I have read my share of style manuals, those often easy-breezy guides to being a better writer. Some are entertaining; others are simply hokey and riddled with ridiculous claims about the everydayness of the writing process. “Just write!” they bellow and then drone on for hundreds of pages with clichéd advice about how to “get out of your own way.” But John Trimble’s short manual Writing With Style is different, and the difference, one that is noticeable in the very first paragraph of his introduction, is in the tone. His main goal is “to take the mystery out of how skilled writers think,” (v) and he goes about his task with a friendly avuncular style that makes the book worthy of its subtitle, “conversations on the art of writing.” For indeed these are conversations, or at least the thirteen chapters feel like a friendly talk, as if Trimble were sitting with you while you read, leaning in to talk to you, a gentle smile on his face. This is, I think, exactly what the novice writer needs, a gentle mentor, someone stern enough to correct errors, yet empathetic and loving enough to recall when those errors were his own.
In the first Chapter, aptly titled “Thinking Well”, Trimble jumps right into his main point: learning to write like a professional writer means learning to think like a professional writer. This is the echo that will reverberate through the entire book and no time is wasted in exposing the flaws of the novice and the implications of his faulty thinking.
He thinks through an idea only until it is passably clear to him, since, for his purposes, it needn’t be any clearer; he dispenses with transitions because it’s enough that he knows how the ideas connect; he uses a private system–or no system–of punctuation; he doesn’t trouble to define his terms because he understands perfectly well what he means by them; he writes page after page without bothering to vary his sentence structure; he leaves off page numbers and footnotes; he paragraphs only when the mood strikes him; he ends abruptly when he decides he’s had enough he neglects to proofread the final job because the writing is over…Given his total self-orientation, it’s no wonder that he fails repeatedly as a writer. Actually, he’s not writing at all; he’s merely communing privately with himself–that is; he’s simply putting thoughts down on paper. (5)
This self-absorbed writer ignores a vital part of the writing process, the audience, who will be reading what the writer writes. For Trimble, the awareness of and respect for the audience is what professional writers have mastered and novice writers need to practice. And practice is exactly what the book prescribes; practice in awareness of the audience and of what works in one’s own reading. Over time the novice begins to understand that writing is not merely a love letter to the self, but an attempt to communicate something to another human being. Trimble states it best.
The big breakthrough for the novice writer, then, will occur at the moment he begins to comprehend the social implications of what he’s doing. Far from writing in a vacuum, he is conversing, in a very real sense, with another human being, just as I am conversing right now with you, even though that person–like you–may be hours, or days, or even years away in time. This breakthrough parallels an infants dawning realization that a world exists beyond himself (5).
The metaphor of an infant to describe the novice writer seems like a harsh one, but it communicates how serious Trimble takes his subject. He sees him as a lonely confused soul, cut off from the rest of the human race by his own self-absorption. It is in this first chapter that he exposes the beginner to his own shortcomings while simultaneously illustrating the rich rewards that wait for him in the world of the professional communicator.
After chapter one fills you with an eagerness to become a professional writer, you are plunged into the nuts and bolts sections of the book with a ‘how to get ideas’ second chapter entitled “Getting Launched.” In it, Trimble offers a collection of practical advice for generating ideas and moving from the blank page to a complete and interesting essay. Stockpiling data and freewriting are suggested, but he also revisits the first chapter’s theme by encouraging the writer to “imagine a good audience.” (21) By doing this, the writer can actively imagine what his audience expects from him and generate ideas accordingly, while simultaneously maintaining his audience awareness throughout the discovery process. Trimble asserts that this active imagining “frees you to you to be the kind of person, on paper, that you want and need to be if you are to write and think your best.” (22) Creating an imaginary audience and conversing with them in your writing makes the audience-focus almost automatic, freeing up more mental energy for the writing itself.
As the chapters progress, the practicality level rises, three chapters move through the opening, body and conclusion of an essay with an eye on formulating and supporting a thesis. Trimble uses the metaphor of a prosecuting attorney to illustrate how a good essay formulates an argument through claims and support--always with an eye to its jury, the audience. Chapter six covers diction with a special focus on passive verbs–stick to the active voice, Trimble advises, but the passive has its place. Chapter seven covers "readability" and warns against taking “the god-like pose” (67), attempting to sound authoritative to cover up a lack of knowledge. Again the audience is lurking about in all these chapters, waving slyly, demanding attention from the writer.
But in chapter eight, the audience takes a coffee break and the gentle mentor sits down to talk with the writer. Entitled “Superstitions” it’s Trimble’s humble attempt to undo some of the damage inflicted by stern, often illogical rules of grammar and composition. We all know these rules, what he calls the ‘Seven Nevers’:
1. Never begin a sentence with But or And.
2. Never use contractions.
3. Never refer to the reader as you.
4. Never use the first person pronoun I.
5. Never end a sentence with a preposition.
6. Never split infinitives.
7. Never write a paragraph containing only a single sentence (84).
Like a great liberator, Trimble goes through these composition prisons one by one, using logic and examples from great writers who have successfully utilized one of these ‘seven nevers’, to free us from the oppressive shackles of high school English.
In the last section of the book, the “Odds & Ends” section, the almost obligatory punctuation chapter makes its appearance along with a chapter on the mechanics of good quoting and an admittedly brief chapter on usage. Trimble offers suggestions for more pervasive usage guides before he winds down his book with my favorite section of all, the “Writer’s Talking Shop” chapter. This is a collection of quotes, from the good to the great authors, about the struggles and rewards, the heaven and the hell of the writing life. Any writer can draw inspiration and support from such a collection.
I enthusiastically recommend this book to novice writers who are trying to improve their work. The gentle tone and supportive, playful mood can help put even the most timid student at ease. In addition, Trimble’s prose is itself a fine example of professional writing. His prose is crisp and concise and often utilizes the very devices described. This rhetorical turn enhances the readability of the description and concretizes the lesson in the reader’s mind. Every sentence is a demonstration of his main point. Trimble is very good to his audience.