Ben Yagoda’s latest book, How To Not Write Bad, synthesizes his experience teaching writing into a neat, helpful guidebook outlining the common errors that arise in writing today. Rather than the canned grammar suggestions about hypothetical problems, How To Not Write Bad addresses today’s recurring writing problems. Yagoda understands the impossible task of a writing manual; as he puts it, “Telling someone how to write well is like gripping a handful of sand.” Choosing not to work with such an unreliable medium, Yagoda instead attacks what we can control by identifying and remedying the most common writing errors today, like putting a comma after “however.”
For the past twenty years, Yagoda has taught journalism at the University of Delaware, while he wasn’t writing books about The New Yorker, the history of memoir, craft, and other subjects. He also contributes to the New York Times’ blog about writing, Draft. Earlier this year, we discussed the value of a great editor, the Internet’s positive influence on writing, and more.
The Rumpus: I was reading your new book, How To Not Write Bad, alongside your other books about craft, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It and The Sound on the Page. The other books have more of a conversational tone. What compelled you to write a manual or handbook, in this particular way?
Ben Yagoda: I’ve had the fortune to be able to write books based on what’s interesting to me at that particular moment. The Sound on the Page was based on my long-standing feelings about the importance of style (in the sense of personal style) and how not enough attention had been paid to that. So I said, Okay I’m going to start paying some attention to that, and I had a good experience talking to all these writers and exploring some ideas.
Then, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It was a receptacle for a few decades of thoughts and observations about the interesting paths that language has taken or how people have used it. Whereas The Sound on the Page was a fairly high level discussion of the best writers and what constitutes style for them. The adjective book was about popular language and (to my mind) the cool interesting funny things it does, just the different meanderings and unpredictable and funny paths that language can take. Rather than say here’s a book about the weird things language does, I could really use a theme to put it all into and the “parts of speech” theme seemed like a good one because a lot of it had to do with changing parts of speech. That was fun and worked for me and was enjoyable. That reminds me: the word “fun” is one of those words that is now used as an adjective, but when I was young, it wasn’t. Now people say, very fun, and funner, and funnest. That’s a rather new thing. A fun discussion of “fun” was what I was able to get into in that book.
Now this new book goes at language and writing from a completely different perspective, and that was from the experience of being a teacher. This really grew out of that. I would not have written this book if I hadn’t had this experience of (since 1992) being a professor at the University of Delaware and reading what students write. It was initially kind of shocking to me, some of the mistakes and problems that I saw. In the last couple years, I started having this idea of doing a book based in some way on those errors, problems, issues that I’ve noticed. I think you used the word handbook, and there certainly are a lot of handbooks and guidebooks out there, but I was not aware of any that go at it from this particular point of observing, in the trenches, the actual nature of the way people write. Like Eats, Shoots and Leaves talks about mistakes, but that’s in a commercial setting and also published things. I’m not aware of a book that talks about the raw way that people write. I felt that, and I feel that, it is a useful approach.
Rumpus: You made the interesting observation that the rules that are typically driven down our throats are either irrelevant or rules that don’t really exist anymore, like ending a sentence with a preposition, or mistakes that people, for whatever reason, don’t make these days. As I was reading through the book, it was striking to me how many of these errors that I see as an editor, like the however comma as you call it. There are a number of different errors that you talk about, but if you could pick one error that is your pet peeve or is the most widespread, what would it be?
Yagoda: I divided the book into things that are out-and-out errors, that are “wrong” (according to the standards that are gone by) and things that are just “bad.” They aren’t strictly speaking wrong, but they are poor writing. Let me try to pick out one of each. For the errors, the biggest things are punctuation and spelling. There are a lot of these spell-check errors of all different kinds, which I’m sure you run into. The really perplexing one is the past tense of “to lead” as “lead,” instead of “led,” which is now, I think by far more commonly done by my students and on the Internet than the correct one.
