Book Review: “Word Up!” Is a Goldmine of Easy and Fun Writing Wisdom

Book Review Word UpTechWhirl will interview Marcia Riefer Johnston on our next Fast 5. Sign up and join us on April 30, 2013 at 12 pm (EDST) for a lively chat on language and the art of communication and her new book Word Up!. We’ll be sending autographed copies to two Fast 5 participants.

I was expecting to like Marcia Riefer Johnston’s book, Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them), But then I was also thinking, “Who needs yet another book on grammar? Is it worth buying and reading?” Turns out the answers are “me” and “yes!”   Let’s take a look at a few of the items that resonated with me in this review of Word Up!.

Memory Tricks and the Nuts-and-Bolts

The learning and memory tricks Marcia passes along would have been a welcome respite from the commanding Nazi Storm Troopers that I had as teachers. My elementary school teachers meant well, but they demanded rote memorization — and lots of it. Easy memory tricks, should any beleaguered pupil tentatively propose one, were immediately criticized as the crutches of weak minds. For some reason, the word “easy” was considered a four-letter word. Go figure.

I gravitate to the basic nuts-and-bolts stuff in Part One. I loved the chapter on the proper way of obfuscating your way to the top of the office. “Managers don’t have people problems, they have resource concerns.” Problems don’t exist, but issues do. And I think I’ve heard, “Let’s take that offline” in every single staff and department meeting I’ve ever attended.

Another chapter I enjoyed covers a topic that I always seem to be in need of a refresher. Marcia provides some great information on how to dealing with using he/him and me/I combinations. Like the example:

“Him/he and me/I went fishing this morning.”

I know the right way to say this, but I’ve heard it said incorrectly so often that I have to pause for a moment and think about it because the wrong way has been lodged into my brain. Johnston shares a trick about using the “and.” I love this trick. I put a sticky note on the page.

Johnston also discusses using the uncool, snooty “whom” as opposed to the All-American, democratic “who.” When is it safe to use “who?” This one keeps tripping me up, too. I want to be correct, but using “whom” makes me sound like a presumptuous butler, and that won’t get me anywhere fast. Never fear, Marcia comes to the rescue with a very simple trick that my brain loves. Yours will, too.

If you never read footnotes (and I admit I don’t), you will want to take a look at these just because they are the opposite of dull and boring. In one engaging footnote, Johnston takes the opportunity to expand on her use of the word “snoot” as well as her own love of footnotes.

In the chapter on hyphens, Johnston notes that hyphens seem to be disappearing. I agree, but I would like to propose a reason. I believe that most people simply don’t know HOW to use them. Therefore, rather than use one incorrectly, many people don’t use them at all.

Also, newspaper headlines rarely used them because of the need for brevity, concerns over space, and the costs of newsprint. In 2013, with our tendency toward “anything goes,” the hyphen has morphed into a tool wielded by only uptight grammarians. No one wants to be an “uptight grammarian.”

Another thing I hear all the time is the phrase “is where.” I know the classic sentence saying is, “Home is where the heart is,” and I’d best not mess with that. How about, “A retweet is where you forward a tweet.” Johnston recasts this misbegotten sentence using the noun as an anchor, writing, “A retweet is a Twitter message that….” Marcia says the noun is the first thing you want to define. “The second noun is the category that the thing belongs to, the type of thing the thing is.”

Going from Useless to Proper Procedures

Let’s proceed to the How-Tos. I love How-Tos. This is part of what I do every day in my day job as a technical writer. Marcia talks about how NOT to do a how-to by referencing her Kindle. It seems that while she loves her Amazon Kindle, she does not love the useless step-by-step information in the accompanying user guide. I use the word “useless” because the e-book didn’t support the very e-book function it described.  She was unable to perform the very functions as instructed by the guide. What the heck happened to usability testing here? Maybe Amazon has gotten too big to care.

Johnston also discusses the proper way to write procedures, and breaks each step down. We get by way of reference that most basic of procedures, a recipe. She supplies several recipe fragments to illustrate how we should:

  • “Eliminate Steps That Lack Action”
  • “Number Only Steps That Must Occur in Sequence”
  • “Put Numbered Steps in the Right Sequence”
  • “Create Subtasks (with Substeps)”

The needs to flag any optional, branching, or conditional steps are each given their own examples.  She wraps with “Rewriting Ambiguous Steps” and “Titling the Procedure.” Again, each one is given their own examples.  Examples help focus the mind and set memory.

I would have bought the book for this chapter alone. This stuff is golden. My mouth was watering as I read about procedures, and it wasn’t because of the recipes.

Okay, so I’m a procedure nerd.

One of the later chapters investigates the importance of re-vising. That’s right. “Re-vising.”  The Latin root means something like, “to look at again.” This describes the hours, minutes, and days we spend hammering on our words and sentences to make them better. The time we spend honing our own work not only saves our editors time, but also serves to help us get better at writing.

I am grateful to Johnston for her advice, “ Don’t worry about keeping all the rules in mind…it’s impossible.” Instead, she urges us to, “Keep writing. Keep learning.  Keep looking at the words before you. The more you look, the more you see.”

Conclusion

Marcia Riefer Johnston should be everyone’s Language Arts teacher. I wish I had this book when I was in grade school. It would have made learning our complex language so much easier, not to mention fun.  I’m very glad I have it now, however, because Johnston’s book is a lively and vibrant tool that I use often in my writing. I highly recommend buying and reading this nifty volume. Every time I wonder where my noun has disappeared to, or when I get stuck between a “who” and a “whom,” I reach for my new writing buddy, “Word Up!”

For more information on Word Up! You can go to Marcia’s website: howtowriteeverything.com

Join us for a Fast 5 Interview with Marcia Riefer Johnston on 2013 at 12 pm (EDT). We’ll be sending autographed copies to two Fast 5 participants, so you’ll want to be there.

Craig Cardimon

Craig Cardimon wears many hats and loves all of them -- technical communicator, content curator, and freelance copywriter. In his not-so-copious spare time, he reads, writes, runs on the local trail, and watches way too much "retro" TV.

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