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The Writer's FAQsTitle: The Writer's FAQs, 2nd edition
Author: Muriel Harris
Copyright: © 2004
Publisher: Prentice Hall, a division of Pearson
ISBN: 0-13-183125-9

Relevance: Aimed at English and journalism students, The Writer's FAQs is a handy, pocket guide that answers many questions about English usage, paragraph organization and grammar that plague new writers.

Review: Mark Twain was fond of saying the difference between the perfect word and its close cousin was the difference between lightening and a lightening bug. Similarly, as writers, correspondents and reporters, we all use words to convey precise meanings and shades of thought. It is with this background that we gleefully approach books such as The Writer’s FAQs, a book primarily aimed at English and Journalism students, as well as anyone else who seeks to write in a precise and grammatically correct manner.

This compact book (measuring approximately 4" wide x 8" tall) is spiral bound to permit the reader full access to its pages and to use in one hand if necessary. Although spiral binding is not a particular favorite of librarians or bookstores -- due to the fact the book cannot be spined at the shelf properly -- it is a boon to anyone who needs to quickly refer to this reference work.

The book is well organized and a small TOC is printed on the inside front cover. The book is divided into eight chapters including a brief overview on the writing process; sentence choices (including such points on clarity, conciseness, variety, types of voice, mixed constructions, active and passive verbs, parallelism, transitions, and non-sexist language).

Next up, is sentence grammar including examples of sentence fragments, comma splices and fused sentences, subject and verb agreement, correct pronoun use, adjectives, adverbs and other modifiers, and finally, shifts.

The book uses the word shifts to describe situations in which the perspective of one's writing changes throughout a given paragraph, chapter or book. An example would be a reporter starting off a story in the first person moving to the third person, and then back again to the first person.

The nitty gritty of punctuation is tackled next. Here we have specific examples of how to use commas (including those between independent clauses after introductory word groups, before and after non-essential elements, how to handle commas in a list or series, commas to interrupt words or phrases, commas with dates, addresses, geographical names and numbers, and other minutia).

Apostrophes, semi-colons, quotation marks, and other punctuation, such as hyphens, colons, dashes, slashes, parentheses, brackets and ellipses are all well illustrated.

A small chapter outlining the mechanics of a sentence follows. Our reviewers wondered why this chapter was not placed at the beginning rather than the middle of the book since it deals with the basics of sentence construction. Since this book, however, is really meant as a quick reference guide rather than a front-to-back read-through, we found that it doesn't particularly matter where each chapter was, as long as the relevant section could be quickly and easily found.

A chapter for multilingual speakers and those new to the American style of writing has also been included in this small but fact-packed book. Concepts such as conciseness, organization, and source citing are discussed. Although most reporters and correspondents will simply pass over this section, it is worth a quick breeze-through, if only to understand what challenges some writers face.

As we mentioned at the beginning of this review, The Writer’s FAQs is primarily aimed at students who are writing formal research papers, essays and other scholastic and other academic documents. It is, therefore, quite reasonable to find a long chapter (close to 35 pages in length) outlining the various intricacies of writing research papers including doing print and online research, evaluating print and Internet sources, judging the relevancy of sources, and the physical design of the final document discussed.

Most of the remaining part of the book -- close to 70 pages -- deals with the precise documentation requirements of particular styles of writing, such as MLA Style, MPA Style, and CSE (Council of Science Editors) and COS (Columbia Online Style).

Although complete books can be found on writing in the MLA Style or MPA Style, the main issues involved with each style are thoroughly discussed within each of the relevant chapters here. Although writing in the MLA Style or MPA Style is not particularly relevant for a reporter or other correspondent working on a story, it is, however, extremely relevant to students -- especially those studying journalism, English or other similar subject.

We enjoyed the book's Glossary of Usage which illustrates words and phrases with which many writers have difficulty or confusion. Each entry defines the confusing word and gives an example of how to use the word correctly. Word pairs such as accept/except, advice/advise, affect/effect, all ready/already, and dozens more are illustrated and differentiated.

The Writer’s FAQs is a friendly reference book that can easily fit in a briefcase or backpack. Although designed primarily for college and university students, and spends a fair amount of time describing particular academic style formats, it is very useful for any writer, reporter or correspondent. Although we may have learned many of the rules and usage examples during J-school, in the heat of the moment or while on deadline, these sometimes arcane rules can be forgotten. This book will help writers and reporters assemble correct sentences, paragraphs, and complete stories and make copy editors happy with their work.

Of course, every professional writer must adhere to his or her house style concerning particular referencing, punctuation and other grammatical regulations. These rules, however, are solidly based on much of the material contained in The Writer’s FAQs and thus the book would be a welcome addition to almost any professional in the information providing or news gathering industries. Recommended.

End of Review

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