But if I had to pick one thing on that end of it, I would probably say not that, but choosing the wrong word—just choosing the word that in some way sounds like it might be the right word for that particular sentence, but just isn’t. That’s vexing because it’s a challenging one to correct. If anyone is writing a sentence and we think we’re using the right now, and it’s spelled right as that word, how are we going to know it’s not the right word? There’s no correct word squiggly line, and I guess I choose that in answer to your question because it relates to the big issue of reading.
I think that doing a lot of reading is the best way to develop your vocabulary and make your vocabulary precise. Not having done that, it’s almost like the problem with punctuation. They [the students] don’t read enough so they don’t have a strong inner sense of punctuation, so they often do it by sound, which is often okay but often it’s not okay, especially for commas. I think they do word choice by sound, also. What I suspect is they say, I need a word here, let me put down this word and see what the online thesaurus brings me. One of the words there will sound or feel right, but they won’t really know the word, and it’s not right. But they put it down. Maybe they think that the fact that the online thesaurus presented it gives it some kind of authority. I don’t know what they’re thinking. That would probably be the one that I would pick, the error that stands out the most for me.
Rumpus: I think you’re right that we’re relying on speech more for our writing conventions. The way you put it early in your introduction, that the Internet is yanking people and making them writers, I thought was a really interesting way of putting it. We are also reading a lot more unedited prose, on Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere. I wonder if you think that the reading experience of seeing “wrong” writing has impacted the way we write.
Yagoda: It’s complicated. When you read an article about “the problems in writing,” you see very often people are using abbreviations like LOL, which as I say in the book, I don’t find to be true. I’ve never encountered that. But there are certain things that are done online that I feel were originated there that are seeping into the way people write, which I think eventually will become acceptable, correct, whatever. More to the point for me in my experience, as a teacher and writing this book, when it becomes necessary for someone to write something formal, for publication, on a website or a printed source or a business environment, or something for class, that they realize that there’s a certain level of formality. They know that you can’t say LOL, and you can’t say OMG, and you can’t put in two exclamation points, as they might do online. So that’s not the problem. The problem is, it seems to me, they are spooked by that responsibility of writing formally. It’s like they’ve spent their entire life wearing sweatpants and okay, now you’ve got to put on a suit. But oh my god, what’s a suit? What do you do? So you put on two ties and you put on shoes that they wore on Mad Men, but no one wears anymore. You really don’t know how to do it. You end up being too formal and use big words and long sentences and that leads to other problems. Like the long sentences lead to dangling modifiers because you don’t know how long sentences are put together. It leads to using fancy words that are inaccurate. That’s in itself a problem, not an error, but it leads to using the wrong word. It’s a fancy word, but it isn’t even correct. They’ll say “reside” instead of “live,” which is correct but “live” is preferable.
Being in that informal environment of the web, which paradoxically or whatever has produced really good writing, especially on some sites and places where people are really knowledgeable about a subject and go in and write about. I’m sure you’ve had the experience that I’ve had on e-mail that some people write really strong, powerful interesting funny distinctive e-mails. Students and people in general have a tough time carrying over when they have to write in this more formal or official situation. On the other hand, some online writing is really bad, too. It’s not that everybody is so good at it. But some people are good at that and write really well in that environment. I feel like they are stumped when they have to write something for a more official publication.
Rumpus: It strikes me that we need a sort of Miss Manners for e-mail because it is different than style. As you pointed out, it’s much closer to the spoken word than it is to the written word. A lot of the conventions of it reflect that, but we’re still at this point where there are e-mails that we get that we can’t understand because we don’t have the visual cues, we only have the words on the page. We need an etiquette guide of sorts for the web, that’s going to be different than a style guide for formal writing, but can still lead people to be able to understand each other because ultimately that’s the goal.
Yagoda: I bet there probably are such guides, but I feel like people are able to ultimately pick up these things themselves. For example, my daughter, who’s twenty-two, of course does texting, and I am not that conversant with texting, although I see that it’s useful. She got on me about ending my texts with periods. Like I would say, “Nice job with that article.” She said that looks like you’re being sarcastic. You need either nothing—nothing is uninflected—or some number of exclamation points. Even one, two, or three are slightly different in how enthusiastic they are, but a period looks like you’re being sardonic. So I learned that. I stick with my periods sometimes, but sometimes I see, No, that will give an impression I don’t really want.
