Five books you should own if you want to be a better business writer (and not a Strunk & White or Eats, Shoots & Leaves among them)
Yeah, yeah, we all know S&W should be permanently attached to any writer’s desk. And that Lynn Truss is hilarious (if you’re one of the converted and enjoy being preached to by a sneery old schoolmarm). But here are five books you might not have thought of – but which I think you should have on your shelf if you want to be a better business writer.
1. BAD, or the Dumbing of America by Paul Fussell
Published in 1991, this snooty, caustic and hilarious dissection of everything that’s tacky, tasteless and just plain fake in modern culture seems to be out of print, but you should definitely get your mitts on a second-hand copy if you can. Fussell opens the book by defining what he means by BAD – and it’s not the same thing as bad at all:
What’s the difference between bad and BAD? Bad is something like dog-do on the sidewalk, or a failing grade, or a case of scarlet fever – something no one ever said was good. BAD is different. It is something phony, clumsy, witless, untalented, vacant, or boring that many Americans can be persuaded is genuine, graceful, bright, or fascinating . . . For a thing to be really BAD, it must exhibit elements of the pretentious, overwrought or the fraudulent.
Now doesn’t that last sentence sound like the very definition of so much business writing today? Of everything I rail against in this blog? Indeed, as Fussell notes, BADness of any kind is invariably accompanied by pretentious language. Naturally, he devotes a whole chapter on BAD language, which opens thus:
It’s necessary to understand at the outset that BAD language is not bad, like shit or motherfucker. It’s more like gaming for gambling, taupe for mouse gray, starters for appetizers, shower activity for rain, nonperforming loans for bad debts, and pre-existing (or resale) home for used house. That is, there must be in the language, as there is not in, say, fuck, an impulse to deceive, to shade the unpleasant or promote the ordinary to the desirable or the wonderful, to elevate the worthless by a hearty laying-on of the pretentious.
Based on the above, I’m tempted to rename this blog Good Copy, BAD Copy.
Incidentally, I'm not entirely convinced by Fussell’s argument that we Brits are less prone to BAD than his fellow Americans – in fact, I wonder if Fussell’s Anglophilia isn’t itself an example of BAD.
But, as Fussell says, spotting examples of BAD is one of the greatest pleasures of being alive today. So, please, won’t someone start a blog that collects new examples of BAD. We could start with BAD singers (Susan Boyle, Bono), BAD buildings (anything billed as a “luxury executive apartment”) and BAD blogs (I think my fellow blogger Katy Evans-Bush has already had a pop at them).
2. Who Moved My Blackberry by Lucy Kellaway
Who Moved My Blackberry grew out of Lucy Kellaway’s weekly column, which, sadly, no longer appears in the FT. It documents a year in the life of the fictional executive Martin Lukes, who is a cross between Bridget Jones and The Office’s David Brent (or Michael Scott if you’re American). Lukes isn’t just a desperate climber of the corporate ladder – he’s also a serial mangler of the English Language. Indeed, one of his proudest achievements is that he coined the term “Creovation™” (which, he says, combines the blue-sky thinking of creativity with the bolt-on practicality of innovation). Read it if you want to know how not to write at work.
3. Lost for Words: The Mangling and Manipulating of the English Language by John Humphrys UK readers will know John Humphrys as the presenter of Radio 4’s Today programme and nemesis of politicians with something to hide. Here, Humphrys applies his grumpy-old-man exasperation to the euphemisms and evasions trotted out by politicians, as well as the nasty neologisms and contorted syntax so rife in corporatese. So be sure to get hold of this witty look at the abuses of the English language, from someone who’s clearly passionate (and that’s not a word I use lightly) about how it’s used.
4. The Penguin Guide to Plain English by Harry Blamires Another book that I suspect may be out of print, but that’s definitely worth getting hold of. Theoretically, this is a reference book – but it’s a reference book in which the personality of the fabulously witty author very much comes across. Naturally, Blamires devotes a whole chapter to business English.
The following, in which he comments on a hilariously hyperbolic job advert that’s all about “leveraging technology” and being “the ultimate products champion”, gives a flavour of Blamires’ style:
What sort of people are they who talk like that? It is the same question that arises in our minds when we look at a mediaeval tapestry of knightly jousting or a picture of a gorgeous Elizabethan banquet. What on earth were these people really like behind all this fancery and flummery? And yet, in truth, there is something about this excess which one wants to call its ‘innocence’. There seems to be a childish delight in having a go, in discovering and verbally dressing up in grandma’s discarded finery that maturer heads have put away in the attic.
Can you see why I love him?
5. Troublesome Words by Bill Bryson You know him as the quirky travel writer – but did you also know that Mr Bryson cut his teeth as a sub-editor on The Times? Anyone who’s worked on a newspaper expects their subs to be pedantic, just a little supercilious, intolerant of extra wordage, and invariably right. Bryson lives up to that reputation. Read Troublesome Words if you’re yet to master the difference between infer and imply, uninterested and disinterested, specially and especially – and many other easily confused words.