Effective Writing: Plain English at Work

E Manning Murphy with H Cadman, Lacuna, Australia, 2014, 2nd edn, 202pp, £20 (pbk), £10.18 (ebook)

Reviewed by Caroline Petherick

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This text has been written by a hugely knowledgeable and experienced author keen to disseminate her expertise. The book contains vast amounts of useful information, beautifully presented. More than half of it is dedicated to points of grammar, spelling, punctuation and sentence structure. That is then followed by a section on writing style (ie what we editors know as the author's voice, so this part is particularly valuable to us). The final section covers elements of design for different types of document – nothing technical, but good common sense, showing how clarity of thought can lead to clarity of layout and hence enhanced understanding by the reader. It's clear that the entire book has been constructed following its own simple design guidelines, an excellent self-advertisement. In this second edition, an index has been added, a vital feature in a book of this type.

Too good to be true? Well, nothing's perfect, and this book does, in my opinion, have some flaws.

The overall tenor of the text is uneven, and I find it hard to determine the anticipated readership. For example, on p17: 'As you spell a word, try to understand its meaning.' That is not an appropriate way to address a self-confident executive, nor indeed an editor who's reasonably competent, so I infer that the anticipated readership is young people or inexperienced writers. Consistent with that, on p8, I read the encouraging: 'There are not many terms to understand.' But that was followed by about 60 such terms, including 'dangling modifier', 'antecedent agreement', 'inflections for number, case etc.'. For a young or inexperienced writer, that plethora of terms being presented as 'not many' might prove discouraging.

So, is this a self-help manual, as indicated by the blurb? Parts of it, yes, definitely. But in other parts we dip into more esoteric areas such as the explication of the case of nouns (subjective, objective, possessive) on p32. That stems from Latin, and, noun cases now being practically invisible in English, this section will interest only the specialist. But such a person would, in my opinion, be unlikely to need a self-help manual, especially one apparently aimed at young writers.

So, how much use might it be for a member of the SfEP? My feeling is that a fair amount of it would be better for reference than for learning, mainly because of the techniques used to convey information. There are, for example, lists of words commonly confused with one another. But, for learning, what's needed instead is for the more commonly used word of the pair to be presented first, with plenty of practice given in its usage – and only when that's been firmly fixed in the learner's mind, to introduce its bothersome brother. Otherwise the confusion will almost certainly continue. For reference, however, those pairs of words are fine. I also found it hard to understand the grammatical rules, for example: 'Change Y to I if preceded by a consonant and followed by any ending except one that begins with I.//Keep the Y if preceded by a vowel' with examples in a column to the right: 'beauty/beautiful BUT hurry/hurrying//valley/ valleys'. I found this difficult to understand – and I'd learnt the rule when I was seven!

If this section had instead been presented as a series of examples and the readers given the clues needed to deduce the rule for themselves (with a key at the end of the section) their understanding would be swift and their learning would flow far more readily. Meanwhile, again, this form of presentation is handy for reference.

On the other hand, if you want to brush up on any points that you're uncertain about, there's a range of exercises that could help you do this very effectively.

Overall, despite feeling unsettled from time to time by what I perceived as the disparity between style and content, I found this book interesting and informative in many ways. Depending on your existing linguistic skills and experience, you may well find some new points in it that are useful to you in your profession.

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