Rumpus: You’ve succumbed to her editing process. What’s your ideal editing processes for publication? Both from the perspective of editing your students’ work and from the perspective of being edited at places like Slate and The New York Times. Do you think there’s an ideal relationship or situation for the process to be conducted by?
Yagoda: That’s a profound question. I guess I would start to address that by…well, I often think of that line from A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth.” You’re right that it’s a similar kind of thing, being a professional or official editor for a publication versus being a teacher. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s definitely similar. For a lot of my students (the majority of my students), it’s a triage situation where the big thing is figuring out what they mean to say, or sometimes even know what they mean to say, and then expressing that in a clear and precise and somewhat graceful way. That’s the task at hand.
I’ve been an editor myself and I’ve been edited, as you say, you edit and are edited. Now when you get to that level, the ideal—well, ideal is a toughie. What you don’t want is someone, an editor—and I’ve experienced this, I’ve realized that I’ve done this to my dissatisfaction, I’m not pleased with it—is to try to impose what you want to say and how you want to say it and how you would say it on the writer. If that writer does have a voice or a style to help bring that out. To point out the places where he or she may not have been clear or there may be some. What good editors do is understand who that writer is and what they’re getting at, and say, “Here’s an opportunity where you could make a further point,” or, “Expand that.” That’s the kind of sympathetic editing that I hope I do, and that I really appreciate when I get. It’s the best. It’s a little bit rare.
Rumpus: Sympathetic editing is an interesting idea. It reminds me of Zadie Smith’s book Changing My Mind. She compares editors to smart strangers, which is an obtuse description in some ways, but in other ways, it does encapsulate a lot of it.
Yagoda: Yeah—there’s this catchphrase now. I think it might have started in the Twilight books, it was Team Edward and Team Whatever-The-Guy-Was. But having a team, you know. I sometimes feel like I’ve got people on my team, and it might be my editor, or my agent, or my family, and it’s like Team Yagoda. Not exactly a stranger, but it’s not me and it can step apart from me, yet they support me.
Rumpus: Considering style, what are some of the best examples of style since you wrote The Sound on the Page? The last five or ten years?
Yagoda: Well, to me, and he was definitely around when I wrote the book, but the recent stylist that’s had the biggest imprint is David Foster Wallace. In the 1970s, the New Journalism Age was a time of big style, of big voice. He’s one of the few recent people that had that kind of thing. In the years since he’s died, I think it’s become even more evident that he is.
Other aspects of style that I see now is small style—sometimes in a good way, I guess I would call subtleties. I just read a magazine piece by David Kamp in Vanity Fair about Martin Short. It was a profile. It was very good. In terms of the style, the voice, the attitude of it, ninety to ninety-five percent of it was best practices, standard magazine profile style: the right element of knowing-ness and snarkiness and scenes, the right element of uninflected imparting of facts and background and quotes from other people. Then, maybe five to ten percent of it, if you’ve read David Kamp, are grace notes that sound like him. Similarly, if you read Dwight Garner versus Janet Maslin as the New York Times book reviewers, and you read them twice a week as I do for years, you begin to know them and pick up on these small things. Again, small in a good way.
There’s also small in the not-so-good-way (again, notably online): the snarky Gawker hip or pseudo-hip, knowing veering into know-it-all style that characterizes a lot of what I see as writing today, that I’m not such a fan of. So it’s kind of universal voice for that sort of writing—that once you get into it, you learn that and you adopt that. For other kinds of writing, it’s a more transparent thing, and then if you’re good enough and experienced enough, you can insert your own particular grace notes and your own particular voice in a subtle way.
Rumpus: You’re right—sometimes I feel at places like Gawker that the primary motive of the writer is to alienate the reader, and I don’t really understand why.
