Category Archives: Book review

Elements of Style (Illustrated)

The Elements of Style (Illustrated) by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, with illustrations by Maira Kalman (New York: Penguin, 2005), 142 pp.

During my senior year in high school, our honors English class had one textbook: The Elements of Style, which at the time was only 12 years old (though Strunk’s original book dated to 1918). Since then I have reread it a few times, always found it useful, and not hesitated to recommend it.

In recent years, though, the book has been criticized as stuffy, pedantic, and excessively prescriptive. As an editor, I give first aid to writing, and even though I’m not a doctor, I occasionally write prescriptions for writing that needs it. I’m not against a prescriptive approach to writing and editing. There are, as the authors phrase it, some “experts in the art of bad writing,” and for them prescriptions are in order.

A few years ago, a friend gave me a copy of The Elements of Style (Illustrated), based on the 4th edition, which was published in 2000, and in December 2017 I decided to read the whole book through again with a critical eye.

The Elements of Style holds up well if you are willing to take advice from professionals such as Strunk and White. In chapter V, “An Approach to Style,” they present “gentle reminders,” not rules. The authors are against writing that is “stiff, needlessly formal.”

However, much of the book is devoted to rules, and some of them, such as when to use shall and will, indeed are stuffy, pedantic, and excessively prescriptive. Sometimes the authors appeal to Latin as a standard (I was taking Latin in my senior year of high school too), but Latin is not a good guide to English usage.

Also, some of the new material became outdated faster than the original text: “By the time this paragraph sees print, psyched, nerd, ripoff, dude, geek, and funky will be the words of yesteryear,” they wrote; that prediction was totally wrong, as 17 years later all of those words are still in use.

Finally, “Maira Kalman’s whimsical paintings,” as the Los Angeles Times called them (according to the book’s back cover), are an embellishment, nice to have, but add nothing to the substance of the book.

My conclusion, after more than 45 years of using The Elements of Style: Adhering to this book will not harm anybody’s writing and will in fact do a lot of good. If you’re an experienced writer or editor who can sensibly reject some of the advice, go ahead. But it’s still worthwhile to lend an ear now and then to a couple of professionals who were confident enough to provide a little book of rules and gentle reminders to assist us.

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Book review: Between You & Me

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris (New York: W. W. Norton, 2015), 200 pp; index, hardcover, $24.95.

Norris, a copy editor at the New Yorker, discusses grammar and punctuation in a chatty, breezy way, sprinkled with stories from her life and her career. She goes into some of the history of punctuation, spelling, and grammar; how copy editors use house style; and how her own career progressed. I was ready to love this book, just as I loved Brendan Gill’s Here at the New Yorker. However, Norris displays little courtesy toward the reader. Not far into the book, she tells you about a lewd costume that somebody wore to one of her Halloween parties. She discusses how pronoun usage affects her transgender brother and about pronouns and John Wayne Bobbitt. Soon she starts using the f-word and mentions that profanity should be fun. When Brendan Gill worked at the New Yorker, the writers had an informal contest to see who could get the longest sentence into print. Norris says that now there’s an informal contest to get the f-word into print the greatest number of times. One reader, chastising the New Yorker for a misspelling, wrote to ask, “Are the glory years of The New Yorker gone forever?” Maybe yes, but for different reasons.

Ebook review: How I Survived My First Year of Full-Time Self-Employment: Going It Alone at 40

How I Survived My First Year of Full-Time Self-Employment: Going It Alone at 40

by Liz Broomfield (now Dexter)

Self-published, 2013. 91 pp. with appendices

This book’s format came as a pleasant surprise: it’s a monthly diary, followed by appendices. I was expecting a book full of rules and suggestions based on lessons she learned—it has all that, but it’s presented as a story. From the introduction:

There are a lot of secrets in business—“Top 10 business secrets you must know”, “Top 5 Marketing Ideas!” but not an awful lot of honesty and openness. So I shared exactly how I did it, the plans I made, how I knew when it was time to jump ship from the day job.

Liz invites you to take a walk with her through the year, encounter the ups and downs with her, and learn the lessons as she learns them. She hopes that the “journey will inspire others to do it the safe and calm way.” As she says, “Self-employment doesn’t have to mean scary entrepreneurship.”

It does get rough at times. Liz was going to call her networking group the Café of Pain. But her motto is “Keep calm and carry on.”

She established her business, LibroEditing, with what she calls a “soft launch”—going from full-time library employment to part-time, “then even more part-time … The slow build-up meant that I knew I could do it”—even though when she started Libro she “had no idea that [she] was ever going to take it full-time.”

And she didn’t need to get a full-time income out of Libro immediately once it became her only job: she built up some savings while still employed and getting the business going.

After the plunge into full-time self-employment in December, she presents diary entries for the following year. We learn with her about marketing; having too much work, having too little, and what to do about it; whether to take risks; and more. “Managing expectations is all very well, but these clients need the work quickly, and I can’t make infinite deadlines for my less urgent clients: their work has to be done at some time!”

Liz describes her methods for scheduling work and keeping accounts, knowing that readers will need to devise their own ways of organizing pieces of a business, and simply offers her ways as an example. Her description of how she handles her bookkeeping will encourage you to do yours promptly and regularly, even if your system is different. If you’re self-employed, or thinking about it, just reading how she does things will probably give you ideas for your own business.

A section on social media and networking has useful information. Liz talks too about motivation and setting goals for yourself.

In a few places there might be too much detail for some readers. Liz mentions a lot of the work she did and where it came from, and she devotes a couple of pages to what she wears while working and a couple more to tea.

Near the beginning she presents a typical week before she went to full-time self-employment. It summarizes her schedule and is a bit dry to read, but it conveys the busyness of trying to juggle a job and a business.

Liz is British, and she occasionally uses some terms that will be foreign to us North American readers. I figured that Inland Revenue must be a regulatory agency and the C in HMRC probably stands for college (she registered with the first and took a course with the second). Nope: both Inland Revenue and HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) are tax-collection authorities. But, differences in government and terminology notwithstanding, her description of how she handles her taxes present practical ideas that work in the USA. I too subtract the tax from self-employment income I receive and put it aside until it’s due.

The story of her first year of full-time self-employment ends with a look back—two looks, actually: one in December and one four months later, when she considered Libro a mature business.

The appendices help the reader “how to decide whether to go self-employed, how exactly to do it, and [offer] some other useful hints and tips.”

If you’re thinking about self-employment, you could benefit from talking with somebody who is successfully self-employed. This ebook comes pretty close to that: it’s personal and informative. You can see how Liz did it, what went wrong and what went right, and even how she felt about it.

This whole ebook is included in Your Guide to Starting and Building Your Business. (I chose to review only the ebook about self-employment, because I’ve done a good bit of freelance editing work but not with the intention of building a business—mainly in desperation when I was out of work. So I felt that I could fairly evaluate a book on freelancing but not one on starting a business. My freelance writing has always been a sideline and probably will be until somebody starts turning my screenplays into movies.)

You can buy Liz’s books at http://lizbroomfieldbooks.com/.

Her LibroEditing blog, which I read avidly, is at http://libroediting.com/blog/ and has links to still more of her online writing.