Read “Grammar for a Full Life,” a worthwhile companion to “Writing Without Bullshit”

Lawrence Weinstein, cofounder of Harvard’s Writing Center and director of the writing center at Bentley University, wrote Grammar for a Full Life: How the Ways We Shape a Sentence Can Limit or Enlarge Us. This is a writing book that explores not just the best ways to write, but how those methods are connected to our emotional state as writers (and readers). Even though the methods and questions this book addresses have already been much discussed, I found Grammar for a Full Life to be revealing and insightful.

An emotional approach to writing choices

In his introduction, Weinstein asks whether “making some few tweaks to one’s persistent set of grammar practices might . . . alter one’s time spent on Earth in consequential ways.” He continues, “I could could not help wondering if certain grammatical moves might have real, transformational value to a speaker/writer who adoptions them with volition, wishing to be influenced by them.”

In my own approach to writing, I have always focused on writing as a tool to get a job done. My Iron Imperative is that “You must always treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.” My focus is exclusively on the effectiveness of writing for the reader. While I certainly believe that writing in a clear and organized way will help you to think in a clear and organized way, I never considered motivating writers to be more effective as a sort of therapeutic strategy.

Weinstein goes where I feared to go, and the results are quite revealing. By examining the emotional qualities of different writing techniques, he make connections that will not just help writers to understand why one method may be better than another, but what the emotional reasons are that motivated the choices those writers make.

As a result, this book is organized by emotional goals: writing and grammar to take life in hand, be humble, promote belonging, free one’s self, boost one’s morale, be mindful, and even to deal with the inevitability of death. This is a unique way to look at writing.

Some specifics and the emotions behind them

Thanks to this book, now I know why I like colons so much: They connote assertiveness and announce that truth is about to follow. Think of Martin Luther King: “I have a dream: . . . I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold this truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'” King knew that colons make people pay attention. Now I do, too.

My regular readers know how I abhor the passive voice, as it often hides who is acting or who is responsible for acting on something. As Weinstein explains:

I want to consider an enormous cost of passivity in grammar that isn’t much discussed: how, in representing the events of life as happening with no person at the helm, choosing to act, the passive voice robs us over time of our core sense of agency. When I read or hear such passive utterancess — or worse yet, generate such fatalistic language myself — it leaves me feeling powerless about the very situation being referenced in the words, since I get no picture of a member of my species doing something in relation to it.

Weinstein also explains something fundamental about writing that I’ve always known but never outwardly articulated for myself or others: the crucial role of “voice” in writing, which is what allows your writing to become a more natural and personal way to to connect yourself, the writer, with your reader as you write. Weinstein makes this clear by quoting Prof. Walker Gibson, who said “The trouble with the written word . . . is that comes to us with no kinesics — no voice box, no eyebrows.” Gibson continues, “The writer’s task is to so surround his words with other words on the page that his reader may infer the quality of the desired speaking voice.”

But how? I’ve suggested the simple method of writing “Look, stupid,” at the top of the page and continuing naturally from there. Weinstein’s prescription is this: “In order to bring out my own voice when I write, I try to imagine I’m writing a letter to my reader, even when it’s really a report or a book I’m writing.” Good advice. And now I know why it’s important — because voice is the most crucial topic about writing that I’ve never really addressed.

I’m allergic to the overuse of italics, exclamation points, and other dramatic methods to attempt to get readers to pay attention. But until I read Weinstein’s little book, I didn’t know essayist Lewis Thomas’s explanation of why they’re a problem: he feels as if he’s “being forced to watch someone else’s small child jumping up and down crazily in the center of the living room, shouting to attract attention.” And that’s a very poor way to make your point.

If you care about writing, read Grammar for a Full Life

For any serious writer, writing, thinking, and being are all aspects of the same lived experience. So learning to be a better writing means learning to be better at a fundamental human level. This is why Weinstein’s book is worth reading. I’ll let him have the last word:

In my view, no one still up to the task of uttering a brand-new sentence is not also capable of growing more whole daily. May that livening experience — and true gladness for the chance of it, as well — be my reader’s fate.

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  1. The cover of this book is profoundly unappealing; even off-putting. So many choices that make it feel like the contents would be boring, or antiquated, or pedantic. I’m grateful that you dove in anyway because your description makes it sound like a book I’d enjoy very much.

  2. Of all the books about writing that I’ve read, Grammar for a Full Life may be the most disappointing. I explain why in my Amazon review (February 9, 2022), titled “A philosophy book, not a writing book.”

  3. Personally, I find the cover of the book intriguing, but then, I’m a grammar nerd. What was off-putting was the lack of proofreading of the article. Bernoff, I assume, has rendered the first quotation of Weinstein almost incomprehensible and the second one barely better. That said, I’m glad I persisted because the book does sound fascinating and definitely novel. And what’s with the attached “related” articles about Harvey the Creep–I suspect AI grabbed those on the basis of the surname. But yikes! I guess Josh rushes these things out, but it strikes me as sloppy and unprofessional for a writer/editor.

    1. I’ve made the corrections; thanks for pointing them out. (I’m currently traveling without access to my usual resources, but the first quotation was in fact mangled — the second seems accurate.) The “related posts” are, indeed, automated.