“Writing Wrongs in Writing Books” by Ed Quillen


“Colorado has lost one of its most thoughtful and colorful characters,” Denver Post editorial-page editor Curtis Hubbard said. “For decades, Ed’s humor and keen eye shed light for Denver Post readers on topics ranging from our current politics to the state’s rich history.”

Ed Quillen was a character in the full sense of the word—and a wordsmith of the first order, often contributing to The Bloomsbury Review–reviewing approximately 80 books for us over the years. And when he wielded his words, he took no prisoners, whether he was writing his columns for The Denver Post (which he did for years), or in any of the dozens of other outlets that welcomed his unique talent and singular voice.

We are pleased to bring you an exceptional piece, which appeared in the September 1984 issue of The Bloomsbury Review“Writing Wrongs in Writing Books: “How to Write” Right Rules Are Too Soon Broken.” Even over the space of almost 30 years, his remarkable insight, humor, and wisdom shines through every paragraph. Our world has lost a one-of-a-kind voice.

Craftsmanship is as important to good writing as it is to good carpentry or good bricklaying. And like those skills, literary craftsmanship can be taught. Some of it can be learned from books, although a good editor will teach more than a dozen libraries. But the best writing demonstrates more than mere skill with the language; it is inspired stuff. The prime rule of writing, after all, is not “Write what you know” or “Spell correctly” or “Query first”; it is “Have something to say.”

This fundamental truth appears in only two of the sixty writing manuals, stylebooks, guides, grammars, dictionaries, documentations, thesauruses, quotation collections, and handbooks that burden the shelves above my keyboard. One is The Lively Art of Writing by Lucile Vaughan Payne. Aimed at beginners, her book is simple and clear. Unfortunately, it is often employed as a text for college composition classes. Great manuals, like great novels, suffer horribly when they are press ganged into service as required reading.

The other is The Writer’s Art by James J. Kilpatrick, the syndicated conservative columnist. No matter how I fume at Kilpatrick’s politics, I always enjoy his style, a blend of E.B. White whimsy and H.L. Mencken calumny. Ever a craftsman, Kilpatrick fits every word into place after testing to insure that it is the best word. Here he illustrates the process with a draft-by-draft explication of one elegant paragraph. With the examples come precepts: “The Things We Ought to Be Doing,” “The Things We Ought Not to Do,” and “My Crotchets and Your Crotchets.”

Kilpatrick pleases, delights, and instructs. As a fellow conservative, at least in matters of usage, I find little to quarrel with. His advice on handling sexist language is the best to date for the writer who must serve his inner ear while placating ardent feminists. That alone is worth the price. Or, if you’re as poor as most working writers, then it’s worth the embarrassment of standing in the bookstore aisle and peeking at pages 89-92.

The only flaw here is the fault found in all other such books. Kilpatrick doesn’t always follow his own advice. Of the despicable use of “author” as a verb, he writes that it “should be put on a high, dark shelf.” But a few pages later, he notes that he and former Senator Eugene J. McCarthy “co-authored” a political bestiary. He warns us to abide by trademarks like Xerox and Kleenex, but he then writes of “playing Scrabble.” No matter how noble his intentions, that will bring Kilpatrick a letter from the Selchow & Righter Corp., advising that one does not play “Scrabble”; one plays “the Scrabble-brand crossword game.” Kilpatrick tells us to check everything. Then he describes Mr. Hobson of “Hobson’s Choice” as “a New England innkeeper.” Thomas Hobson, who received two epitaphs from John Milton after his death in 1631, rented horses in Cambridge—Cambridge, England, not Cambridge, Massachusetts. Kilpatrick insists that we think about stupid locutions, so that we do not write illogical phrases such as “centered around,” but then he says a book “has some startling omissions.” Just how can anything have an omission, if an omission is what something doesn’t have?

But Kilpatrick entertains as he instructs, so his few sins are easy to forgive. It requires a saint to absolve Theodore A. Rees Cheney and his Getting the Words Right. Cheney fights the good fight, urging writers to apply broadaxes and scalpels to tautologies, pleonasms, prolixity, intrusions, mixed metaphors, and the other weaknesses of the flesh. Sound as his advice is, it reads like a dated translation of the Poetics of Aristotle. And Cheney cannot follow his own rules.

Cheney points out that an easy way to improve one’s writing is never to start sentences with “there” followed by a form of “to be.” Now try the beginnings of three consecutive paragraphs: “There are many tautological phrases … ” “There is another, frequently unneeded word … ” “There are some tautologies … ” Like all writing mentors he abhors cliches–in other people’s work. He says some writing can be “dull as dishwater.” The author advises writers to know their grammar, but he insists that “many trips there” in “I wrote about polar regions after many trips there” is a subordinate clause. Things may have changed, but clauses once required verbs. I could go on and on and on, but this exercise soon plunges from sport into dismay.

