• October 2, 2014

A Classic 'Nontextbook' on Writing

Careers Illustration - Writing With Style

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

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close Careers Illustration - Writing With Style

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

In the fall of 1974, a young scholar named John Trimble at the University of Texas at Austin was summoned into the office of a senior professor on the English department's executive committee. The senior faculty member had been hearing some disturbing rumors about Trimble, whose research focused on Alexander Pope. Word on the campus was that Trimble, despite his forthcoming tenure bid, was not putting in the hours on Pope. Instead, Trimble was working on a writing textbook.

Trimble confessed that the rumor was true. He had developed a writing style sheet that had become so popular among students and colleagues on the campus that it caught the attention of a publisher's local representative. The next thing Trimble knew, an editor from Prentice Hall was at his office door, asking whether he would be willing to expand his style sheet into a textbook. Trimble agreed, with the caveat that what he produced would look nothing like the majority of textbooks available at the time.

"I wanted it to be a 'nontextbook textbook,'" said Trimble, in an interview via e-mail, "something like Strunk and White's Elements of Style, agreeably short and compact, and nuts-and-bolts practical—a book that emphasized, and explained, how veteran writers actually think; a book with all the water squished out but with all the life left in; a book that students might reasonably find themselves actually reading cover to cover."

The editor loved the idea, and Trimble got a book contract.

Then he got to work—really got to work. During the 13 months he spent writing the textbook, he recalled in our interview, "I was back up at my campus office three to four hours each weekday evening right after dinner, and would then spend 12-hour days there every Saturday and Sunday, too. I virtually disappeared from my family that year."

But then a senior colleague offered Trimble a stern warning about the wisdom of devoting so much time to this endeavor: Publish your research on Pope, and then you can work on the textbook. You'll never get tenure with a composition textbook.

Trimble recalls thanking his senior colleague and going back to his office for some soul-searching. He looked at the matter from every angle he could think of, and then made his resolve: "I decided that if the book were the best thing I could make, and if my department didn't value it, then I needed to find a different university—one whose values were more aligned with my own," Trimble said. "Tenure be damned. It was time, I decided, to act like a grown-up. Instead of worrying about pleasing others, I needed to honor my own priorities and follow my heart."

The result of that decision, as many readers will already know, was Writing With Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing, a composition "nontextbook" that, in more than 30 years on the market, has been reprinted almost three dozen times, purchased by more than a half-million readers, and just released again in a newly updated third edition.

Despite the book's incredible popularity, I only discovered it over this past winter break, when the latest version showed up in my office, buried in a stack of review copies of new writing and literature texts. I had finished the work I had set out to do that day and still had an hour to kill before I needed to be at home. So I thought I would work my way through the stack and see whether anything new caught my interest.

I started with Trimble and never got to any of the other texts. I brought it home and finished reading it the next day—despite the fact that I am not scheduled to teach a writing course in the next three semesters, and despite the fact that I still had prep work to do for both of my courses.

The book is exactly as Trimble described when I wrote to him and asked him to tell me how it came about: "a book with all the water squished out but with all the life left in." His preface refers to the book, in an equally memorable phrase, as "shoptalk for armchair consumption."

It struck me as such a remarkable writing handbook, in fact, that I believe it would work well as a supplementary text in just about any course in which students are graded on written assignments, and in which the instructor is willing to devote a bit of attention to helping students improve their writing. Writing With Style will find its most comfortable home in writing courses, but its many virtues should earn it a place on syllabi in a wide variety of disciplines.

What strikes you first about the book is the easy and familiar manner of Trimble's style. As you make your way into the first chapter, you feel as if you are sitting down by the fire with a wise and kindly editor, one who believes in you and wants to see you improve.

What should strike you next is Trimble's first-chapter analysis of the reasons for most bad writing. The novice writer, he argues, has a "natural tendency ... to think primarily of himself—hence to write primarily for himself." His description of how that tendency plays out in the head of the novice writer deserves to be reproduced in full:

"He thinks through an idea only until it is passably clear to him, since, for his purposes, it needn't be any clearer; he dispenses with transitions because it's enough that he knows how his ideas connect; he uses a private system—or no system—of punctuation; he doesn't trouble to define his terms because he understands perfectly well what he means by them; he writes page after page without bothering to vary his sentence structure; he leaves off page numbers and footnotes; he paragraphs only when the mood strikes him; he ends abruptly when he decides he's had enough; he neglects to proofread the final job because the writing is over."

Once Trimble completes his analysis of the source of poor writing, he gets to work on helping his readers get better. I will highlight just one of the many elements that stood out for me. Trimble suggests we avoid the easy contrast between "formal" and "informal" writing for a style he calls, quoting the linguist Porter Perrin, "General English." He warns readers away from overly complex styles and phrasing by helping them understand the relationship between their writing style and their self-presentation.

"Each time we write," he says in the book, "we're making a choice as to the kind of person we prefer to be. Since it's so important, let's make that choice a conscious one for a change. Here's what it involves: 'Do I want to be authentically me, speaking my own thoughts in my own idiom, or am I content to be a pseudo-self, using borrowed thoughts, borrowed language, and a borrowed personality to gain the approval of a few literary traditionalists?"

