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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

Here are three perfect gifts for June graduates

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

 

 

With high school graduations coming up next week, this seems like a good time to think about the upcoming generation of business writers.

Are your children adequately prepared to succeed in their college courses and to take their place as tomorrow’s leaders of industry and commerce? Will the thinking and writing skills they have acquired in elementary school and high school provide them with the foundation they need to succeed?

Personally, I’m not taking any chances with my teenage children. When Eddy and Kate graduate in 1997 and 1999, I’m going to send them on their way with three somewhat unusual graduation gifts: William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style (MacMillan, $9.95), Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference (Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, $27.00), and Charles T. Brusaw’s The Business Writer’s Handbook (St. Martin’s Press, $38.95).

Here’s why I think these three books are invaluable to every graduating senior.

Strunk and White’s classic little handbook (90 pages) is standard reading for anyone who is serious about developing a clear and graceful writing style. Its five sections – Elementary Rules of Usage, Elementary Principles of Composition, A Few Matters of Form, Words and Expressions Commonly Misused, and An Approach to Style – offer advice that is not only practical but witty.

The book may seem dated in places (particularly the authors’ defense of "he" as an inclusive pronoun), but few writers are capable of presenting rules so simply ("Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs") or entertainingly ("The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place").

Since so many of today’s style books are modeled (sometimes point for point) after Strunk and White, why not read the original? (And, yes, E. B. White is the same person who wrote one of America’s great children’s stories, Charlotte’s Web.)

Although not as much fun to read as The Elements of Style, Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference is more convenient to use. "Carefully designed to save you time," this 350-page manual is marked with 12 section dividers for quick and easy reference.

Its contents include sections on composing and revising, document design, effective sentences, word choice, trouble spots with English as a second language, punctuation, research writing, and styles of documentation. It provides just about everything college students need to know to plan, compose, edit, and document their essays and research papers. For serious students, accompanying exercise booklets can be ordered. (What better way for college-bound students to spend their summers than doing writing exercises?)

The third book on my list is Brusaw’s The Business Writer’s Handbook . A one-volume encyclopedia for business writers, it is organized alphabetically for easy reference. Many of its entries are brief ("definite/definitive Definite and definitive both apply to what is 'precisely defined,' but definitive more often refers to what is complete and authoritative"). Others (such as the entries on feasibility reports and proofreading) are several pages.

Especially valuable to graduates who are applying for jobs and beginning their careers without every having written a memo or organized a report, this book bridges the gap between good writing principles and practical business applications.

The total cost for these graduation gifts: $75.90 (or much less for used copies), plus tax. Not so much, really, when you think of them as a lifetime investment.

After all, how much have you invested in getting your children to where they are today? More important, how much do you value their future?

 

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