One-Minute Book Reviews

September 6, 2009

5 Ways Not to Begin a Blog Post — ‘Loser Leads’ Nobody Needs

Filed under: How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:16 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Nobody dumps Gatorade on the writing coaches at newspapers who try to help reporters turn out sparkling prose as the apocalypse looms. But Jack Hart, a former managing editor at the Oregonian, seems to have deserved that treatment.

Hart drew on decades of working with reporters for his exemplary A Writer’s Coach: The Complete Guide to Writing Strategies That Work (Anchor, 304 pp., $13.95, paper), a book that seeks to demystify a dozen aspects of good writing — clarity, brevity, voice, color, structure, rhythm and more. And some of his advice would have no less value for bloggers, novelists and corporate memo-writers.

Take Hart’s section on “loser leads,” soporific first sentences that risk turning an entire story into a cliché. Dick Thein, a copyediting expert, compiled list of offenders, or emaciated beginnings that won’t help a post or short story or any more than a newspaper article.

Hart quotes some of them:

The ‘good news, bad news’ lead:
“The good news is that online classes have begun. The bad news is that most students don’t have computers.

The ‘that’s what’ lead:
“Some leads are easier to write than others. That’s what 15 reporters participating in an online seminar said Monday.

The ‘thanks-to’ lead:
“Thanks to Bug Pagel, the supermarket chain considers customer convenience first and sales second.

The one-word lead (variation of ‘that’s what’):
“Cynical.
“That’s what most people think journalists are.

“The ‘I fooled you’ lead:
“Sex, drugs, and booze. That’s not what you’ll find in newsrooms today, said Kent Clark, managing editor of the Metropolis Daily Planet.

A Writer’s Coach has ten pages on loser and other leads, and the rest of the book is similarly direct and useful. An excerpt from the introduction appears on the Anchor Books site.

What lead would you like to see journalists and bloggers lose?

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda and www.janiceharayda.com

August 18, 2009

‘Typos Are Worse Than Fascism!’ — Quote of the Day / I. F. Stone

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:11 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

A lot of publishers seem to be trying to save money these days by skimping on copyediting and issuing more books with felonious typos. What’s wrong with that? I love this comment by one of the great muckraking journalists of the 20th century, which reflects the sentiments of many of us who have worked for daily newspapers:

“Typos are worse than Fascism!”
— I. F. Stone, as quoted by his daughter, Celia Gilbert, at his funeral in 1989

August 14, 2009

The Benefits of Reviewing Even When the Pay Is Terrible, the Books Are Bad, and the Authors Are Only Going to Hate You, Anyway – Quote of the Day / Rebecca West

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:52 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

You could earn more per hour as a migrant grape-picker than you can by reviewing for many newspapers, and the odds are that an editor will ask you to write about a bad book and that the author will hate you afterward. So why volunteer for the work?

One of the best answers I’ve heard came from the novelist and critic Rebecca West in a Paris Review interview, collected in Writers at Work: Sixth Series (Viking, 1984) and in Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (Modern Library, 1998). Marina Warner asked West if she enjoyed reviewing for the Sunday Telegraph, then as now a leading national newspaper in Britain. West replied:

“Yes, I do. I do. I would feel awfully cut off if I didn’t review; I think it’s such a good discipline. It makes you really open your mind to a book. Probably you wouldn’t, if you just read it.”

Many critics like the serendipity or reviewing, or getting assigned books they wouldn’t otherwise have picked up, and I do, too. But I also like having to focus on books in a way that I don’t usually do when I’m reading for pleasure. You have to look harder at books when you’re reviewing them – you can never skim, ever — and when you do, you see more.

www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

August 4, 2009

Burned by a Beach Book? Nominate It for a Delete Key Award for Bad Writing

Filed under: Delete Key Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:11 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Burned by beach book? If you’d like to keep others from getting scorched, you can nominate the book for a Delete Key Award for bad writing by sending an e-mail message to the address on the “Contact” page. Please put “Delete Key” in the heading.

July 30, 2009

More Authors Who Blurb Each Other’s Books – Tomorrow in ‘Backscratching in Our Time’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:21 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

“Backscratching in Our Time” keeps alive the spirit of “Logrolling in Our Time” in the old Spy magazine, which called attention to authors who blurbed each other’s books. If you know of writers who should be included, you can nominate them by using the e-mail address on the “Contact” page. Another example of logrolling will appear tomorrow, and earlier posts are saved in the “Backscratching in Our Time” category on this site.

