Jul 27, 2010

Writer's Toolkit 1

First of a series. The trail of breadcrumbs goes way back...

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White. The slimmest little volume you never heard of until you decided to try writing and somebody said you might want to check out this book. Eighty-five pages of dynamite, good to dislodge those stubborn bad habits. Of course, if your own writing mistakes are too stubborn for even Strunk & White, then go do Your Own Thing and leave us alone. It's the granddaddy (ou grandmère, s'il vous plait) of writing guides. Ignore it at your peril. By the way, did you hate being subjected to French just now? Kind of make you bristle? From p. 81 - "Some writers sprinkle...with foreign expressions...with no regard for the reader's comfort. It is a bad habit. Write in English." My bad! Their good, er, they're good!

We'll be right back after the break. I Love this expression from public radio. I often don't love what follows, especially if it's a promo for a station I don't like or a program I don't like, and too loud to boot. But the concept is excellent, a natural marker recognizing that thought can pause, that discourse need not be seamless to be good. The best of these refresh the mental palate, like a sorbet before the main course. Michael Feldman's program Whad'Ya Know does us the favor of using live jazz, piano and bass, throughout each broadcast. The breaks treat us to a minute or so of fine music before we get back to the comedy and quiz questions. At least, that is, when the big cheeses don't obliterate it with a promo for the Hockey Channel.

We're back.

Modern American Usage, by William Follett, revised by Erik Wensberg. Originally published 1966, revised edition 1998. Best I can remember, the original edition was a gift from my parents before I went off to college, which means the book had only been out a year or two when they laid it on me, as we used to say in those days. How did they know? I've often been guilty of thinking my parents were a lot like other parents, but with minor differences. Giving a brainy teenage boy Modern American Usage doesn't qualify as a minor difference...this is real Baby Einstein territory, I see now from my own adult perspective. The Baby Einstein reference suggests a kinship with those parents who play Mozart for their pre-verbal tykes, that sort of thing. In the case of my parents, it often took the form of not stopping me, simply getting out of the way while I strew breadcrumbs left and right in hopes of finding my way back...eventually. But active involvement was there, too. Just as when Dad gave me The Best of S.J. Perelman at the age of 10, or giving me a full-size Random House Dictionary at about the same time as the Follett, this was more major than minor.

An awful lot about what the gift of a book can mean, but precious little about the Follett in particular, I know, I know. Here goes.

Alphabetical entry makes it easy to use. Opening at random to antecedents, for example, leads to fully realized essays on nine types of antecedent problems and how to resolve them. The following essay on apostrophes tells you everything you need to know about the little buggers, no more and no less. This is the reference book every American writer should have at his or her fingertips.

Thanks, Mom, thanks, Dad.