Writing with Style — John R. Trimble

Edit (5/31/11): I received a pleasant email from Professor Trimble himself for this review!

Someone just alerted me to your delightful blog review of Writing with Style.  Many thanks for those kind words–and for articulating them in such a credible, writerly fashion.

Writing with Style

I chanced to pick up this book for a dollar at a book sale, and it  turned out to be one of the most useful writing guides I have seen. Trimble’s writing is vigorous, concise, and a joy to read.

First, Trimble keeps his example quotations to the point and, when citing longer passages, makes sure to pick ones that are both readable and very relevant. In other writing books I often skipped such expository quotations, reading the lines before and after, which usually gave me precisely the needed information but without my having to decipher sometimes multiple pages of abstruseness. But when reading Trimble’s book, I never felt the need to skip a quotation. The one exception is the essay “The Character and Purpose of Caesar,” which Trimble included in full to demonstrate several good points (Chapter 5). In fact, he had explained the points so well before the quotation that I was already convinced, and I felt no desire to read second-rate material—I wanted to see what else Trimble himself had to say. Other than this one long passage, every quotation is kept at a reasonable length.

Second, Trimble writes with a genuine voice: “Books on writing tend to be windy, boring, and impractical. I intend this one to be different—short, fun, and genuinely useful.”

Third, the book is creative and has no text-book feel. The most extreme—as well as humorous—example is chapter 10, “The art of revising.” It is a one-page chapter in which Trimble doesn’t say anything. He merely quotes a Paris Review interview:

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.

(p.95)

That’s it. That’s the entire chapter. No explanation. It is unnecessary.

Now what is Trimble’s chief advice? It is very simple: write so that the reader can understand you. This certainly doesn’t equate with removing all complex ideas. Rather, it is to write in a way that the reader can follow your ideas and be interested in what you have to say. As Trimble put it:

Basically, I require two things of an author. The first is that he have something interesting to say—something that will either teach me or amuse me. If he doesn’t, I stop reading. The second requirement is that he not waste my time getting out what he has to say. If he idles, I conclude that I can be taught quicker elsewhere.

(p. 69)

Trimble also demolishes the creed of the cult of Formal English, which regards English as more a totalitarian law system and less a language. Very amusing are the Seven Nevers, which include statements like “Never begin a sentence with and or but” and “Never use contractions.” The fifth such statement is “Never end a sentence with a preposition.” The author’s remark:

Perhaps it was Winston Churchill . . . who delivered the coup de grâce to this superstition. When the old statesman had his attention called to a final preposition lurking in his prose, he exploded with: “This is the type of arrant pedantry, up with which I shall not put.”

(p. 91)

Side fact: The book’s author John R. Trimble published this in 1975 while teaching at The University of Texas at Austin.

Side fact 2: Just for fun, I ran WordPress’s grammar and style checker on this blog post. It made 12 marks: three on me, one on Churchill, and EIGHT on Trimble. It shows again that good authors are the ones who break the rules.

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