As a lifelong curmudgeon, I was intrigued to read Charles Murray’s new book The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life. It’s a fun little guide to help people in their teens and twenties get ahead in life. I have already had a pretty good run of it as far as life goes but figured it’s never too late to learn something.
What I learned as I flipped through the chapter “On Thinking and Writing Well” is that my writing style probably sucks and I have broken nearly every rule that Murray outlined. He has you get together a “toolkit” of resources such as The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition or William Zinnser’s On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction as resources. I have never used them.
He gives a short primer to readers with a list of “serious” errors that may lead someone to think you are “hopeless.” I’m pretty sure I have made every one of those errors. For example, I have used the word “disinterested” to mean uninterested. However, Murray admits that even the Washington Post and other major publications do this so maybe my error is not so bad. Murray does not agree: “If we lose the distinctive meaning of the word, we have measurably degraded our ability to express ourselves in English.” Yikes! I have also used which instead of that, put an apostrophe in its by mistake and have probably confused affect with effect.
I guess as a psychologist and semi-writer, I view “serious” errors differently. A serious error means that a person has a bad outcome or someone else does because you missed something. A serious error is not standing up for truth in gender relations or educating people that men are people too. Perhaps we all have our different views of what constitutes a “serious error.” However, I get Murray’s point. He wants writers to learn to convey their ideas clearly and to display proper English when doing so. But I must admit that I am not one of those sticklers who demand perfection when it comes to writing, especially on the web, though many would prefer this.