By Mike Feinsilber
Most writers have a shelf of books on how to do it, ranging from the instructive William Strunk Jr. & E. B. White to the inspirational William Zinnser. They all reach for the same goal—How to Write Well, as Zinnser puts it in his title.
Benjamin Yagoda, editor, writer, and teacher, aims lower. His book, How to Not Write Bad, is about how to write good enough. He compares writing good enough to parenting; even if the kid isn’t perfectly Spocked, he’ll grow into adulthood reasonably well.
He has a point. No matter how many manuals we accumulate, we’re not going to write like Fitzgerald or Hemingway—or Calvin Trillin, David Remnick, Paul Hendrickson, or John McPhee. And even they don’t write like themselves all the time, one guesses. If they were to write a note to the milkman, “Please leave two quarts of skim” in one of the empties on the porch, one presumes the note will be just good enough, and so will the milk. A grocery list from Hemingway, if one judges from his home in Key West, would probably read: “Cat food.”
Like Zinsser, Yagoda makes his point in his title, which defies the grammar police twice in five words: he splits an infinitive and he means, “badly” not “bad.” (That’s a grammar violation that Yagoda shares with billions of traffic signs which fail to say, “Drive slowly.”)
Yagoda, who teaches journalism at the University of Delaware, argues that if everyone just wrote clear, understandable, plain English—English the milkman could read or write—we’d be better off. But everyone doesn’t, Yagoda says, and he makes his point by quoting passages submitted by his students, who, mind you, got through high school and into college: “When the thought of a typical librarian comes to mind, Associate Librarian Raymond McCarthy tries to steer clear of the typical stereotypes associated with the other employees working in the campus library. His everyday attire and approachability prove that he is much more unique than the average librarian.”
Or, another example from a student assigned to write a paper nominating a website for a Pulitzer: “The criteria that makes this site able to be nominated are because of the uniqueness of the content it possesses.”
These quotes are from papers turned in by Yagoda’s students. He doesn’t identify the writers, but one wonders whether college kids, even if quoted anonymously, can sue anyway.
Yagoda offers some good advice. “Read,” he advises; read to learn from good writers. He compares the effect of reading to the effect of watching people eat a meal. The observer learns that one doesn’t eat peas with a spoon. Watching diners eating peas, he suggests, is a better way to learn how to eat peas than reading a book of etiquette.
Yagoda argues that reading good writers and aiming toward writing that’s not bad is a way station to ultimately writing well. Here’s the heart of his pitch: “Not-bad writing will help you hold on to your readers’ attention, clearly communicate your meaning to them, and sometimes even convince them of your point of view. Without a doubt, it will serve to clarify your own thinking. And if you so desire, it will place you firmly on the road to writing well.”
Zinnser could have said the same thing.
Yagoda carries the distinction between writing that’s good and writing that’s good enough to the edge of defenestration. He’s colloquial, familiar, buddy-buddy. Sometimes he’s Professor Yagoda and sometimes he’s my pal Yagoda.
Dutifully, he explains the differences between hearty and hardy, passed and past, its and it’s, “the baby’s pacifier” and “the babies’ pacifier.” He exclaims against overusing the exclamation point. “If you use exclamation points at all in quotes,” he says, “save them for when the speaker is screaming his or her lungs out.”
He patiently spells out when using “whomever” is permissible (rarely) but finally throws up his arms with this dictum: “Never use ‘whomever.’’’
He warns against the hazards of “myself” and contends that people rarely mean “literally” to literally mean literally.
And he offers this advice to the student who wrote a paper that quoted an economist as saying, “The pengellem” is swinging fully against finance reform.” Had she read enough, Yagoda says, his student would have known how to spell “pendulum.” Or she could have read through the pages of the dictionary that deal with words beginning with “pen,” he says, or she could have asked friends, “What’s a word for something that swings, and starts p-e-n?”
That’s probably good advice. Good enough, anyway.