Author: David Lambuth
This small book sets out to improve the art of writing. This is because good writing is necessary to achieve the objective of writing which, the author says, ‘is to make your reader understand exactly what you have to say – and understand it as quickly and as effectively as possible’ (page 6). Bad writing on the other hand ‘eats up the reading time, creates misunderstandings and errors, and often makes it necessary to do the job twice at more than twice the cost’ (page ix). The author hated ‘slovenly prose‘ and he set out to improve clear thinking which, he says, is what makes good writing (page 4).
Exhorting people to ‘read, read…and still read‘, one of the author’s earliest suggestions is that ‘…you can learn how to write well only by reading well’ (page 5). He urges writers to be clear from the outset what their writing is about; he says ‘point out to your reader…the direction in which you are going and the destination you have in view’ (page 7).
Over the course of 39 small chapters the author offers tips covering the broad scope of writing-related topics. Take his discussion on constructing a sentence, ‘the unit of all logical thinking and writing’ (page 11). He shows the importance of the beginning of the sentence, which is what ‘catches the reader’s attention first’, and the end of the sentence, which ‘makes the last impression’ (page 26). His tips include the excellent suggestion that ‘the subject should usually appear near the beginning of the sentence’, and ‘always be careful not to separate a subject too far from its verb’ (pages 17-18). He addresses other issues related to sentences such as unity, completeness, and brevity.
The book’s treatment of words is also exhaustive. The author says ‘…your accuracy and vividness depend upon the words you use’, and he advises against using ‘ill-chosen words, words that are vague or misleading…’ (page 27). His argues that ‘…there is rarely more than one right word to express an idea exactly’ (page 28). His recommendations include gems such as ‘the more concrete nouns and verbs you use, the more forceful your writing’, and ‘the fewer the words used, the more concentrated the attention’ (pages 28-29). The author explained how writing is improved by the choice, for example, of strong, active, and exact words.
With regard to the use of verbs, the author furnishes invaluable suggestions such as ‘…use your verbs in the active voice rather than the quiescent passive‘ (page 30). Amongst other things, he addresses the appropriate use of ‘will‘ and ‘shall‘, and the contentious issue of splitting the infinitive. The book also explores paragraphs with the important suggestion that they should be short. It points out that ‘the beginning and the end of a paragraph are the most emphatic positions in a piece of writing’ (page 9). The author also offers guidance on the appropriate use of punctuations such as commas, colons, semicolons, hyphens, and quotation marks. He also addresses the importance of writing style with an exploration of topics such as unity, emphasis, elegance, rhythm and concreteness.
The book dedicates five chapters to the important subject of letter writing. The 7 Cs‘ of letter writing are a must-read, and they remain relevant even in today’s digital age (page 50).
The book’s small size belies the important pearls it contains. It is a masterful take on an important, but sadly overlooked, subject. Writing is critical to communication, and the book shows how people can greatly improve their prose. The author’s suggestions make for clear and correct writing, and he packaged it all in a relatively small book.
The endless gems in this book make required reading. Writing is a critical skill in medicine, a profession where poor writing has grave consequences. I therefore strongly urge all doctors to read this book.
- Publisher, place, date: Penguin Books, New York, 1963
- Number of chapters: 39
- Number of pages: 81
- ISBN: 0-14-046263-5
- Price: £0.33
- Star rating: 5 stars