The Classic Guide to Better Writing

guide to writing skills basics – plus grammar and spelling

This is a book with three titles. The Classic Guide to Better Writing was originally The Way to Write, and it has also been issued by Warner books as The New Guide to Better Writing. What does this mean? Well, my guess is that it indicates a compilation of sound advice which has been successfully marketed in various guises. As the blurb claims, “The book that has taught millions the art of writing well”. You also get the benefit of many revisions and new editions in its lifetime.

Flesch and Lass are emphatic planners. They start off with what they claim as the three essential chapters – the need to plan, how to generate ideas, and how to put these ideas into some order. There’s a reassuring tone, and they cover many different kinds of writing. They even discuss the common mistakes and distractions which prevent people from writing well. I think this is what has made this book a best-seller: they keep the needs of their readers in mind.

The first part of the book discusses the construction of paragraphs; linking ideas and statements; audience and tone; clauses, phrases, and sentence construction; brevity, clarity, and avoiding ambiguity. Their advice is academically based, but chapters on making your writing more direct, interesting, and even amusing will appeal to general readers and those with a penchant for creative writing. However, they issue a warning that “This book won’t make you into another Shakespeare…But it will, we hope, teach you to write simply, clearly, correctly”

Part two tackles basic grammatical problems – double negatives; agreement of verb and subject; incomplete sentences; commonly confused words (affect/effect, imply/infer, lie/lay) spelling; quotations; awkward plurals (Mrs, court-martial, zero) and capitalization.

They do take the traditional [and perhaps outdated] view that you need to know the grammatical terminology for effects which most people use instinctively (‘relative pronouns’, ‘object of a preposition’) but fortunately every topic is illustrated with good examples, and anyone with the discipline to work through their exercises would give themselves a thorough grounding in the fundamentals.

Like many other classic guides, you get the advantage of a low price, because the publishers can afford to be generous, having made their money with earlier printings of a best-seller. This is a good-value manual on the principles of clear writing. Make sure you get the latest, 50th anniversary edition.

© Roy Johnson 2000

Rudolph Flesch and A.H.Lass, A Classic Guide to Better Writing, New York: Harper, 1966, pp.288, ISBN 0062730487

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