The “improve your writing” authors commit mere misdemeanors. The “make a mint with your writing” books commit felonies. Even so, The Self-Publishing Manual should be required for every writer; it explains more about the publishing industry than a lifetime subscription to The Writer and a decade of workshops. I wish I’d had it during my unprofitable forays into the publishing business; I might well have stayed in business if I’d known what Dan Poynter tells here.

Even if the writer considers himself an artist above the mundane demands of commerce and has no more desire to get into the publishing business than he has to edit a confession magazine, he needs the information in this book. It’s written for would-be publishers; and the writer should know the enemy’s stratagems for paying as little as humanly possible for writing. It explains where ISBN’s come from. It details the process from inspiration (what’s likely to sell) to wholesale discounts. And true to form, the author fails to follow his own advice.

Poynter goes into useful detail about the mechanics of converting an idea into an attractive book. Writers should know the process, even if they never see a printing press. But Poynter’s grasp of technology slips; he says “Photos taken from other magazines and books have already been screened and may be pasted right on to the boards.” That may be true, but their highlights will turn chalky, and their shadows will bleed into smudges; they will look like hell, and he should mention that. His explanation of type measures is inaccurate; a font size is not the height of the capital letter. Poynter stresses good grammar, then offers this clause: “the contents is out of date.” He confuses totally the difference between editing—how you improve a manuscript before it is set in type—and proofing or proofreading—how you correct a manuscript after it is set in type. This confusion could lead to no end of arguments between an aspiring self-publisher and the typesetting company. When it’s time to promote the book, the author says the advertisements should contain order coupons with prices. He follows with this:

When drafting ads, don’t say:“California residents please add 6% sales tax.” This is a sure way to lose sales. Your potential buyer is not a mathematician and he may be embarrassed if he doesn’t know how to figure percentages. Just ask for so many cents for sales tax. For example: “Californians please add 54¢ sales tax.”

Sound advice, but does he follow it? The order form on the back page of The Self-Publishing Manual says “Californians: please add 6% sales tax.”

Even so, if you’re interested in publishing your own book, this is the one to get. Avoid all others; most are like How to Self-Publish Your Book & Have the Fun & Excitement of Being a Best-Selling Author. A writer can commit two unpardonable sins. He can bore his readers, or he can mislead them. This one does both. Like many other products aimed at writers, it preys on a weakness found in almost all would-be writers—the belief that anyone can get rich quickly without working. Writers certainly aren’t the only victims of this most American of urges, but they must be the most gullible. Look through any magazine for writers. How many advertisements offer quick riches, usually involving work-at-home schemes that have more to do with mail fraud than literature? In the most recent edition of Writer’s Digest, I find advertisements for bumper sticker printing devices, telemarketing services, T-shirt printeries, drop-shipment services, and dozens of ways to become a millionaire through mail order. Marketing by mail is what most self-publishing guides are really about. There’s the chance you might learn something if you can stomach the prose. I, for one, refuse to believe that I can improve my writing or my income if I keep reading phrases like “How Would You Then Maximize Your Success Using Your Creative Talent?” and “Hopefully, you’ll write an excellent ad.”

Enough, enough. English syntax offers so many chances for error that no one totally masters it. I’ve had my fun here. Any of the authors I’ve criticized, should he feel the impulse to retaliate in kind, will find absurd flaws in my writing.

Kilpatrick offers the joy of writing, the joy of doing something well, and knowing that it is good. That he and many lesser writers cannot always follow their own precepts merely illustrates how difficult it can be to make one word come after another, and then to make something that resides in your mind appear in someone else’s. That it happens at all is a sort of miracle. When it’s done well, it touches on the divine.

Kilpatrick comes close to that exalted plane and may have reached it. In a few years, I’ll be able to tell you whether his counsel has earned a position of trust and frequent use on my reference shelf.

If it does, it will join an excellent explanation of good writing, the previously mentioned The Lively Art of Writing by Lucile Vaughan Payne. No other book sets forth the principles of prose half so clearly. Many extoll William Zinsser’s On Writing Well for the same purpose. Zinsser entertains better; Payne is more instructive. It’s a matter of personal preference, and I prefer Payne.

For guidance on usage, many swear by Fowler’s A Dictionary of English Usage. Those who don’t will turn to Follett’s Modern American Usage or Partridge’s Usage & Abusage or Bergen and Cornelia Evans’ A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage or, heaven-forbid, Rudolph Flesch’s The ABC of Style. I have them all, yet I most often reach for The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage by the late Theodore M. Bernstein. He organizes better, he explains more clearly, and he can be correct and precise without being stuffy and pedantic. If I could have only one usage guide, it would be his.

There remains the classic, The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White. It has been praised so often and so eloquently that I can add nothing to the list of its virtues. I cherish and respect it. As I wrote this, I was tempted to see if they followed their own rules, but that would be like guzzling Wild Turkey or peeking under a nun’s dress. No, it would be worse. Some things really are sacred.

From The Bloomsbury Review, September, 1984—Volume 4/Issue 6
Photograph courtesy of Sean Cayton, Cayton Photography.

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