Ben Yagoda’s new book has a cheeky title: How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them. It’s a compact little volume, just 172 pages, that’s intended for students and teachers but will be welcomed by anyone who wants his or her* writing to be appreciated. And it’s such a good example of good writing—vivid, charming, funny—that even experienced writers will read it with pleasure.
In his introduction, Yagoda says the inspiration for his title came from a psychoanalytic concept first proposed in the 1950s: “the good-enough mother” (or parent) who doesn’t solve every problem but still manages to get the job done pretty well. “What I’m talking about here,” Yagoda writes, “is good-enough writing. As with parenting, it isn’t necessarily easy to achieve, but it’s definitely achievable. And it’s a decidedly worthwhile goal.”
How to get there? By reading a lot, of course—preferably writing that has been “selected and processed by an editor, and then ‘published.’” And once you sit down to write, Yagoda says, write mindfully. (Here I pause to consider that Ben Yagoda’s surname can be anagrammed into god, yoga, and Yoda.) A big part of mindful writing is maintaining “an awareness of and attention to the (hypothetical or real) person who will eventually be reading your words.”
Yagoda teaches advanced journalism and writing at the University of Delaware—he also writes the Not One-Off Britishisms blog and is a regular contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog—and most of the examples in the book come from his students. The majority of those students, he writes, “put me in mind of what Jack Nicholson famously shouted to Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men. The Cruise character couldn’t handle the truth, Nicholson said. Well, most students, I’ve found, can’t handle writing ‘well.’ At this point in their writing lives, that goal is simply too ambitious.”
One bad student example should suffice:
The criteria that made this site able to be nominated are because of the uniqueness of the content it possesses.
Yagoda’s suggested not-bad rewrite:
The site has excellent content.
Some specific bits of wisdom from How to Not Write Bad:
On preparing to write: “First, turn off the radio, the iPod, the television; put your phone on silence and in your pocket, X out of or minimize all screens other than the one you’re writing on. Multitasking = bad writing.”
On spelling: “Spell-check, in many ways a wonderful innovation, has caused spelling muscles—never especially robust to being with—to atrophy to the point that they now have the firmness of mint jelly.”
On punctuation: “You can dismiss apostrophes—and punctuation in general—as just a series of technical details. I prefer to look at them as measures of mindfulness.”
On the inadvisability of punctuating by ear: “”[S]tudents tend to insert commas at places where they would pause in speaking the sentence. This has about the same reliability as the rhythm method in birth control.”
On the passive voice: “The passive is a problem if and only if it leaves in its wake an insistent question that begins with the word Who?”
How to Not Write Bad is available in all the usual places, in print and e-formats, including, naturally, on Amazon, where Yagoda admits to obsessively tracking the book’s ranking. On publication day, February 5, he combined this “narcissistic endeavor” with some fitting philanthropy: For every ranking drop of 100, he donated a copy of How to Not Write Bad to Mighty Writers, a Philadelphia after-school program that teaches kids ages 7 to 17 “to think and write clearly.” I think the game is off now—at last check he’d donated 17 copies—but you may still want to support Mighty Writers, which looks like a mighty fine endeavor. And buy the book, of course.
By the way, once you’ve mastered the advice in How Not to Write Bad I suggest you read Yagoda’s 2005 book The Sound on the Page, which I wrote about in 2007.
Disclaimers: 1) I received a review copy of How to Not Write Bad from the publisher, Riverhead Books. 2) The David Friedman to whom Yagoda dedicates the book is not the David Friedman to whom I am related.
* Yagoda acknowledges that within 10 to 15 years many uses of singular they will be acceptable in formal writing. “However,” he writes, “they’re not acceptable now, so you have to make adjustments.”