1Marion Roach Smith, a writing teacher whose classes have proved popular with students for more than 13 years, operates from the premise of “writing what you know.” In The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life (Grand Central; paperback, $12), she reminds readers (and would-be writers) in a nonthreatening way of some of the fundamentals of personal storytelling: pay attention to detail, tell the truth, and shift emphasis away from yourself in order to “touch on universal themes.” Good advice in memoir-writing and in life. But Smith doesn’t mince words with her criticism of writing exercises as “insulting tasks.” “We will write no exercises,” she says. “We will write for real.” Once her initial testiness wore off, I was completely won over by her charming stories, her sound suggestions to “write what scares you” and her reminder that “there’s no right word when there’s nothing on the page.” A bonus is Smith’s one-page “punch list” at the end, where she includes simple (but not simplistic) directives for memoir-writing.
2As social media and text-based ways of communicating create new reading and writing habits, Christopher Johnson makes a compelling case for rethinking the way we use language, in Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little (Norton, $21.95). A linguist and “verbal branding consultant” (likely not a title on anyone’s résumé even a few years ago), he offers a “field guide to everyday verbal ingenuity [in] the age of the Incredible Shrinking Message.” His goal is better communication at a time of information overload. His “modest manifesto” points readers in the direction of a style that makes “very short messages effective, interesting, and memorable.” Honed in advertising, microstyle is, in short, about “language at play.” Dismissing “old fogies like Strunk and White,” Johnson doesn’t like prescriptive guidelines; he encourages writers to think in terms of tools, not rules. Chock full of examples and well-written insights, “Microstyle” comes from a linguist who is interested in the art and the science of modern language.
3Columbia University professor John McWhorter looks at past and present languages and the ways we communicate now. In What Language Is (And What It Isn’t and What It Could Be) (Gotham, $26), he takes us on a world tour (maps included) of scores of languages, including Pashto in Pakistan and Afghanistan; Zulu and Kikuyu in Africa; Muna and Tukang Besi in Indonesia; and Saramaccan in Surinam and French Guiana. He uses the concept of “idiom” to explore languages by characterizing them as ingrown, disheveled, intricate, oral and mixed. Despite occasional breeziness, especially noticeable in fun footnotes, McWhorter’s book makes considerable demands on the lay reader. But its strengths lie in many of his informed opinions and conclusions, including his solid case for the legitimacy of Black English. He includes both history and linguistics lessons, asking pointed questions and offering strong examples of the complexities, impurities and messiness of language, touching on the problems associated with genders, for instance, of which English is blessedly free. (Among his most interesting examples of complications in English, he asks, “What part of speech is gone in She is gone? Call it an adjective — and explain why you can’t say a gone dog as you can say a brown dog.”) McWhorter also effectively focuses on the changeability of language, showing what happens when words wander and meanings morph. Languages are “living things,” he reminds us. Borrowing Charles Darwin’s closing words from “On the Origin of Species,” he concludes that “today we have ‘endless forms most beautiful and wonderful.’ ”
Small is a former contributing editor of Book World.