Writers and reading

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Chicago Manual of Style, 2017 - 17th edn.This post is about, and for writers, for reporters and editors, for book authors and editors, magazine editors, feature writers, layout artists, copy editors and anyone who either fancies themselves one of these, or has the curious desire to become one (curious because, at least for freelancers, it often involves spending more money on books than you get in income…). If you aren’t in that company, you should probably read something else, maybe just watch TV, because it’s going to be boring and a little pedantic. It’s about the books writers and editors read – or should read – to stay at the forefront of their game.

But also we read these books because we derive a basic joy from them. Strange as it sounds, it’s true. Like any hobbyist, aficionado or enthusiast, we like to read about the subjects dear to our hearts: grammar, punctuation, style, language, vocabulary, etymology, style, writing… reading about them isn’t just a trek through known territory: in many of them we find new landscapes to explore, new arguments to debate, new words, new uses to test.

Yes, writers read, those worth the name, anyway. Just like doctors, mechanics, chefs, wine makers, musicians, astronomers, naturalists, electricians and every other profession reads. Even politicians read – aside, of course, from our own Block on Collingwood Council, who despise the activity. Reading is part of the ongoing self-education process everyone who gives even the slightest damn about their work continues to pursue. It’s part of the continued goal of competence.

Let me stop here and say that if you know of a so-called writer, editor, communications officer, PR specialist or reporter who doesn’t regularly read books on grammar, language, style or structure, or don’t regularly look things up in these guides, who don’t have them at hand in their work area, they don’t deserve the description. They are, to paraphrase Truman Capote, mere typists. They do not do justice to their profession and should look for more suitable employment. Walmart greeters are in demand, I hear.

And, no, age and experience don’t mean you can stop learning. In fact, both contribute to lifelong bad writing habits that only remedial study can correct. Since language is fluid, it requires attention to keep up with its fluctuations and changes, its mood swings in permissive and restrictive usage. Unless you keep up with it, you start to come across as ossified, archaic and fusty. That’s when writers need to retire.

A writer who doesn’t read books on language and grammar is like a sommelier who doesn’t drink, not even taste the wine. It’s like a pilot who refuses to board a plane. A hockey player who doesn’t skate. It’s an oxymoron.

Writers read to stay sharp, read to learn new trends, changes to language and vocabulary. We (and I can include myself in this august company, albeit on its fringe) also read to remind us of the thousands of things we’ve consciously forgotten in our careers. We may use them, may have some autonomic reflex to, say, put nouns and verbs in the right place, but reading helps these actions float to the surface so we can examine them again and even explore alternatives. 

Writers also read other writers to see how they turned a phrase, if they used non-standard structure, or introduced new words or phrases. I, for example, like to read Conrad Black, not for his opinions or content (we’re ideological opposites…), but because he pens a mean turn of phrase for a narcissistic, right-wing blowhard. I give the man credit: he writes superbly well. His phrase “diaphanous piffle” is so delightfully apt that I have used it myself to describe the blatherings of local council politicians. 

So, too, do I enjoy PJ O’Rourke, who also puffs out right wing trash talk, but in such a charming, sarcastic and literate way that even an old socialist like myself can’t help but enjoy the ride. I read many current columnists and commentators in newspapers and magazines whose opinions and views I do not share but whose abilities to compose those opinions deserves both respect and study. Bill Bryson can turn a dry academic topic into a delightful excursion simply by words.

The point of these comments is to underscore that it’s important to read people outside your own field, your own ideology, your own beliefs and knowledge, even outside your own comfort zone, to see how they weave their arguments. You cannot counter their points unless you know how they framed theirs. Yet without a good grasp of the building blocks and the rules of language, these will remain opaque. And once you have left school, you keep your writing edge through continuing your education by reading books.

I recall days in newsrooms and publishing houses where style and wording were sources of heated and lengthy discussion. Authorities were named and sworn on like bibles in a courtroom. Chapter and verse quoted. Alternative opinions from challengers were raised and waved about; heretic screeds signalling the revolution. The release of a new edition of a style guide or dictionary was treated like a major seismic event and sparked much commentary on the changing or additional content. Hair pulling and mourning often accompanied new editions when old standards were uprooted.

I realize that, in today’s one- and two-person newsrooms, such excitement may be more muted, the discussions less vocal or even non-existent. But that doesn’t absolve the reporters and editors from their responsibility to their craft. The paucity of company in the newsroom does not mean those remaining should not still follow and celebrate these book publications – and, of course, read them – as they would in a larger, more professional organization. 

Being the sole reporter doesn’t mean you can stop learning and coast to retirement on cruise control (like at least one local newspaper reporter…). That view is arrogant and myopic. It assumes the reporter knows more and better than his or her audience (or perhaps simply doesn’t give a damn about the readership). It assumes the reporter doesn’t have to be good for the audience, doesn’t need to be the best, doesn’t need to improve styles or usage. 

It’s true of all writers, of course, not just reporters. Anyone who claims to be a writer yet thinks they don’t need to learn, don’t need to improve, has quit the job of being a writer. 

