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Book Review: Advice on Clear Writing and on Life

I picked up a 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, because of the promise of “clear writing.” The coupling of clear writing with living a good life made the book intriguing enough for me to buy.

The title is accurate. In the book, self-described curmudgeon Charles Murray, age 71, offers his thoughts on how to succeed personally and professionally for young people, generally in their 20s and early in their careers.

I liked most of Mr. Murray’s guidance, and I recommend the small, 144-page book, not just for his younger target audience. It is an easy evening read but one you can return to many times to review wise counsel from the book’s four chapters: “On the Presentation of Self in the Workplace,” “On Thinking and Writing Well,” “On the Formation of Who You Are,” and “On the Pursuit of Happiness.”

The 30-page chapter “On Thinking and Writing Well” offers advice on books that belong in a writer’s toolkit. It includes an excellent discussion of correct usage in a section titled “The Surely Injurious and Possibly Fatal Errors Plus a Few Niceties.” Some of the wordy injurious expressions Mr. Murray loves to hate are “center around,” “one of the only,” “general consensus,” “whether or not,” and “concerted effort” when used to describe one person’s work. He also bemoans the blurring of disinterested and uninterested, fortuitous and fortunate, and masterful and masterly. (Do you know how to use those words correctly? I’ll touch on them in a future blog post.)

I liked Mr. Murray’s gems of suggestions on how to get from knowing what you want to say, to expressing it well. His suggestions apply to business writing:

Talk to yourself. . . . The easiest way to identify clunkiness in your prose is to hear it, out loud or in your head.

Edit the piece in hard copy before sending out the final version. Don’t send out anything until you have printed it out and edited the paper version of your text with a pen or pencil.

Do a final check of your adjectives and adverbs and a global deletion of “very.” You will be surprised how often adjectives and adverbs have made your prose mushier instead of more expressive.

Let the final draft cool overnight. When I wait to look over the piece the next morning, I always find improvements, sometimes crucial improvements that I didn’t see when I first thought I was finished.

The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead retails in hardcover for US$17.95. I recommend it as a gift for a young college graduate—or as a satisfying treat to give yourself.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

3 comments on “Book Review: Advice on Clear Writing and on Life”

  • Interesting book and read Lynn. Based on a curmudgeon, all is proper. Yet in today’s fast paced business environment, with email and computers (not to mention mobile communication devices)- do we really have the time to edit and re-edit, or let cool overnight. All sound advice, albeit a bit unpractical in day-to-day writing?

  • Thanks for commenting, Cathy, Jean, and Bob.

    Bob, I appreciate your question about our fast communications and small devices. I believe Mr. Murray’s recommendations on writing apply to work that is important to us–not to quick emails to associates. He himself admitted to omitting apostrophes when texting friends, to save time.

    I would apply his suggestions to pieces such as proposals, reports, articles, professional blog posts, announcements, and other high-value communications. I know that on some evenings I publish a blog post that would have been stronger had I reviewed it again the next morning. Blog posts are evidence of my expertise, so applying Mr. Murray’s suggestions makes good sense. I am going to change my habits.


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