I helped a friend get a new bookshelf a few Saturdays ago. While he set it up, I sat on the floor of a his room looking at his books. When we got to John R. Trimble's Writing with Style, my friend told me it was the best book on writing he had ever read. I'd never heard of it before, but I borrowed it from him the same day.
Trimble writes in a preface to the book that he wanted it to be "short, fun and genuinely useful." He hits all three targets.
First, the book is very short. A day or two of dedicated reading could get you through this book. There's not much else to say on this point.
Second, let's talk about the usefulness of the book. Trimble values clarity, efficiency, and a strong voice as a writer, and his plan of attack reflects this fact. He works his way methodically through the writing process, from first thoughts to final touches, and the "first things first" approach fit his philosophy very well.
I went in with some of the mechanical knowledge that Writing with Style covers, but there are a number of matters he touches upon that I did not know much about or am prone to forgetting. He had a lot of nifty tidbits on quoting, word usage, and when to break (or not break) with convention.
Third, he mentions wanting the book to be fun. A big aim of Writing with Style is to push readers to develop their own voice, and he leads by example. Whether that's "fun" may vary with the reader, but it was engaging and entertaining for me.
Trimble often explains a point about a rule or convention using phrasing that illustrates the point. In defining the most common "dash," he says: "This is the most common dash—the very one—I just used right there."
In the chapter on “Superstitions,” or overly revered conventions, Trimble lambasts the religion of TOTELS (The One True English Language Sect) with a credo beginning “We believe in Rules, Authority, and The One True English Language.”
In the early chapter called "Getting Launched", Trimble relates the response he got as a young reporter when he worked the obituary beat and wanted some "decent story assignments for a change":
"Listen, young man," he [the editor] growled at me, "nothing you write for this paper will ever get read as carefully as what you're writing right now. The relatives of these folks will notice every single error . . . But they'll also be grateful if you do justice to their grandpa or mother or whoever it is. They'll put your prose in laminate, son" . . . I pledged myself to start writing obits that deserved that laminate. And I quickly found that the more I learned about these just-departed strangers--though extra phone calls, extra questions--the more I cared about them, and the more I wanted to honor them. I ended up actually liking to write obits.
Trimble encountered the departed in his research; we find him in his prose. This is no faceless corporate instructor. He is indeed a witty writer who keeps his promises. Writing with Style covered the basics without taking up days of reading time, and kept me entertained in the process. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to brush up on their writing, but does not want to be bored to death in the process.
Here is the Amazon link for the Third Edition.
All quotations made in this book come from the edition Copyright 2000, 1975 by Prentice-Hall, Inc. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey 07458.