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The art of writing can certainly be learned

The art of writing can certainly be learned

“What we have here is failure to communicate.”

So says The Captain, the warden of a prison, in the movie “Cool Hand Luke” after he knocks Luke down a hill for smart-mouthing him.

That line, clearly a platitude the ignorant warden learned in some sociology seminar, is self-satire.

Unfortunately, many Americans today suffer from “failure to communicate.”

Our incompetence in composition and reading  are costing American businesses billions of dollars a year. (Some estimates run as high as $400 billion.) Companies cite the weak writing skills of college graduates as a principal cause, and many of these businesses have instituted programs to correct this fault.

It is strange that in this Great Age of Communication — emails, faxes, texts, smart phones — that communication itself is so poorly taught. Not everyone can be a Joseph Epstein, regarded as one of our country’s great essayists, but nearly everyone can be taught to write clean, clear prose. It’s a question of grasping the basics of grammar and composition, and then practice, practice, practice. When students from my high school classes for homeschoolers returned from college to thank me for teaching them how to write, I pointed out that I had helped, but that most of their writing skill derived from the many essays I had required from them. They had taught themselves.

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If our schools are failing to teach students the art of composition — and many schools are — then how do those young people become better writers? 

There are several options. Community colleges offer technical writing and secretarial courses that might help. A policeman from Winston-Salem once told me that the best course he had ever taken was a course on writing from his local community college. His conviction rates rose because his reports were less likely to be torn apart by defense attorneys. Nearly all colleges maintain writing centers where students can receive help on their papers and instruction on composition, often from their peers. Occasionally, an employee who finds it difficult to put together a coherent report or a shipping order will receive instruction within  the office itself.

And then there are books like Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (Random House, 2019, 291 pages.)

Before looking at Dreyer’s English, a confession: I am a grammar and composition book junkie. Over the years, I have collected about 30 such manuals. They range from the conventional — Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, Warriner’s English: Grammar and Composition — to the offbeat volumes like Constance Hall’s Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch and Robert Fiske’s Elegant English. I’ve taught some of these books in the classroom — Stephen Wilbers’ Keys To Great Writing  and Gregory Roper’s The Writer’s Workshop proved especially helpful — and a few I have even read for the sheer joy produced by the author’s observations and style, The King’s English by Kingsley Amis, for example, or William Cane’s Write Like The Masters. All of these books sit before me on the shelf of my desk as I write these words.

Now I must add Dreyer’s English to this beloved company. (I have at hand a copy from the library, but will search one out as a keeper.)

Benjamin Dreyer is the copy chief of Random House, and his decades as an editor and his talent for wit and precision make Dreyer’s English an excellent course of instruction for novice writers and a compendium of enlightenment and amusement for more experienced practitioners of the craft. He covers the basics of grammar, words frequently misspelled, a section on proper nouns containing, at least for me, many surprises (Who knew that Taser is a brand name? OK, good for you. It was news to me), and a chapter called “The Trimmables,” a list of redundancies that should be required reading once a year through high school and college. 

Dreyer’s English also has plenty of handy tips. Here’s one I wish I’d known when I was teaching the passive voice, a concept that baffled a good number of my students. Dreyer has a solution.

“Here’s a nifty trick that copy editors like to pass among themselves that comes in handy when you’re assessing your own writing:

“If you can append ‘by zombies’ to the end of a sentence (or, yes, ‘by the clown’), you’ve written a sentence in the passive voice.”

Some parts of Dreyer’s English may appear too nit-picky to the reader. Too bad. His three pages on the use of the singular “they,” for example, is fascinating. He begins with this bit — “If someone were trying to kill you, how do you think they’d go about it?” — pointing out that someone is singular and “they” is plural. He then argues, as so many have argued before him, how to resolve such difficulties. Do we use they? He? Alternate he and she? Typical of his wit employed here is this comment on s/he: “The use of the construction s/he, which, truth and happy to tell, I didn’t run across all that often. Because it’s hideous.”

In his Introduction, Dreyer tells us that “We’re all of us writers: We write term papers and office memos, letters to teachers and product reviews, journals and blog entries, appeals to politicians. Some of us write books. All of us write emails. And, at least as I’ve observed it, we all want to do it better; we want our writing to be appreciated, to be more effective; we want — to be quite honest — to make few mistakes.”

That nails it.

Dreyer’s English would make a useful gift for that high school or college graduate this spring. Also recommended, and previously reviewed in The Smoky Mountain News, is Charles Murray’s The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life. 

(Jeff Minick is a teacher and writer. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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