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 🙂