Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

How to Not Write Bad [sic]


Oh, I know.  Nails on a chalk board.  Who could resist a writing book that so deliberately breaks the rules?  I picked this one while checking out of the library about a month ago.  Am I a writing geek or what?  I’m an absolute pushover for author biography books, writing books, or etymology books.  Raise your hand proudly if you’re geeking out in the 808 to 811 section along with me.  Yeah, I see that hand.


So, Ben Yagoda pulls a fast one and gets me to slip, yet another, writing how-to book onto my TBR pile.  His book is economically designed, meaning a person goes, “Hmmm, not even 200 pages.  I’ll flip through it.” And before you know it that mystery you’ve set aside for nightly browsing or weekend reading is on top of the TBR pile.  Yagoda reeled me in.  I wonder if he ever studied marketing…


It’s hard to resist an author whose other titles include:


Cover of "When You Catch an Adjective, Ki...

Cover via Amazon




I tend to sticky-tab as I read.  ET would not like me to annotate the library’s books, would you, dear?  Here is my collection of tabs:


page 17:


The writer Malcolm Gladwell has popularized the notion that, in order to become an outstanding practitioner in any discipline, you need to devote to it roughly 10,000 hours of practice   I’ll accept that in terms of reading.  If you put in two hours a day, that works out to about thirteen and a half years.  If you start when you’re eight, you’ll be done by college graduation.


page 44:


a. The best fruit of all is a ripe juicy flavorful peach.


b. The best fruit of all is a ripe, juicy, flavorful peach.


Why is wrong and right, and how can you decide whether to use commas in these situations? The rule I learned in junior high school still holds. Anytime you can insert the word and between adjectives and it still sounds fine, use a comma. If not, don’t.


page 52:


My initial thought is to limit this entry to one sentence: “If you feel like using a semicolon, lie down until the urge goes away.”


page 82:


2. Skunked


As with words, certain grammatical constructions are considered okay by some or most authorities but retain an offensive odor for many readers (and, crucially, teachers and editors), and should be avoided. This shouldn’t present a problem, since they’re usually not difficult to replace with the correct form.


e. Ly-less Adverbs


[This was a real nice clambake.]


[Think different.]


[He didn’t do so bad.]


[That car sure drives smooth.]


page 124:


Until Microsoft Word comes up with cliche-check to go along with spell-check, you’ll never be able to get rid of every single one.  The best you can hope for is to manage them.


page 172:


Ultimately, as with so much else, it’s a mama bear, and baby bear kind of thing: you’re the one who has to decide what’s just right. 


Yagoda’s style is conversant, punchy, and essential.  I would go as far as to say he is the Strunk and White with a side of wit.  Hey, he writes for the New Yorker, I would expect nothing less.


If you are a writers and don’t want to write badly. I suggest pursuing Yagoda’s book to learn how to avoid the most common writing problems. Writing right is not a bad idea.




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5 thoughts on “How to Not Write Bad [sic]

  1. Elise on said:

    And here I thought I was the only one who used sticky tags to mark my library books! BTW, you may want to visit me soon … I was raving about your poetry month blog and this dear friend brought some of her mother’s books for me to bless you with as a kindred poetry lover.

  2. Firstly I love your blog. But from a reader’s perspective I like to see the rules of grammar strictly adhered to for clear communication. But if the above gentleman is such a good writer what about the following sentence he used -Ultimately, as with so much else, it’s a mama bear, and baby bear kind of thing: you’re the one who has to decide what’s just right.

    A comma, in front of the word and ??? Not what I was taught, And it’s changed the meaning of the sentence. As a reader that particular comma “reads” as a full stop.

    As I said I do enjoy your posts – they always give me food for thought – but I take the word Comment to mean just that. It’s just a comment, not a criticism. Unfortunately some bloggers take it to mean Provide Adulation Only Please !

    Now I’m beginning to wonder – should readers read about the art of writing. Is it detracting from my enjoyment of reading.

    • I would have left out the comma because I see mama bear and baby bear as a unit, not as separate. Grammar and especially mechanics can be subjective. No wonder students groan when learning it; it’s not like sentence mathematics (as some might say) since 2 + 2 could equal 5, depending on how it’s read. Thanks for the input, and I always appreciate your stop-bys.
      Blue Skies,

  3. Pingback: Dash It All | cricketmuse

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