#279 – Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer

While I still dream about making big it as a writer someday, what I do first and foremost is edit other people’s books. But the more books I edit, the more I wonder if I’m doing my job right. Maybe the advice I give is just my own personal preferences that I’m imposing on others? Maybe I’m doing it wrong?

[Insert Classic Imposter Syndrome Feelings Here.]

However, reading Benjamin Dreyer’s book, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, surprised me for one key reason. It made me realize I’ve been on the right track all along. It also showed me where there’s room for improvement.

It also made me laugh out loud a number of times.

In case you’re wondering about his credentials, Benjamin Dreyer has been Random House’s chief copy editor for the last two decades, so chances are you’ve read something he’s had his fingers on.

Writing is a craft. Writing also has rules. But those rules are there to make sure what you are writing is properly understood by the reader, not to act as a straightjacket as to what you can and can’t put onto paper. I’ve come to learn that there is a degree of flexibility involved in creative writing.

Dreyer’s English reinforces this sense of balance. It explains what kind of horrors must be avoided as much as humanly possible and when editors need to hold back and just let writers do their thing, regardless of how they personally feel about it.

You don’t have to be an editor, a writer, or an aspiring writer to find this book entertaining, either. If you have read other amusing delves into the English language or about the writing process, such as Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves, or Stephen King’s On Writing, this book is definitely for you.

Anyone who enjoys reading will get something out of this, whether it’s a behind-the-scenes peek at how a manuscript becomes a novel or amusing anecdotes from his own personal history at Random House.

Hell, the joke involving two women at a fancy ball and ending a sentence with a preposition is worth the price of admission alone. Trust me.

Writing is not just something you do; it’s something you hone and perfect in your own unique way over time, folding the metal again and again to strengthen its blade. One of the more satisfying elements of working with authors over time has been seeing their game improve, especially if I feel like I might have had some hand in it.

Dreyer’s advice ranges from the fundamental to the esoteric to the subjective. This last part is a crucial part as to why a writer or editor might feel lost from time to time—because the work they do will never be agreed upon 100% of the time by 100% of the people.

Take the infamous Oxford Comma, for example. I personally agree with Dreyer’s view: “Only godless savages eschew the series comma [also known as Oxford or serial comma]… No sentence has ever been harmed by a series comma, and many a sentence has been improved by one.”

Well, that’s that then, right? Only it isn’t. You will find publishing houses whose house style disagrees, and writers who would rather chew their wrists off than allow one to sully their page. At the end of the day, an editor has to follow the house style and the author’s wishes. Fortunately, most writers don’t give a rat’s behind one way or the other.

And I don’t always agree with Dreyer’s views, either (such as the use of the singular they, which I actively encourage). But the points I disagree with are almost always a “your mileage may vary” situation, and so rather than feeling I’m getting something wrong, I feel like we just have a difference of opinion. I’ve seen reviews from other editors who feel the same way, only on different issues.

Oddly enough, this is not a book I found myself devouring in a single sitting. Instead, I found myself taking it one small section at a time and then moving on to something else until the next day. It feels like it was meant to be taken in bite-sized morsels, much like Dreyer’s blog.

At the same time, because of how this relates to my job, I started reading it again right from the beginning as soon as I finished it. I have a feeling I’ll do that again once I finish it the second time. For me, it’s like little constant reminders of what I’m doing right, and what I can do better.

1 comment on “#279 – Dreyer’s English by Benjamin DreyerAdd yours →

  1. I had the same reaction to “Dryer’s English”. His sardonic tone and amusing anecdotes are delightful and his editing philosophy and authoritative advice reassured me I was doing it right.

    But, may I recommend buying the audiobook version, as I did. Listening to Dreyer reading Dreyer is fabulous! His sarcastic dry wit comes across hugely amplified by hearing his actual tone and delivery rather than trying to imagine it from words on the page. It feels like he’s talking to you over lunch at the Savoy, and I would frankly kill to be in such company. The more extensive quotes are likewise exquisitely read by Alison Fraser, which no voice in your head could possibly match for nuance or haughtiness. I laughed out loud, but also winced for anyone on the receiving end of Dreyer’s disdain. Had our high school English texts had been anything like this, everyone would be better writers. Don’t worry, though, that Dryer will try to correct your English–he’s punching up at Grammar nazis and rule-bound snobs, not down at people who struggle with clear written expression. He recognizes that copy editing is an art as much as a science, that rules are guidelines, and that copy editing is about helping writers achieve greater clarity, not about imposing a particular social order on others’ words. I also highly recommend this book.

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