In the spirit of arguing for this more authentic prose style, he devotes an entire chapter, "Superstitions," to debunking a set of popular dogmas about what we should and should not do in academic writing. One of his seven targets in the chapter is the idea that we should never refer to our readers as "you" and should instead use the more formal address "the reader."

"What reader," he asks, "wants to be addressed as 'the reader'? It's akin to saying, in conversation, 'I'm glad to hear the listener has recovered from her cold.'"

On the "rule" against contractions, he contrasts two sentences: "Why should we not have clean air?" and "Why shouldn't we have clean air?"

"Honestly," he says, "which of those two writers would you rather hang out with?"

Trimble's analysis and advice throughout the book strike that same tone of sensible familiarity, and the quality of his advice never falters. But as much as I recommend the book for the help it could give our students, I also recommend it to any lover of great prose. It's hard to resist quoting him.

He argues at one point, for example, that writers should vary the length of their prose with an occasional one-word sentence or one-sentence paragraph. But, he warns, make sure a one-sentence paragraph can survive your reader's scrutiny: "Houseplants wilt in direct sun. Many sentences do as well."

This sentence, though, which comes after his warning to minimize the use of adverbs in your writing, may be my favorite: "I'll concede this: The right adverb, fresh and adroitly placed, is one of life's finest small pleasures."

Trimble focuses much of his attention on the argument that good writing exhibits variety and freshness, and that principle informs his book as well. The chapter on revising is a seven-line excerpt of an interview with Ernest Hemingway; the chapter on proofreading is a two-page story he recounts from a graduate-school course he took at Berkeley. You'll have to read them both yourself to appreciate them.

Trimble's current editor at Prentice Hall (now an imprint of Pearson), Brad Potthoff, who pushed him to update the book for a third edition (which includes two new chapters, plus scattered other enhancements), told me, unsurprisingly, that the John Trimble you meet in this textbook is the John Trimble you would meet in any other context.

His ethos, Potthoff said in an e-mail interview, "is infused with humility, a spirit of intense collaboration, and superhuman attention to detail. He brings out the best in his editors and asks as much of them as he does of himself. As such, working with John is a joyous challenge and one of the highlights of my career."

I can think of no better phrase for describing the experience of reading and writing about this nontextbook; it has been a joyous challenge, and one that I hope to share with many generations of students to come.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and author of "On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching" (Harvard University Press, 2008). He writes about teaching in higher education, and his Web site is www.jamesmlang.com. He welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at careers@chronicle.com.

Comments

1. chronomse - January 28, 2011 at 10:12 am

So, did Trimble get tenure at his original University? Or did he move on? and if so, when is his original University awarding him an honorary degree?

2. jimlang - January 28, 2011 at 10:31 am

Yes, Trimble did get tenure, and is now Emeritus.

3. rmelton5 - January 28, 2011 at 12:39 pm

Factual correction: The new 2010 edition is the 4th, not the 3rd, as James M. Lang states. The 3rd ed. was first published in 2005.

4. jimlang - January 28, 2011 at 12:56 pm

Perhaps you're thinking of Strunk and White, which is in its 4th edition? I have Trimble's book in front of me, published in December of 2010, and it says "Third Edition" right on the top. Amazon has it listed that way as well.

5. gharper - January 28, 2011 at 06:08 pm

My congratulations to John, whom I had the pleasure of knowing informally (neighbors), and from whom I got one of the best collections of notes and musings about how to edit your own work, that I have ever come across. I don't always use it (as this note demonstrates!), but when I teach or write in my field (copyright), I love using the process I learned from him to "make my reader want to turn the page," even if only through what I glean from those notes. Thanks, John!

6. eccraig - January 30, 2011 at 10:55 am

I'd like to plug another similar great book on how and why exceptional writers choose particular linguistic structures to subtly get the reader's attention: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects by Martha Kolln. Its main focus is on writing for the reader.

7. pappas - February 02, 2011 at 10:20 pm

As good a writer as JT is, he is an even better teacher. He let us--the students in his Advanced Expository Writing class at UT-Austin--teach ourselves and each other, make mistakes, ask any question, and feel respected. His class was an incubator of every awful thing that could challenge a driven writer. And his powerful distaste for the "pseudo-self," the Prufrock, the fraud, was serendipitous. --Matthew Pappas

8. wclibrary - February 03, 2011 at 07:21 am

"Despite the book's incredible popularity, I only discovered it over this past winter break, when the latest version showed up in my office, buried in a stack of review copies of new writing and literature texts." Check Trimble on the placement of modifiers.

9. crankycat - February 03, 2011 at 08:15 am

Looks like a book worth reading - normally I'd pop over to Amazon and order it. But at $35 for a 200-page paperback, I'm going to have to think more than twice.

10. crankycat - February 03, 2011 at 08:22 am

Looks like a book worth reading - normally I'd pop over to my favorite online store and order it. However, a 200-page paperback with a $35 price tag has made me think more than twice about that. The unusually high cost may be why I have never seen reference to this book before.

11. crankycat - February 03, 2011 at 08:24 am

Apologies for the double post!
There was a site error after first one and I didn't realize the comment had gone up.

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