English, Politics, & Zombies

A review of "Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters" by Harold Evans.

*Do I Make Myself Clear?" is purports to be a reference on writing. The cover jacket proclaims "You will write better–and have fun–with the original approaches of an editor experienced in riddling prose of corrupting predators…", which implies that this book will make me a better writer with this book at my side. While "Do I Make Myself Clear" gives many writing notes to think about, the book's delivery could do with a less meandering delivery.

The book itself is sectioned into 3 parts, each divided into smaller chapters: Tools of the Trade, Finishing the Job, and Consequences. In the first section, Evans walks through a condensed version of AP Lang from HS and hits every high point: why bland writing formulas detract, sentence structure and its uses, and clarity of sentences. Make no mistake, the ground covered here is nothing new, but Evans does find humor in it, from naming verbs-turned-nouns "zombies" to describing the wilderness of sentence structure. Essays with concrete advice are spread throughout, offering well placed examples of what to do and what not to do. Better yet, the topics are relevant to our current events, with essays about Trump, healthcare, and popular culture making guest appearances.

The second section focuses on writing styles, in contrast from the first's focus on writing syntax. Evans shines here, giving humor to the worst sins a writer can commit, and the proper delivery based on writing styles. Evans exposes how specific words like "credit" used by journalists have power, and how each word brings forth something different in our minds. Evans commentates on FDR's declaration of war speech against Japan after Pearl Harbor, giving the least aloof commentary on that speech that I've ever read. This section is itself worth the price of admission.

The third section is a strange one, focusing on the consequences of writing, and where it has lead us. It is political commentary mixed with english professor, similar to that Modern Events Writing class you were forced to take in college as a gen ed. This section left me scratching my head a little, as it was mostly Evans judging poor writing as the cause of many problems, when in fact these problems were political in nature. An example is the commentary about the Affordable Care Act, where he laments the issues about the ACA, all the while stating that had the ACA been better communicated, many of its problems would disappear. Much like a programmer believing that technology can solve social issues, this sort of thinking is wrong. The ACA was burdened through a gaggle of issues, from campaign promises to government shutdowns, and writing is simply not a panacea for that.

"Do I Make Myself Clear" is not a reference per se, but it offers good, actionable advice all the same. Evans does choose to meander left and right before providing advice, which gave me the distinct feeling of reading a book written by a sphinx. The essays Evans reviews are enjoyable and offer many lessons, but there are only so many in the book. Evans finds humor in specific sections, yet manages to deadpan throughout others, harming the book's overall message. Don't get me wrong, "Do I Make Myself Clear" is a good book, but it is not "The Elements of Style" as a reference. The book's value lies in the commentary Evans gives, which are unfortunately too low in number.

Posted: 2017-08-05
Filed Under: books