Book review: Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them)

Engaging collection on writing well…for the wordsmith in all of us

Word Up!, by Marcia Riefer Johnston, covers topics on how to write well, from guidelines (e.g., avoid linking be-verbs) to how to structure sentences and paragraphs better (e.g., put the most important word last) to writing with your audience in mind (e.g., use personas to determine what to add or what to leave out).

Caveat: I am very conscious that writing a review of a book on how to write well is a dangerous enterprise. I will likely fail to follow Marcia’s guidelines in my review. (Actually, I already have.)

I found that this handy book included things I knew but never verbalized; things I knew but Marcia explained them in a new way, which enriched my understanding; or things I hadn’t thought about.

One example of the many topics Marcia discusses: writing for mobile and how it really isn’t different than writing for non-mobile technologies. Good writing is good writing. If you consider certain items, like organization, navigation, and audience needs, your content should work well regardless of the format.

Speaking to my inner academic geek, she provides extensive notes, chock full of references to other works on different topics, such as grammar, information architecture, minimalist writing, usability, and personas. She cites leading experts in each field.

I was delighted to see how many points overlapped between writing well and speaking well. The goal is the same: convey information for a particular audience. How best to get and maintain the audience’s attention? Vary sentence length. Repeat phrases or sounds. Use imagery to paint a vivid picture. Create a cadence.

And then be sure to read the written content—for a speech, a blog post, or corporate documentation—out loud. What works? What doesn’t? What flows? What doesn’t? What superfluous words can be removed? What does the audience really need to know?

Perhaps due to my background in localization and languages, I take a holistic approach to content, seeing it within what I think of as the entire “content industry”, from English authoring through localization. I try to consider how writing helps or hinders translation (either human or machine) or non-native English readers. Much of what Marcia offers as good writing actually helps with localization. Reduction in sentence length definitely helps. Keeping related parts of sentences together helps. Using pronouns sparingly helps.

But I would go further, explicitly calling out the non-native English reader as an audience member that we need to keep in mind as we write. To be sure, one needs to walk a fine line between making content accessible to a non-native English audience and making sure that the English isn’t stilted. For example, pronouns can be a bear for non-native (and sometimes native) English readers. Replacing the pronoun with the actual noun is kinder, but it can lead to very silly-sounding English sentences. (Note my use of “it” in the previous sentence.) One needs to be conscious of non-native English readers but realize that if a conflict exists, good English writing takes precedence.

Or take dividing phrasal verbs. I have always been uneasy doing so, though to be fair, I likely do it quite often. I am conscious that in dividing verbs and participles, I run the risk of making the English harder for non-native English readers or translators. Marcia advocates keeping related words closer together but then also accepts not doing so: “Jane took the idea in”. It sounds perfectly well and good to my American ears, but I pause, realizing that splitting up “took” and “in” may not be the best from a writing-for-translation perspective.

Although Marcia seems to identify with prescriptivists (as opposed to descriptivists), she is clearly flexible—rules are, well, guideposts along the way rather than set-in-stone rules. In my opinion, this is the way it should be. Grammar and writing guidelines act as posts along the journey, pointing the way through overgrown vegetation.

I envision repeatedly returning to Word Up! as a handy guide—for whatever medium, whatever audience—to help me wade through the thicket of writing.