Bryan A. Garner is an author, as well as an authority on writing, grammar usage, and style. He is editor in chief of the world’s most frequently cited lawbook, Black’s Law Dictionary, and has written many books on writing, including the best-selling reference work Garner’s Modern American Usage

A madman, a carpenter, an architect, and a judge walk into a bar…

Borrowed from poet Betty Sue Flowers, these characters feature in Section 1 of the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing, and serve as a guide for the writing process. Put simply, the Madman is the first step in the process: where you are gathering ideas and resources, and conducting research. Second comes the Architect, who organises the raw materials into a sensible outline. The Carpenter comes next: writing as quickly as possible, producing a rough draft. Finally, the Judge arrives to polish and improve the piece: this is editing.

Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

There’s a common refrain in this book: be clear. According to Garner, there is no room for muddy communication or loose phrasing if you want to enjoy the benefits of better communication. The book recommends avoiding ‘bizspeak’, and even acronyms. Garner believes that the goal should be to write so simply that what you’re saying can’t be misunderstood: ‘With every sentence, ask yourself if you can say it more briefly’. Wordiness is always bad—the goal is to be understood as easily as possible.

Gender trouble.

Gender-neutral language is nothing new, but Garner recommends avoiding the use of they/them/their pronouns in favour of using ‘his or her’. Garner voiced his thoughts on gendered pronouns in more depth in this article. (For the sake of brevity, we will not discuss this here, except to say that we do not condone transphobia of any kind.) Garner writes that the ‘safest course’ of action is to write in an ‘invisibly gender-neutral way’, and notes that using feminine pronouns to make a political statement may cause readers to ‘discount your credibility’ or get distracted. (Ironically, this comment itself is a distraction from the subject of the book).

References and further reading

Aside from this diversion, Garner’s book does contain a wealth of information that can be used in a reference capacity, with appendixes that cover grammar, punctuation, and guidelines for good use, as well as a list of desk references for the voracious reader.

If you’d like to read this book, you can check it out, along with the rest of the HBR Guide series.

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