an armchair with half-baked theories about how English ought to work.”
Much to the Maven’s relief, he says it’s OK to use “hopefully” to begin a sentence. He recommends The American Heritage Dictionary, 5th Ed. as a resource for “21st century scholarship.”
Note: The Maven has no illusions about rabbits, or chickens, for that matter.