July 22, 2009

Mitch Albom Writes at a 3rd Grade Reading Level, Stephen King at an 8th — The Reading Levels of Your Favorite Authors

[This post first appeared in November 2006 and ranks among the 10 most popular posts of all time on the site. I am on a short semi-vacation.]

For One More Day: A Novel. By Mitch Albom. Hyperion, 197 pp., $21.95.

By Janice Harayda

It’s official: Mitch Albom writes at a third-grade reading level, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word 2004.

I know this because For One More Day struck me as so dumbed-down – even for Albom – that it fell below the level of the sixth-grade books I once edited for a test-prep company. So I typed a couple of paragraphs from the novel into my computer and ran the Word spelling and grammar checker, which gives you the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Statistics at the bottom. Albom, it showed, writes at the level of Grade 2.8. This was startling enough that I wondered if the paragraphs I had used, from page 24, were atypical. So I typed in the full text of pages 24 and 25 and found that they were atypical. Albom actually writes at a third-grade level, Grade 3.4, according to Flesch-Kincaid.

I used pages 24 and 25 because the first pages of a book sometimes don’t represent the whole of it: Authors may be clearing their throats or writing in a different tone than they will use after they have found their rhythm. So it’s often fairest to look not just at the first chapter but also at something that comes later. A chapter typically has about 20 pages, so I used the first full section of Albom’s book that follows page 20, a total of 305 words.

All of this raised a question: Does a novel written at a third-grade level deserve the same sort of review as books by authors who write at higher levels? Especially if the book appears to be a naked attempt to combine the theme of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life with the kind of framing device Robert James Waller used in The Bridges of Madison County (which tries to lull you into believing that a novel tells a true story)? Maybe not. So here instead are the grade levels I got for a half dozen other authors when I checked the readability statistics for 305 words of their prose:

Nora Ephron I Feel Bad About My Neck Grade 12.0
Alex Kuczynski Beauty Junkies Grade 10.3, an exposé by a New York Times reporter
James Boswell The Life of Samuel Johnson Grade 8.6
Stephen King Liseys Story Grade 8.3
Danielle Steel Toxic Bachelors Grade 4.8
Emily Arnold McCully An Outlaw Thanksgiving, a picture book for 4-to-8 year olds by a Caldecott Medalist Grade 4.3
Mitch Albom For One More Day Grade 3.4

I also ran the statistics for the Lord’s Prayer, using the punctuation in a 20th century edition of The Book of Common Prayer. And it turns out that Jesus, too, “wrote” at a third-grade level, Grade 3.8, according to Microsoft Word (although he spoke the prayer). So there you have it. Mitch Albom, writing at the Grade 3.4 level, doesn’t quite come up to the level of Jesus at Grade 3.8. But who would know it from all the attention he is getting?

Best Line: A quote from Louis Armstrong: “If ya ain’t got it in ya, ya can’t blow it out.”

Worst line: Many. Samples: “He chuckled.” “My mother chuckled.”

Editors: Leslie Wells and Will Schwalbe

Furthermore: This review has a reading level of Grade 9.5, excluding the supplemental information at the end, according to the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Statistics on Microsoft Word 2004.

Published: September 2006. Albom also wrote Tuesdays With Morrie (Anchor, 2005).

How to find the reading level of a book: Go to the Microsoft Word pull-down “Help” menu. Search for “readability statistics.” Select “display readability statistics.” This will walk you through the process of finding the grade level for any text you enter, including your own writing.

Grade levels and their corresponding ages in American schools: In the U.S, children typically begin grades at these ages: kindergarten, 5; first grade, 6; second grade, 7; third grade, 8, fourth grade, 9; fifth grade, 10; sixth grade, 11; seventh grade, 12; eighth grade, 13; ninth grade, 14; tenth grade, 15; 11th grade, 16; 12th grade, 17.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 17, 2009

Should Writers Be Loyal to Their Publishers? Is ‘Loyalty’ a Virtue? (Quote of the Day / Diana Athill)

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:30 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Scott Turow recently jilted Farrar, Straus & Giroux, his longtime publisher, for Grand Central Publishing, for the sequel to Presumed Innocent due out in 2010. Turow is one of many authors who have cut editorial ties in a grim economy, and some people say writers are becoming “less loyal” to their publishers. Is that a bad thing? Is loyalty a virtue?

