Writing that Works by Roman and Raphaelson

Writing That Works
By Kenneth Roman and Joel Raphaelson
2000

I don’t generally read books that I don’t like. Why bother?

As it turns out, the answer to that is, if they are assigned, then it matters to my grade and thus I had better go ahead and read them.

But really, this makes four for four for this one class, and I just want to read something that I unambiguously enjoy.* At least this book was relatively short and easy to speed read.

Writing That Works is a how-to book that is both extremely basic (know the meanings of the words you use and don’t confuse “its” and “it’s”) and highly dated (a lot of people are now using this crazy thing called “e-mail” to communicate with.)

The simplified nature of the rules it gives for writing means that they remain true. As important as it was to learn them in elementary school, it’s probably equally important to review them periodically. I just get irritated by being told rules that I already know AND that I would argue are often best demonstrated by their exceptions.

It is important to know the rules so that when you break them, you do so intentionally.

Oddly, Writing That Works acknowledges that some rules are meant to be broken but only in the chapter on political correctness, quoting Bernard Shaw’s definition of a gentleman as someone who “never insults a person unintentionally.” While admitting that you may occasionally want to insult someone, it fails to acknowledge that sometimes you don’t want to use the most common words in short sentences.

Sometimes it is useful to use rarer words and complex phrases. I quote Mark Twain: “The difference between the almost right work & the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

So overall, I would say that if you want to improve your writing, this is a somewhat useful book. But read it with the goal of thinking about what it says as if the statements were suggestions for you to consider rather than rules for you to follow.

* Although being able to grammatically write “four for four for” might well make it all worth it.** It’s not quite up there with “I, where you had had ‘had,’ had had ‘had had;’ ‘had had’ had had a better effect.” but it’s still fun.***

** Actually another thing that makes it worth reading is it introduced me to the story of David Ogilvy and his Russian matryoshka dolls. Ogilvy would give these dolls to his board members with notes saying: “If you hire people who are smaller than you are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. If you hire people who are bigger than you are, we shall become a company of giants.”

*** The fact that enjoy these examples of phrases which are grammatical but excruciatingly difficult to parse may have something to do with the fact that I didn’t enjoy a book about writing in a simple and straight-forward fashion.

2 comments on “Writing that Works by Roman and Raphaelson

  1. Anna says:

    Ha! Your examples reminded me of a quote that my department’s editor shared with me from Winston Churchill:

    Supposedly an editor had clumsily rearranged one of Churchill’s sentences to avoid ending it in a preposition, and the Prime Minister, very proud of his style, scribbled this note in reply: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

    The Chicago and APA Style Manuals have just recently agreed, and relaxed their rules about ending sentences in a preposition, thank goodness!

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