on 19 August 2003
The subtitle of this book ("A complete guide to the basic skills ...") is a gross overstatement. The text is mostly about being more expressive when writing poetry and similarly literary prose. Indeed, the authors say as much and there are several other "The Way to Write ..." titles covering other writing categories. Still, this book is quite good on such points as the weakening effect of adjectives on nouns, and of adverbs on verbs ("The mouse scampered hurriedly..."). But it is silent, or sketchy, or out-dated on most other topics of interest to writers; the authors admit in the 1992 reprint that its 1981 origin make it useless on writing tools such as word processing and computers.
On grammar -- an extremely important basic skill for most writing, even if not for some poetry -- the book is very weak. The authors devote several chapters to parts of speech (nouns, verbs and adjectives etc.) but refer to "the grammarian" as an archetypal pedant obsessed with dry classification; and when they attempt to expound briefly on grammar they are not only too sketchy to be any help, but also in places just plain wrong. For instance, in discussing verbs they lump together "the active, the passive, and the subjunctive" quite incorrectly as "moods"; the active and passive are grammatical voices: the subjunctive is a mood, its normal usage counterpart being the indicative, and this error will only confuse readers not confident on the point.
There are many other flaws in the text. In particular, much of the punctuation is extremely poor. Consider this sentence: "The writer then measures not by the rule book but by his ear." The absence of commas leads the reader to construe the sentence initially as though it were part of a sequence, as in "The writer first does this ... The writer then measures ... Finally, the writer [does something else]." In fact, the authors meant "The writer, then, measures ..." -- a summary in which "then" means "therefore, in conclusion". Those missing commas would have saved the reader going back to read the sentence twice -- a courtesy which is should be one of the goals of all good punctuation. Here's one more example of their poor punctuation: one chapter begins "The image, is a device --in fact of all those available to the writer it is the most powerful." There is never any reason to put a comma after the subject at the beginning of a sentence like this; far better would have been: "The image is a device; in fact, of all those available to the writer, it is the most powerful."
The fact that the book contains no guidance on punctuation, one of the basic skills essential to any competent writing; one might imagine they knew they didn't understand the skill and didn't dare try to offer any, but probably they are simply unaware that good punctuation is an issue to be addressed.
There are also some very awkward sentences. Perhaps the authors intended readers to find fault with their text as a sort of huge counterexample, to show how not to write.
Even some of the supposed models of good writing, quotations of writing by such luminaries as Gerard Manley Hopkins ("one of the finest"), have some poor construction. One contains this:
"The wave breaks in this order -- the crest of the barrel 'doubling' (that, a boatman said, is the word in use) is broken into a bush of foam, which, if you search it, is a lace and tangle of jumping sprays; then breaking down these grow to a sort of shaggy quilt tumbling up the beach; thirdly this unfolds into a sheet of clear foam and running forward it leaves and laps the wave reaches its greatest height upon the shore and at the same time its greatest clearness and simplicity; after that, ..." What on earth is happening to the syntax in the clause beginning "thirdly..."?! The segments "...
it leaves and laps" and "the wave reaches its greatest height ..." seem to be separate sentences, the first with the objects of its verbs missing. The whole thing looks so bad that I almost suspect it is a misprint; but that, in a quotation from a supposed master, would be equally unforgiveable on the part of the editors.
At 8 pages, the Foreword (1981) by Ted Hughes is more lengthy than many pieces called "foreword". It too has some long and badly constructed sentences, a poor example to set to anyone trying to become a good writer, even if the man was Poet Laureate. This book has just 87 pages in the main chapters, plus the 8 page foreword, and other front matter. In my opinion, for so few pages of advice of such indifferent quality, it is overpriced at anything above 50p!