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Why Writing Well Matters

by Harold Evans

Pub Date: May 11th, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-316-27717-4
Publisher: Little, Brown

Although this is yet another how-to, self-help text for would-be writers—with some of the usual hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing about the abuses of English today—this one merits more attention because it comes from the keyboard of a celebrated journalist and editor.

Reuters editor at large Evans (My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times, 2009), who has been an editor of the Times and the Sunday Times, chronicles the many aspects of writing and language that annoy him. Some of his principal targets include obfuscation, misused and/or abused words, long introductory phrases or clauses, overlong sentences, clichés, and grammatical stumbles (dangling participles, superfluous adverbs, and their foul kin. The author is mellower about ending sentences with prepositions (noting this was a nonsensical proscription from the beginning) and sentence fragments. A sentence “expresses a complete thought,” he reminds us, and complete thoughts do not always feature a subject and verb. Evans begins with a fine chapter that could stand alone: an overview of what he’s doing and why. He moves along to some sections about the abuses of those in the business, legal, political, and educational worlds. In the penultimate section, the author offers examples of writers in the right, Roger Angell, and Barbara Demick among them. In between is a mixture of portions of published texts that Evans re-edits for our edification; lists (sometimes too long) of clichés, phrases that writers can easily shorten, and words that writers misuse/confuse—e.g., “appraise and “apprise, “insidious” and “invidious.” Readers may take some smug delight in the authors’ own use of the passive voice and his pluralizing of Humpty (as in Dumpty) with “Humpties” (does Billy become Billies?). But who’s perfect?

Thoughtful ruminations about current language mixed with praise for clarity and disdain for murkiness.