Jilly: Craft Book Squee–Dreyer’s English

Last year I decided I wouldn’t buy any more writing craft books until I’d made better use of all the ones I already own and have at best cherry-picked my way through. A couple of months ago I broke my self-imposed rule, and I’m so glad I did.

Dreyer’s English is subtitled “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.” The author is the Copy Chief of Random House, so he should know a thing or two about cleaning up one’s prose. The wonder and the joy of it is that while some of his book is about The Right Way and The Wrong Way to write, as much again is about ignoring the so-called “rules” and making mindful, intelligent choices to optimize your story and amplify your own voice.

He had me at the introduction:

I am a copy editor. After a piece of writing has been through, likely, through numerous drafts, developed and revised by the writer and by the person I tend to call the editor editor and deemed essentially finished and complete, my job is to lay my hands on that piece of writing and make it … better. Cleaner. Clearer. More efficient. Not to rewrite it, not to bully and to flatten it into some notion of Correct Prose, whatever that might be, but to burnish it and polish it and make it the best possible version of itself that it can be—to make it read even more like itself than it did when I got to work on it. That is, if I’ve done the job correctly.

I expected this book to be useful. It is. I didn’t expect it to be fun to read but it’s that, too. Mr. Dreyer’s writing is snappy. It’s clever. In places it’s laugh-out-loud amusing. The man has a voice, and it’s burnished and polished to perfection. I’ve been keeping the book by the side of my bed and dipping into it for an hour most evenings. It’s relatively short—not some comprehensive reference tome, but rather as though the author knows exactly the questions that bother me as I’m writing or revising, and has set out to answer them in witty and authoritative fashion.

Which ‘rules’ are nonrules? Many of the best-known ones, it seems (split infinitives, use of passive voice, contractions, fragments, to name a few).

Who knew punctuation choices are as much a part of an author’s voice as word choices? Like the ending to a good whodunit, it seems obvious now that it’s been pointed out.

And the ‘Foreign Affairs’ chapter on Brit prose vs. Ameri- prose made me roar. The Brits think that the word ‘gotten’ is moronic, and they’re not shy about telling you so. Ouch. I wouldn’t go as far as moronic, but it’s true that I’ll twist my prose like spun sugar to avoid using gotten.

My task for the next two or three weeks is to work through the edit report on Christal’s book, The Seeds of Power. I’m not looking forward to it—some people enjoy polishing their manuscripts, I prefer wrestling shiny new ideas—but I know the book will be all the better for it. And I’ll tackle the rewrite with greater confidence thanks to Mr. Dreyer.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Anyone who writes—fiction, non-fiction, a blog post, a resume, a business letter, a love letter—would find this book useful. Anyone who likes to read would find it interesting and enjoyable.

Tl; dr. Buy this book 🙂

12 thoughts on “Jilly: Craft Book Squee–Dreyer’s English

    • It is six kinds of fun, Michaeline. Best footnotes since Terry Pratchett. So many great examples to choose from. What about this:

      “Some older folks I’ve encountered are furiously insistent about the eternal propriety of sentence-dividing double spaces. Likely they also advocate for the retention of the long s, and I wish them much fuccefs”.

    • It is great. A highly entertaining read that also happens to be a craft book. The French would call it a five-legged sheep (a rare creature indeed). I’m thinking of it as organic salad that tastes like Belgian chocolate :-).

  1. He lost me at split infinitives. I’ve seen in my lifetime as an editor maybe six sentences that were improved by splitting the infinitive. Otherwise my answer to this dreadful supposition that refuses to die is this:

    To be, or not to be.

    Nuff said.

    Except for that one mistake, it sounds like a great book!

    • He’s not advocating wholesale infinitive-splitting, just quoting Star Trek and Raymond Chandler to say sometimes there’s a place for it. Maybe that’s your six sentences 😉 And there’s a great footnote on Captain Kirk’s mission statement:

      “Relatedly, on some not too distant page I’ll touch briefly on the mess of sexism and poor prose construction that is the plaque we humans left on the Moon back in 1969.”

  2. As a copy editor, I’m vastly interested in this. But also because he says punctuation is part of an author’s voice. I get reamed from my CPs about my exclamation points, but I like them. Sometimes I’d rather do that than constantly have a dialogue tag to indicate the tone of voice. I’d happily show them that little gem to get them off my back.

  3. I am always reading books on craft. The last one I read was about monsters, even though I don’t write horror. Haha. How interesting about the double spaces after sentences. I didn’t know people still did that, although I admit it was a tough transition from two spaces to one — many, many years ago.

    • Hi Rachel!
      So nice to see you 😀 . I bought the physical book from Amazon.com because I’d heard good things about it and it wasn’t for sale on the UK site. I have Prime, so the shipping didn’t cost me anything. The delivery info originally said it would take quite a long time (maybe a couple of weeks) but in fact it arrived within a couple of days. I think you’d enjoy it. x

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