When I started editing, I really needed help with the US style guides. Brits (except Scots) don’t learn the rules of our common language like Americans do. We are much more likely to make style choices because “it just feels right” and don’t really know why. The Chicago Manual of Style offers “workouts” to test your knowledge – the New Oxford Style Manual would do nothing of the sort. While I relished reading US writers like Lynne Murphy and Benjamin Dryer, and learnt a lot from them, next I wanted something closer to home.
So I read a writer based in Britain – the land of queuing, the home of the English Bible, Orwell and Lewis Carroll. Joe Moran’s “style guide by stealth” had rave reviews, so I wanted to see if it lived up to the hype.
First You Write a Sentence does not take long to read, but it will burrow its way into your brain. I managed to stay focused on it for significant chunks of a weekend with the in-laws. Of course I crowed with delight when I agreed with what Moran was saying. One of my mantras is “who is doing what to whom?” and he is also a fan of Billig’s Learn to Write Badly. But Moran makes its point more succinctly: nounification is deadening and verbs liven things up.
One thing he does extraordinarily well is talk in pictures. The images he uses to make his point stay with you. Here are a few.
First, a very British one: adjusting the thermostat. Different kinds of verb have different levels of heat. So you can change the level of heat to make things more interesting. If it’s all scorching, readers will wilt. If it’s all cool, they’ll be turned off.
Then there’s the Wizard of Oz paragraph. It opens with a topic sentence, closes with a tell-’em-what you-told-’em sentence and in between, the sentences start: because, because, because… This is not Moran’s phrase, he acknowledges George Gopen, but it was new to me. Once you’ve heard it called that, you really don’t want to be doing it all the time.
Writers are surfers, using every sinew in their bodies to balance and move. Nobody can see what they are doing, up close, but they make it look easy. It feels simple (see the US cover of this book), but is not. The UK cover of this book feels more honest about what writing is actually like.
A writer’s voice is like a bird’s jizz – that impression that lets a birdwatcher know what bird it is, even at a distance in the half-dark. The jizz is on the sentence level; one sentence can be enough to let you know who wrote it.
Carpenters true things – they make them exactly level enough for the job. And a plain style is just that, trueing things, writing about them plainly to make them look true, which makes them true.
Popular orange vegetables (povs, if you work for the Guardian) are not necessary. Sometimes it really is better to say carrots. Variation is good, but you can overdo it. Repetition can even work in your favour.
If you want to get to the point quickly, you can skip straight to the end of this book, to the twenty sentences that distil the entire argument. Yes, I did that too. (Did you do that, reading this?) But if you want to change your writing long term, go back and read the rest. Moran does give great practical tips: read some one-sentence poems to see how they join things up; press return after every full stop to see whether your sentence length varies enough; audit your own words by reading them aloud to see how they sound. All these suggestions are slipped in without being preachy, not in bullet points but in a story about how words work. There’s a lot more in the book, but it’s worth ending here as it ends:
A sentence is a gift from the writer to the reader, one that should never have to be bought – with boredom, confusion, the duty to admire the giver, or anything else.