Diana Athill, the English writer and former editor for the firm of André Deutsch, says in her elegant new memoir, Somewhere Towards the End:

“Loyalty is not a favorite virtue of mine, perhaps because André Deutsch used so often to abuse the word, angrily accusing any writer who wanted to leave our list of ‘disloyalty.’ There is, of course, no reason why a writer should be loyal to a firm which has supposed that it will be able to make money by publishing his work. Gratitude and affection can certainly develop when a firm makes a good job of it, but no bond of loyalty is established. In cases where such a bond exists – loyalty to family, for example, or to a political party – it can be foolishness if betrayed by its objects. If your brother turns out to be a murderer or your party changes its policies, standing by him or it through thick or thin seems to me mindless. Loyalty unearned is simply the husk of a notion developed to benefit the bosses in a feudal system.”

July 14, 2009

No Plaudits for the Word ‘Plaudit’ in Newspapers

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:21 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Why do newspapers allow reporters to use the stilted word “plaudits” when “praise” would do? Two writers for the New York Times tell us today that the departing presidential adviser Steven Rattner “has won plaudits” for directing the restructuring of Chrysler and General Motors.

Who speaks like that? Has your boss ever said, “Plaudits for that Power Point presentation!” Or “A big plaudit for not dozing off during the CEO’s speech!” (It seems you can’t “win” just one “plaudit” but always get more than one if you’ve earned any.) Has a date or spouse told you, “Honey, plaudits for the best sex I ever had!” Some people might say that “plaudit” has value as a substitute for “praise” if that word has appeared repeatedly. But that argument endorses the sin of  “elegant variation” or the needless use of fancy synonyms when plain words would be clearer. And the Times reporters rolled out “plaudits” before giving “praise” a chance.

This kind of stuffy writing is sometimes called “newspaperese” but also infects books. If you’ve found an example, why not nominate it for one of the Delete Key Awards for bad writing in books that this site awards every March 15?

I’m on a semi-vacation for a couple of weeks and posting lightly or on offbeat topics such such as plaudit abuse that I normally deal with only in the context of book reviews.

July 8, 2009

The ‘Terrible Garrulousness’ of American Writing — Quote of the Day / Gore Vidal

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:34 am
Tags: , , , ,

American critics often complain that books are “too long” and “could have been cut” by a third or more. Why are so many books so bloated? Here’s answer from Gore Vidal, one of the great literary critics of our age:

“There is a terrible garrulousness in most American writing, a legacy no doubt of the Old Frontier. But where the inspired tall talesman of simpler days went on and on, never quite certain and never much caring what the next load of breath might contain, at his best he imparted with a new demotic flair the sense of life living. Unfortunately, since these first originals the main line of the American novel has reverted to incontinent heirs, to the gabblers, the maunderers, putters-in of everything. …

“For every Scott Fitzgerald concerned with the precise word and the selection of relevant incident, there are a hundred American writers, many well regarded, who appear to believe that one word is just as good as another, and that anything that pops into the head is worth putting down. It is an attitude unique to us and deriving, I would suspect, from a corrupted idea of democracy: if everyone and everything is of equal value, then any word is as good as any other to express a meaning. Or to put it another way, if everyone is equally valuable, then anything the writer (who is valuable) writes must be valuable, so why attempt another selection?”

Gore Vidal in Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays 1952-1972 (Random House, 1972).

July 7, 2009

What’s So Great About ‘Empathy’?

Filed under: Current Events — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:25 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

“Empathy” has become the Portuguese water dog of the English language, something everybody seems to want – at least in somebody else. President Obama said that he wanted a Supreme Court justice who had it, and a lot of people have rushed to agree: In the New York Times, you see the word “empathy” almost as often as “transparency.”

But is “empathy” really better than detachment, or the ability to stand back and analyze a situation objectively? Mark Steyn argued that it isn’t in a recent issue of Maccleans, the Canadian weekly. Steyn is more conservative than I am on many issues, including some that he discusses in “What Price Our Pseudo-Empathy?,” but he writes with verve and intelligence about a form of language abuse that occurs at many points on the political spectrum and in novels as well as political speeches.

« Previous PageNext Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 378 other followers

%d bloggers like this: