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Book Review The Technical Writer's Handbook. By Matt Young

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These reservations and criticisms should in no way detract
from the value of this work. Organophosphorus chemists
should be thankful to Dr. Edmundson for his overall successful undertaking, which will make their own work easier.
Although the price of E 305 will almost certainly prevent
wide dissemination of this book, it should be purchased by
every chemistry library.
Reinhard Schmutzler [NB 1016 IE]
Institut fur Anorganische und Analytische Chemie
der Technischen Universitat Braunschweig (FRG)
The Technical Writer’s Handbook. By Matt Young. University Science Books, Mill Valley, CA, 1989. xi, 232 pp.,
hardcover, $22.50.-ISBN 0-935702-60-1
Some style handbooks and usage dictionaries defeat their
very purpose. They confront the well-intentioned writer with
a jungle of dos, don’ts, and maybes and they beget rules
having more to do with logic than with language. Like the
much maligned schoolmarm who drilled students in a latinized English, they often discourage good writing by taking
the fun out of writing. The Technical Writer’s Handbook
sidesteps these pitfalls. In the preface, Matt Young writes, “I
ask for precision in writing, but I try to be flexible and have
a healthy regard for usage.” His highly readable book bears
him out.
Despite its title, this book is primarily a usage dictionary,
or, as Part I1 is titled, An ABC of Technical Writing. In Part I,
only fourteen pages long, Young discusses three rules. To
scientists who enjoy talking about their work but who, when
forced to write, chew on their pencils or grow bleary-eyed
staring at a computer display screen, he advises, “Write the
way you talk; then polish.” To scientists who find their
sentences cluttered with commas, hyphens, and conjunctions, he suggests, “Write one thought per sentence.” Following his own advice, he adds a corollary to the second rule:
“Be explicit.” To all scientists wanting to reach a wide audience, he recommends, “Write for the uninformed reader.”
These commonsense rules do not guarantee good scientific
and technical writing, but they point the way. “Writing with
Style and Clarity”-the subtitle of this book-requires pleasure in writing, a good feel for language, and, not least, the
desire to be understood.
Part 11, best read once through, contains an alphabetically
organized discussion of word usage, grammar, and style.
False elegance, for example, treats word choice and, in particular, elegant variation, the unjustified fear of repeating a
word within a sentence or paragraph. “Comma-kazes”those disposed to putting commas in the wrong places-will
find help under comma. Other entries discuss such topics as
parallel sentence structures (principle of’ parallelism, list),
dangling participles and other wrongly placed modifiers
(dangling modifier, misplaced modifier), problems with
number (singular or plural), and the correct choice of verb
tense (tense).The entries are short and to the point. Young’s
conversational tone and effective use of humor spice the text.
A black hole, for example, is defined as a noun that has
collapsed under the weight of too many modifiers.
An ABC of’ Technical Writing is more than a mere usage
dictionary, however. Gettingstarted,organization, manuscript
preparation, and style manual, not to mention procrastination, are just a few of the entries addressing the scientific
paper itself. Under private communication, Young expresses
the opinion that scientists with too many such connections
should include complete mailing addresses as well. Duplicate
A n p w . Chem. Inf. Ed. Engl. 28 (1989) No. 12
publications condemns this practice and suggests, overoptimistically, that authors explicitly state that two papers are
essentially the same. “Avoid implicit attacks on the writers
rather than the manuscript” is one piece of advice in refereeing. The entry Shakespeare argues against using his work as
a model for technical writing: “The language changes every
day, and I look to modern writers for instruction on modern
The Technical Writer’s Handbook, like most language
handbooks, contains much opinion and some questionable
advice. For instance, Young’s efforts at spelling reform (he
considers “analogue” obsolete) may or may not yield fruit.
If Noah Webster had had his way, we would have “chimists”
instead of chemists. Biologists might disagree with Young’s
admonition against writing “wild-type bacterium” (see type,
-type), which he thinks could refer to either a “modified wild
bacterium” or a wild strain. “Wild type” is a well-defined
term meaning the typical (nonmutant) form of an organism
encountered in nature. Here Young’s training in physics
makes him less of a pragmatist and more of a purist (see
permissivist, prescriptivist). Moreover, his background also
causes him to overlook some examples of relevance to, say,
chemists. Under vague words, vogue words, for instance, he
might have included the adjectives novel, elegant, and
exquisite; so many compounds are novel, so many syntheses
elegant, and so many processes exquisite these days that such
words have become almost meaningless.
Unfortunately, the bibliography is inadequate. Comprehensive usage dictionaries, such as Henry Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Wilson Follet’s Modern
American Usage, or A Dictionary of Contemporary American
Usage by Bergen and Cornelia Evans, are not mentioned.
These sources contain more detailed discussions of many of
the entries. The book contains few typographical errors,
though Young should follow his own advice on spelling
names correctly (see names) and change the name of the
corecipient of the 1987 Nobel Prize in physics from Muller to
Miiller (or, arguably, Mueller) on page 151.
Correct use of language is just one element of style. It is
common knowledge that the writing of some of the best
stylists violates much conventional word usage, many of the
rules of grammar, and all prescribed literary forms. The
scientific writer would do well, however, to recall a word of
advice from The Elements of’ Style by William Strunk, Jr.,
and E. B. White: “No idiom is taboo, no accent forbidden;
there is simply a better chance of doing well if the writer
holds a steady course, enters the stream of English quietly,
and does not thrash about.” Like that classic, The Technical
Writer’s Handbook will help make writing that next paper or
report a little easier and certainly more enjoyable. Indeed,
pleasure in writing may be the most important element in
writing with style and clarity. And remember: “If you have
nothing more to say, just stop” (see conclusions).
David I. Loewus [NB 1030 IE]
Angewandte Chemie, Weinheim (FRG)
Immobilization of Cells. (Series: Biotechnology Monographs, Vol. 5). By C. R. Phillips and I: C. Poon. Springer,
Berlin 1988, viii, 167 pp., hardcover, DM 168.00.ISBN 3-540-18637-9
The “Biotechnology Monographs”, dealing in turn with
various specific areas of biotechnology, have, within a very
short period of time, developed into a series that is greatly
valued by others besides biotechnologists.
0 VCH VerlagsgeseilschafrmbH. 0-6940 Weinheim, 1989
0570-0833js9jl212-1717 $02.5010
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