Word Up!

I am quite punctilious – even pedantic – about my writing, but I am not especially technical when it comes to grammar: I can’t always explain why something is wrong or right because my knowledge is internalised to the point of instinct rather than being explicit. Reading Word Up!: How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them) told me the actual meanings of grammatical terms that I don’t think I have ever really known: that a transitive verb transfers its action to the object, for example, or that a verb particle is an element of a verb phrase which cannot be omitted without changing the meaning of the action.

Word Up! by Marcia Riefer Johnston is a delightful and information-dense romp through techniques of energetic writing. Marcia has a forthright voice, but the tone is light-hearted and amusing – this is not a scolding style manual. There is no fear of prescriptivism where appropriate, when there exists clear advantage to or argument in favour of a particular form, but the book has much in common with Spunk and Bite: the reader is often given choices and reasons rather than unexplicated commandments. The point is to communicate your ideas powerfully: you can fail to communicate if you use a word wrongly or break expected structure, but you may also fail to communicate if what you write is unengaging.

And the book is funny. The text is amusing, the examples are whimsical, and the footnotes are frequently entertaining.

There are three sections, dealing with techniques of word, word structure (sentence or paragraph), and the whole work. Each section includes a selection of discursive articles talking about use of hyphens, or when to use whom, or the imaginative use of metaphors, or using contrasting sentence structure, or characterising your audience, or… well, it’s a long list. Much of it was novel for me, but the familiar material illuminated subtleties I had not considered. And on top of all that, the glossary is about two thirds of a grammar book on its own*.

And thank you, Marcia, for explaining exactly why I found the Kindle manual so useless.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to write in a way which will reach their readers more effectively. Even the experienced writer is likely to find something to further their knowledge.

[*] the glossary endeared itself to me by using an example from Monty Python to illustrate a rhetorical device – and if anyone would know their rhetorical devices then the writers of Monty Python would.

3 Replies to “Word Up!”

  1. Duncan and Marcia, I’m looking forward to reading this book and sharing it with those polishing their craft. I especially like this: “the reader is often given choices and reasons rather than unexplicated commandments.” It’s so important to know *why* we make certain choices in our work.

    1. Christi, I’d love to hear your thoughts when you’ve had a chance to read “Word Up!” for yourself. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Duncan, I enjoyed your observations. Thanks for the post!

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