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"How to Not Write Bad" Is Not Bad at All

How to Not Write Bad — by the prolific Ben Yagoda — is an original, amusing, practical take on the writing self-help book.

This book has two main ideas. The first is introduced in the title. Yagoda points out that most writing book are about writing well, then makes the refreshing observation that writing well is beyond most people. This revelation came to Yagoda as a result of his work with college students: "Writing well was not the task at hand for most of them. A more pressing need was getting rid of their bad habits and getting acquainted with some core principles." Yagoda adapts the concept of the good-enough parent by aiming to create good-enough writers. It's a compelling lens for this book.

It's also a potential turn-off. Yagoda is well-aware that not-bad writing isn't the most immediately appealing notion, prompting him to drolly poke fun at American parents and educators: "You can certainly understand why people would want to aim high, especially in the United States, where self-esteem is fed to toddlers along with their Cheerios, and all the children are apparently above average." As the cliché goes, this is funny because it's true. Many of my own college students — some of them grad students — appear to have been fed this very diet of Cheerios, self-esteem, and malarkey, resulting in writers whose coursework and student loans far outstrip their ability to write. Yagoda's approach feels like a powerful antidote to this problem.

The second major idea is that mindfulness is the key to not-bad writing. Yagoda is convinced — as am I — that one reason for crappy writing is that the writer is simply not paying attention. Yagoda moves this metaphor into the law-enforcement realm when he discusses the importance of "policing the area" to apprehend repeated or unnecessary words loitering around a paragraph.  Yagoda argues forcefully and persuasively that multitasking is a barrier to mindfulness, and it's hard to argue with him. Though I should know better, I often turn an hour of work into hours of work because I couldn't stay off Twitter, Facebook, and Thor knows what else.

Many parts of this book filled me with word nerd joy, especially when Yagoda took some of my pet peeves out for a walk to the park, then scratched their bellies. I hate all forms of whom with a vengeance — for creating confusion and reeking of pretension — so I was thrilled to see Yagoda write the following on whomever: "This word has only slightly higher grammatical standing than ain't, but it's used by millions more people." His common-sense approach to sentence fragments and the passive voice are similarly refreshing. I love how effectively Yagoda makes and demonstrates his points, like here: "The passive can be deployed quite effectively. The previous sentence is an example, I would submit — certainly of the passive voice, but also of not-at-all-bad writing." Indeed it is: mistakes were not made.

Only a few tiny parts of this book raised my hackles. Once in a while, Yagoda makes a pronouncement that he swiftly contradicts, along the lines of the problems Geoffey Pullum has pointed out in Strunk and White. For example, in a predictable passage about how adjectives are weaker words that lead to telling instead of showing, Yagoda writes, "They can be wordy and sleep inducing, especially when mashed together in pairs or triplets." That sentence features a pair of adjectives, and it is far from sleep-inducing: it's a great sentence. I also disagreed with his preference for not using shrunk, sunk, and swung. In particular, shrunk seems indisputably OK to me, maybe from hearing the title Honey, I Shrunk the Kids too many times. Yagoda has an open-minded, evidence-based attitude toward language change, so it could be these words are simply his blind spots (or mine).

Enough quibbles! Despite the emphasis on not-bad or good-enough writing, I believe any writer could benefit from this book. Yagoda's advice should be especially helpful for writing teachers who seek up-to-date, nuts-and-bolts thoughts on writing. I'm jealous of Yagoda's accomplishment. He proves an excellent teacher who mixes wisdom, experience, and humor. How to Not Write Bad is terrific.


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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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