Book review: 'Write to the point: how to be clear, correct and persuasive on the page' by Sam Leith (July 2018)

by Cecile Shanahan


Sam Leith's useful little book about writing persuasively teaches you 'how to express yourself fully and get your way in every situation'. It offers up 280 pages of confidence-building writing know-how. As the author explains, 'This book is not a list of rules or instructions ... It does not pretend to contain a magic formula. What it hopes to do, rather, is to walk you companionably around the question of what it is we're doing when we read and write, and how we can do it better and more confidently.'

This is neither a dry reference book about the 'right' way to write nor a hotchpotch collection of examples proving how the world is in peril due to lack of grammatical knowledge.

Amid many nods to popular culture, Leith takes us through a series of chapters focussed on 'The big picture', 'Nuts and bolts', 'Widgets', 'Sentence surgery: the writer as editor', 'Bells and whistles: bringing things to life', 'Perils and pitfalls' (complete with sections on double negatives and dangling modifiers) and, finally, 'Out into the world'.

In each chapter, Leith's main objective is to remind readers that we often know more about the 'correct way to write' than we give ourselves credit for and that language use needs to be intuitive and sensible.

From the outset, the book is conversational in tone and highly amusing. The first chapter sets the pace with a clever, comical description of the so-called language wars, where 'the Armies of Correctness mass behind fortifications made not of sandbags but second-hand copies of Fowler's Modern English Usage, Gwynne's Grammar and Strunk and White's Elements of Style … On the other side, equally well dug in, are the Descriptivist Irregulars: a fighting force in which hippy-dippy school teachers battle shoulder to shoulder with austere academic linguists. There are a lot of cardigans.' It's fair to say this reviewer was the recipient of a few strange glances at my daughter's swimming lesson where I openly guffawed whilst reading this section.

For the most part, the book flows nicely along; however, readers (particularly those with a good grasp of grammar) may get a little bogged down in the 'Nuts and bolts' and 'Widgets' sections. Their combined 90 pages are dedicated to detailed summaries and examples of the different parts of speech and the grammar and punctuation that organises them. The footnotes in these sections can also be a little distracting.

Leith spends time explaining the difference between using the 'right' grammar and using the sensible or commonsense choice, even if it may be slightly less 'correct'. He uses the 'positively murderous' debate about the 'ten items or less' lane in the supermarket – should it be less as an expression of quantity or fewer as an expression of number – as just one example of this.

Be the text a letter of complaint, blog post, job application or condolence letter, Leith argues that fear or apprehension sits at the root of most common 'bad writing' and that 'knowing the rules of standard English can help give you something that is vitally important to any writer: confidence'.

There are some very useful tips to be found in this book, and luckily the chapters do not need to be read sequentially for it to be a handy tool in your writing (or editing) kit.

Reader beware: this book contains the odd swear word or three!

Write to the point: how to be clear, correct and persuasive on the page by Sam Leith, Profile Books, 2017, RRP $29.99

Cecile Shanahan is a freelance editor, proofreader and copywriter. She is an English teacher, editor of The Vox Bendigo Book: Young Writers Anthology and part of the team who organises the Bendigo Writers Festival.
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