Writing about writing about writing Review 2

This is part of an ongoing series of posts. Part one is here and part two here

Sticking with books that are at a word and sentence level, I’ve read (sometimes scanned) the following books for review this time round:

The Complete Plain Words

The edition I have is hardback, printed in 1986 bought from the Oxfam shop at the top of Park Street who have received a fair amount of money from my pocket over the years.

This is a venerable book, and I note that there is now a new and fully up to date version (as linked) which would be a better version to buy (see below). Ernest Gowers’s book was written for the civil service as an aim to improve their communications. The main thrust of the book is that communication should be clear and unencumbered by circumlocutions and long words (oops.) The choice of words and the handling of words are the two main topics. It has a good message but is mainly aimed at non-fiction and technical writers. If that’s you then definitely have it on your shelf. If not it might still be worth reading but I’m not sure it adds much to The Elements of Style (and the books below), except for lots of examples. Also, in reading the introduction to the modern version (on the Amazon ‘Look Inside’ in the prep of this post) it appears that previous editors who tackled updates to the original made some ‘interesting’ choices regarding the text (there is an example about homosexuals ruining the language that’s eyebrow-raising!). Gowers’s granddaughter has revised from the first edition and ignored the second and third editions. Along with Fowlers this is a reference book that might be useful but seldom referred after a full reading. So I’m clearing the space on the shelf and I might purchase the new Kindle edition.

Sin and Syntax and Vex, Hex, Smash Smooch from Constance Hale

Sin and Syntax came from that same Oxfam bookshop and I enjoyed it so much at the first reading that I bought Hale’s other book Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch. Hales’s writing is direct and robust and she exhorts you to be the same. Sin and Syntax is, in my view, the better book. She starts with words, moves onto sentences and finishes on music (of English) – it starts: “Oh the sentence! The shuddering, sinuous, piquant, incandescent, delirious, sulking, strident possibilities of it all!” But soon settles down. “From this exploration you’ll emerge not only a more sharp-witted writer, but also a more attuned reader.”

For each part of speech she covers the Bones (the basic rules), the Flesh ( a lesson on writing), Cardinal Sins ( errors and ‘true’ transgressions) and Carnal Pleasures (an example of great writing) This is an excellent style guide for using words at the sentence level and one that’s a pleasure to read. So it stays on the shelf.

I got less from Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch the premise of which is that good writing is all about the verb (which is an argument that slightly contradicts her previous book). It’s like she took the chapter in Sin and Syntax on verbs and inflated it to book length. She’s added a lot of info not in the previous book of course but in expanding she’s diluted. However it is a boot camp for putting your verbs through their paces and does have some useful reference material in it. I’m not going to get rid of it just yet.

I still have some more style books to put to the test before moving beyond How to English to the Nuts & Bolts of just what is fiction and how do you do it anyway? So there’ll definitely be a Review 3 for How to English. (Probably even a 4 and maybe more – as I have several that definitely fit this category and a couple that are between categories.) Did I mention I have too many writing books?

Drop a comment with your favourite writing book or tip here or email me via the Contact page. If you’re a publisher or Indie Author and would like me to review your writing book drop me a line!

Published by suttope

Pete W Sutton is a writer and editor. His two short story collections – A Tiding of Magpies and The Museum for Forgetting – were shortlisted for Best Collection in the British Fantasy Awards in 2017 & 2022 respectively. His novel – Seven Deadly Swords – was published by Grimbold Books. He has edited several short story anthologies and is the editor for the British Fantasy Society Horizons fiction magazine.

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