DRMacIver's Notebook

Book Review: 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, by Gary Provost

Book Review: 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, by Gary Provost

I mostly bought this book because of how much I love the following passage:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

As you can see in this passage, Provost is very keen on writing in a style that works well when spoken. Fortunately, this is the objectively correct position, so that’s a point in his favour. In fact, this book made me realise that actually reading out loud is very different from reading in your head, so I’m going to try to do that more often when writing.

This is one of the best passages in the book, but the rest of the book is also very good, and contains a large number of useful tips. It’s also very short.

In general the book is very prescriptivist, but it’s a good kind of prescriptivism - one that makes it clear that prescriptive suggestions are tools, not laws. He’s quick to point out the limitations of the techniques he suggests, and that no rule is universal.

I also liked the following passage from the conclusion:

Writing is art, not science, and when I finish a piece of writing, I do not review every single one of my tips. I ask, have I communicated well? Have I pleased my readers, have I given them something that is a joy to read? Have I entertained them, informed them, persuaded them, and made my thoughts clear to them? Have I given them what they wanted?

I like this because it not only points out the limitations of the rest of the book, but also stands alone as an excellent piece of advice in its own right.

I don’t agree with everything Provost suggests, but nobody’s perfect. For example he hates footnotes (and parentheses), which I love. The material on research is also quite dated. Fortunately, because it’s a tool box rather than a set of commandments, you are feel free to pick and choose whichever of its tools work for you, and ignore the ones which don’t.

If you’re looking to improve your writing, I recommend this book as a useful and accessible way to do so.

On which note, I will leave you with the following quote from the introduction:

If your writing does not improve after you have read this book, you have not failed. I have. It is the writer’s job, not the reader’s, to see that the writing accomplishes whatever goal the writer has set for it.