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Recommended Reading

Posted on Friday, February 26, 2010 at 2:00 PM

Here are three books for sharing.

By Peter P. Jacobi

One -- Wisdoms That Are Strong and Instructive

The Art of Column Writing by Suzette Martinez Standring (Marion Street Press). Sandring is a working columnist, syndicated with GateHouse News Service.

Normally, I don't favor books that cover too much and, consequently, too little. Standring's 200-page paperback would be more useful had the author used the full stretch of the book to deal with the how of writing those columns, instead of also including issues of copyright and syndication, of blogging and the ethos of the field.

But her work gets my approval because the "how" pages are strong and instructive. They're well thought out and beefed by "insider secrets" from the likes of Art Buchwald and Pete Hamill. They address point of view and voice and the importance of telling the story. Standring includes a number of columns to help make her points. And along the way, just for instance, Robert Haught, Washington columnist for The Oklahoman, tells us that, in his work, he follows a "4-S" formula: make what you write short, simple, sound, and sing.

Leonard Pitts, the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for The Miami Herald, contributes a rousing lecture about responsibilities. "The world is complexities and it is conundrums, moral compromise and amoral contrivance," he says. "And the price of being allowed to use what my editor used to call the vertical personal pronoun, the price of having that little mug shot next to your name, is that you are expected to be able to provide context and perspective, to make it make sense. Or to comfort and amuse them as they struggle to make sense of it on their own."

The Art of Column Writing contains wisdoms.

Two -- A Practical Reference Book

The Craft of Research by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams (Third Edition, University of Chicago Press).

This is a classic in the field designed, as the authors say, to "guide you through the complexities of turning a topic or question into a research problem whose significance matches the effort that you put into solving it," and to make the results usable, readable "with the understanding and respect it deserves."

For readers of this newsletter, the content may go beyond normal needs, but every facet of research is explored. And advice critical to us all is doled out carefully, clearly, and completely.

The importance of consolidating your findings is emphasized. According to the authors, the search for information and the note taking should be followed by the process of more formally writing a report, thereby to remember, understand, and test your thinking.

And just as much as writers are required to know their audience, so, too, we're admonished, should researchers. The book suggests we pose questions: "Who will read my report? What do they expect me to do? Should I entertain them, provide new factual knowledge, help them understand something better, help them do something to solve a practical problem in the world? How much can I expect them to know already? How will readers respond to the solution/answer in my main claim?"

Practical hints abound: quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing appropriately; integrating direct quotations into the text; showing readers how evidence is relevant; thinking like a reader; revising.

The book deserves a spot on your reference shelf.

Three -- Language History Lesson

I Love It When You Talk Retro -- Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech by Ralph Keyes (St. Martin's Press).

Keyes is author of previous helpful volumes: The Quote Verifier, The Writer's Book of Hope, and The Courage to Write. Here, he questions how far we dare to go in using references that might do little more than puzzle younger readers, such as French or Latin phrases, such as descriptions like "Perry Como calmness," such as allusions ("Alphonse and Gaston," "drinking the Kool-Aid," and "Mrs. Robinson").

Drop the act, Keyes suggests. Those references don't communicate.

As Keyes argues, he also loads his intriguing book with language history. He tells us how expressions and popular culture references came to be, where they came from. So, if you're interested, as I happen to be, in discovering the origin, say, of top banana or talking turkey or limelight or not worth a tinker's damn, I Love It When You Talk Retro is a construct for you.

Red herring, to offer an example, comes from Elizabethan England, "where smoked herring, a pungent comestible of bright red color like that of smoked salmon today, was dragged along the ground by fugitives to throw pursuing dogs off the scent." Thus, red herring in usage today: defined as "something used to divert attention from the real issue or matter."

Again, it's the sort of book I like having around.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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