Laziness of this sort only contributes to the deterioration of modern media, and the increasing lack of credibility it carries among the public. It’s hard enough to get people reading national media, let alone local media – bad, lazy or inaccurate writing only further reduces the audience. Out-of-date writing habits, unstylish phrasing, poor structural organization, incoherent sentences, avoidance of neologisms – they all distance the writer from his or her audience. 

I admit I am a bit obsessive about it at times, and totally nerdy when it comes to reading (and buying) books about grammar, type, style, language and words. My own library in this field is a bit of archeology: on my shelves I have accumulated volumes on writing, language, style and layout dating back a full century. Many were purchased for specific, job-related reasons. A book on indexing methods. A dictionary of nautical terms. A book on how to use scholarly references in papers and textbooks. A book on writing newspaper headlines. Another on multi-column layouts for newspapers and magazines.  Others were bought for the simple joy of reading them.

This post was inspired by the recent announcement of the 17th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS 2017). I bought one right away, although I admit I debated whether a semi-retired writer and editor really needs  it (or can afford it: $78 on Amazon). While I will read it (albeit perhaps somewhat sporadically), I can’t really justify the cost when weighed against the work I do these days. But, I told myself, it’s The Chicago… my library will be lesser without it. And just imagine the enjoyable bedside reading I will get from almost 1,150 pages.

When it arrived, I wondered if I might be the only one in Collingwood to own it. Or, for that matter, how many people here might own any earlier edition. Perhaps in On the Bay magazine you might find a copy. I’m sure there are other work-at-home writers and editors who have one, too (I just don’t know them). But in local media? Or even in the office of the town’s communications director? I doubt it. It’s expensive – owning one requires a fervent dedication to the profession and the craft.

Editors – not just writers – will also have the CMOS handy, in at least a recent edition (15th or 16th) because it defines the framework for the printed word. While there are many other style guides, nothing equals CMOS in sheer content and completeness. Writers who don’t do layout or editing don’t necessarily need it, if they have alternate style guides or grammar books, but it’s still recommended. It drills down to the details; a microscope for style and usage.

From my perspective, it’s one of five essential books for anyone involved in communications, reporting, writing or editing (in newspapers, books and magazines, as well as media releases, newsletters and PR). CMOS is the bible of layout and style, usage and punctuation, with a comprehensiveness other books can only pretend to. The other essentials include:

  1. Fowler’s Modern English Usage (the Burchfield edition, 2003 or later, although I also have earlier editions and still refer to them). Since 1918, this has been the base from which other usage guides spring. There is also an excellent style guide by Garner from Oxford (Garner’s Modern English Usage, 2016), which I recommend you also refer to. 
  2. The Canadian Press Style Book. This is the quintessential guide for Canadian journalists and feature writers. Americans use the AP (Associated Press) Styleguide, which I recommend you also own, but it also uses American spellings which are not suitable for Canadian writing.
  3. A credible dictionary (something you need to consciously look for, not just pick up what’s on sale at WalMart). For Canadians, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is the best. While the full 20-volume set is attractive, it’s not as practical as the Shorter (2 vol) or Concise (1 vol) editions, both of which are acceptable. There’s also a specific Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2004) that you should consider. Americans prefer the Merriam Webster Dictionary (the Collegiate version from 2003). Note that unless it says Merriam Webster, or just calls itself Webster or Webster’s, it is not credible as a source. And we should include Random House’s American Heritage Dictionary as acceptable for American usage.
  4. Strunk and White. More properly known as The Elements of Style (4th edition). Stunk and White come under a lot of criticism these days for their rigid adherence to rules, but later editions after the original loosen up, especially the fourth. The book is full of good, solid advice about writing, especially about brevity and the active voice, even if it doesn’t always jive with current or popular usage. After Strunk’s initial work, other stylists like Gowers and Flesch produced similar, but more comprehensive guides to clear writing. Still, S&W is short, to the point and easily read. I try to read it every year, even though I don’t always follow their advice very closely since I retired.

Every writer worth the name, every reporter worth the paycheque will have these or similar books, either on his or her desk or at least easily accessible. Some, of course, are available as apps or e-books, so they may not be immediately visible. If you don’t see them around, just ask. Scanning someone’s at-work library is an excellent way to measure the professionalism and the dedication of the writer or the communications director.

And let’s face it: while online sources may be useful for a quick look-up to solve a particular issue (CMOS has its own informative site, for example), no one reads at length online (even the length on my own blog posts deters people not accustomed to reading more than a tweet….). Websites may be convenient for small scale resolution, but are not a substitute for actual books and prolonged study. The impressive volume of material in the CMOS cannot be absorbed through reading web pages.

There are, of course, many other books writers, editors, PR specialists and communications officers can read (The Elements of Editing and The Elements of Journalism, for example), but they should have – and know – the essentials regardless of the rest. These are the building blocks, the foundation on which the others rest.

You can argue for and against my choices, interject your own favourites into the list. I hold by my statement that if they are dedicated to their profession, if they are dedicated to their audience, writers, editors, PR specialists, copywriters and communications directors alike will own and read books on writing and usage. Without the reading, these books are, to paraphrase Thoreau, merely “improved means to an unimproved end.”

Most will have them displayed, not simply for visitors, but because they refer to them regularly and thus need their close company. Amateurs, of course, won’t have them, may not even know of them, much less read them. But real writers will.

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