Yagoda: Yeah, it’s kind of a love-me/hate-me thing. They might not even think of it that way as well, but what’s that expression? Frenemy. They’re your frenemy. You hate on them, but you can’t abandon them, you have to keep on coming back. I think that is an aspect of what’s been going on now.
Rumpus: I don’t know if it’s a perpetual adolescence that people want to live in, of wanting to be a part of the “cool club” but not acknowledge that. It all feels very immature, but that’s just my take on it.
In your concluding author’s note in your new book, you say that you shudder to think what your next writing book will be.
Yagoda: At least I didn’t write s-h-u-t-t-e-r. I hope I didn’t.
Rumpus: Well, if not another writing book, is it something closer to what you do at the Lingua Franca blog? Or at the Times?
Yagoda: No, I was joking. At this point, I don’t envision doing another book on writing. I’m doing these blog things. And when you were talking about how immature and adolescent it all is, I was thinking, Yeah, all these short things I’m writing. It’s not so much that it’s immature, but I guess the word I was expecting you to say was “superficial.” There’s that aspect to it, that people have these short attention spans and one thing after another. I guess Twitter being the ultimate, but I guess there’s something even shorter than that. Just these bright, shiny objects, just one thing, then another thing, and so on. So I’m doing that, and it’s kind of fun, but I enjoy doing the Lingua Franca and the Draft pieces, and my own blog about Britishisms. Next, I’m working on a cultural historical book similar to my book on The New Yorker and memoir, in that general vein, and this is about music, specifically American popular songwriting of the late ’40s through the early ’60s.
Rumpus: That sounds great. I loved your discussion in the adjective book about band name titles and articles.
Yagoda: That was fun.
Rumpus: That sounds interesting. What sort of preliminary stuff about the music book is exciting to you?
Yagoda: I’ve been working on it for a couple of years and I’ve done about twenty-five or thirty interviews, which, similar to The New Yorker book and The Sound on the Page, it’s fun to meet all these people. It’s a very challenging book because it’s hard to write about a negative. Most books about the music of that period rightfully talk about the rise of rock ‘n roll, the precursors of rock ‘n roll, the arrival of rock ‘n roll, the development of rock ‘n roll, because that was the big story, but I’ve always been a huge fan of the so-called Great American Songbook, Gershwin, et. al. I’ve been thinking for some time, what happened to that tradition and those songwriters, many of whom are still alive, in roughly 1950, when (retrospectively) we know the big thing that was happening was the rise of rock? And essentially not much was happening. They weren’t doing very good work, and the American public wasn’t really appreciating what they were doing and that tradition was kind of withering. So it’s hard to write about a negative, and it’s also hard to write a sort of detective story or mystery. Why? Why did that happen? What were the reasons? So it’s a challenging project, but I’ve been really enjoying the research I’ve done. I’ve done a bit of writing on it already, so it’s really been fun to do.
Rumpus: Do you think there’s anything about How To Not Write Bad that I’ve missed?
Yagoda: To me, the big question about the book—I feel fairly good that I’ve identified a lot or most of these important issues and described them—but the question that perhaps you were too polite to ask is, what now? If this is the way you write, can this be addressed, or fixed, or solved by reading a book? But I guess that’s one of those questions that can never really be answered, but people will always identify problems and write books that purport to address them. And then we just have to hope for the best.
Rumpus: I guess that question is implied in the writing of a book like this, but I don’t feel that it’s a more important goal, because ultimately the people who read it are people who are already aware of their problems, and seeking to think about them, and think about the way we write today. One way to think about the way we write today is to think about the errors that we’re making, and to think about how our conventions have changed dramatically in the last decade or more. I would hope that people who need this kind of help seek it out, but ultimately we can’t take responsibility for them.
Yagoda: I hope what you say is right, that people realize they make errors, but I think in fact it’s often not the case. People aren’t aware, so my hope is that their friends, families, and teachers will buy it for them because everybody is definitely quite willing to see the problems of other people.
Photo of Ben Yagoda © by Maria Yagoda.