Want to Write Well? Start by Reading these Books

by Don Boudreaux on October 31, 2009

in Books

Word for word, these are two of the most useful books I’ve ever read.

The first is Strunk’s & White’s Elements of Style, whose 50th anniversary is ably celebrated today by Mark Garvey in the Wall Street Journal.  The second is Economical Writing, by Deirdre McCloskey.

Writing bad is something too many people do up with which neither of these authors will put. ;-)

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{ 27 comments }

Anonymous October 31, 2009 at 12:31 pm

One that inspired me at an early age was On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

Anonymous October 31, 2009 at 12:37 pm

I couldn’t agree more on Strunk and White. In fact I should read that again. It’s one of those books that you an always go back to and get more out of. Haven’t read the McCloskey book. I’ve only read a few of her pieces on the cult of statistical significance which I found to be theoretically reasonable – raising issues that are good to keep in mind, but fairly useless when it comes to doing anything productive with applied research. I like her “bourgeois virtues”, though. Thanks for the recommendations.

Linda Seebach October 31, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Linguists have amply demonstrated just how bad Strunk and White’s “little book” is; see, e.g., Geoff Pullum in
http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497
or many, many posts on the linguistics blog Language Log, for instance
http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1485

Anonymous October 31, 2009 at 4:01 pm

Started reading your first link. Got a little bored with it. Scrolled down to the bottom. Lo and behold, Geoff Pullum has his own competing book.

His critique seems a little heavy handed as when he writes: “both authors were grammatical incompetents.” Wow, that’s like being told your catechism instructor was a heretical satanist.

Linda Seebach October 31, 2009 at 10:00 pm

Geoff Pullum does not have a “competing book.” He is a co-author, with Rodney Huddleston, of the “Cambridge Grammar of the English Language,” but that is an encyclopedic tome on English syntax for specialists, not a competitor to any kind of writing guide. Had you some other author in mind?

Anonymous October 31, 2009 at 11:16 pm

Linda, I was a too hasty in my assumption. I saw that he had his own (co-authored) book on grammar and presumed it to be competition for Strunk and White. I look on Strunk and White as a starting point for good writing, not an ultimate reference. Perhaps Mr Pullum should write a competing book, or offer his services as editor of a new edition.

Anonymous October 31, 2009 at 11:16 pm

Linda, I was a too hasty in my assumption. I saw that he had his own (co-authored) book on grammar and presumed it to be competition for Strunk and White. I look on Strunk and White as a starting point for good writing, not an ultimate reference. Perhaps Mr Pullum should write a competing book, or offer his services as editor of a new edition.

Admiral November 2, 2009 at 4:04 am

I quite agree with Linda. Strunk&White, while perhaps helpful for some points of good writing, seems to have done much more harm than good for language in general. Language has typically flowed with and changed for the spoken form. The written is derivative. Yet, S&W have influenced many to believe otherwise and put most English speakers into a box. People who think like S&W want them to have no insight into the real brilliance of language.

Libertarians especially should take note: S&W are against innovation and the worst of centralized decision-makers. Consult the market, it knows best.

Linda Seebach October 31, 2009 at 10:00 pm

Geoff Pullum does not have a “competing book.” He is a co-author, with Rodney Huddleston, of the “Cambridge Grammar of the English Language,” but that is an encyclopedic tome on English syntax for specialists, not a competitor to any kind of writing guide. Had you some other author in mind?

Anonymous October 31, 2009 at 4:01 pm

Started reading your first link. Got a little bored with it. Scrolled down to the bottom. Lo and behold, Geoff Pullum has his own competing book.

His critique seems a little heavy handed as when he writes: “both authors were grammatical incompetents.” Wow, that’s like being told your catechism instructor was a heretical satanist.

Brad Hansen October 31, 2009 at 1:57 pm

You should add Style by Joseph Williams.

Anonymous October 31, 2009 at 2:37 pm

McCloskey’s book is excellent.

Anonymous October 31, 2009 at 3:15 pm

Are you writing bad or writing badly?

Anonymous October 31, 2009 at 3:15 pm

Are you writing bad or writing badly?

Anonymous October 31, 2009 at 4:35 pm

In March of this year Professor Mark Perry (Carpe Diem blog) posted an article on effective business writing with this site referenced: http://www.businesswriting.com/tests/index2.htmThere are short quizzes that give very useful writing and word useage improvement to those that visit the site and its mostly free.

Anonymous October 31, 2009 at 4:35 pm

In March of this year Professor Mark Perry (Carpe Diem blog) posted an article on effective business writing with this site referenced: http://www.businesswriting.com/tests/index2.htmThere are short quizzes that give very useful writing and word useage improvement to those that visit the site and its mostly free.

silvermine October 31, 2009 at 5:25 pm

And practice, practice, practice. And find someone who is a good writer to be your editor to show you how you’re messing up. ;)

silvermine October 31, 2009 at 5:25 pm

And practice, practice, practice. And find someone who is a good writer to be your editor to show you how you’re messing up. ;)

Ray October 31, 2009 at 5:48 pm

Simple and Direct by Jacques Barzun.
This is the best book on writing period.

Ray October 31, 2009 at 5:48 pm

Simple and Direct by Jacques Barzun.
This is the best book on writing period.

Ray October 31, 2009 at 5:49 pm

Simple and Direct by Jacques Barzun.
This is the best book on writing period.

Ray October 31, 2009 at 5:49 pm

Simple and Direct by Jacques Barzun.
This is the best book on writing period.

DG Lesvic October 31, 2009 at 8:35 pm

If Daniel got his style from Strunk and White, I’m going to stay as far away from that book as I can.

DG Lesvic October 31, 2009 at 8:35 pm

If Daniel got his style from Strunk and White, I’m going to stay as far away from that book as I can.

Tim Worstall November 1, 2009 at 10:16 am

“people do up with which neither of these authors will put.”

Which is of course an adaptation of Churchill’s quote about the adaptability of the English language. We can use the Germanic sentence structure if we wish, it’s *correct*, but it’s not *right*.

The meaning of which is that you’re perfectly at liberty, even encouraged, to bend the more precise grammatical rules in the interests of readability and understanding.

Anonymous November 1, 2009 at 1:13 pm

This reminds me of a saying from my high school days:

Bad writers don’t know the rules, fair writers follow the rules, and good writers choose when to break the rules.

Anonymous November 1, 2009 at 7:25 pm

I totally agree on Strunk and White, and would add “Write Right” by Susan R. Quinn. By the way, you could start yourself by using an adverb with a verb, as in …”Writing badly…….”

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