We Interrupt This Blog…

… for a bit of shameless self-promotion. Today marks the publication of my new book, How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them. You can buy it here, and I wish you would!

Partly to assuage my sheepishness at said self-promotion, I have set up a deal where I will donate copies of the book to a worthy organization, Mighty Writers, based on how well the books sells today on Amazon. So go ahead and order a copy. It’s popularity popularly priced at $10.20, and you’ll be helping a good cause. (Full details of the scheme at my website.)

As for the book, the title pretty much sums up the idea. Most writing books are about “How to Write Well” (as one of the best of them, by William Zinsser, is titled). But based on my experience of more than two decades teaching writing at a pretty selective American university, that’s not the most appropriate goal. Before that, students and other people who want their writing to be read (either by the public or in a business setting) need to address a fairly small list of common errors and problems. How to Not Write Bad is a handbook designed to help with that task.

The book is primarily designed for an American audience, since it’s based on my experience, but I’m pretty sure it would be useful to British students and aspiring writers as well. A couple of things would need to be changed in a British edition, of course; the whole section on logical punctuation would have to be eliminated. The other passage that comes immediately to mind is the one about the use of they or related words as a singular pronoun (otherwise known as epicene pronoun, or EP), for example in a sentence such as “Any student who wants to attend the game should bring their ID card to the ticket window.” In the book, I write:

Replacing their with his or her would sound sexist; her would sound like you’re trying too hard not to be sexist; and his or her is a bit stilted. Consequently, the EP is perfectly fine in conversation. I predict that it will be acceptable in formal writing in ten years, fifteen at the maximum. However, it’s not acceptable now, so you’ll have to make adjustments.

I am well aware that the EP has been used in days of yore by all sorts of great writers, including Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, and Henry James. And my sense is that things are currently very different in the U.K.–that the EP is standard in formal and even academic writing.

So, if there ever is to be a British edition of How to Not Write Bad, I will need your thoughts on this matter. But first buy the book.