Writers Can Learn Something From "The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead"
The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life By Charles Murray Crown Business, 144 pages
If you’re looking for advice on writing, this is a strange but captivating little book. It contains valuable tips on how to write well (which I’ll discuss later), but it also includes advice on marriage, religion, career, art, travel, joining the military, personal appearance, and good manners.
It’s a collection of pointers aimed at young people from an author who has given much of the same advice to his own children. The author, Charles Murray, is best known for his thick tomes on sociology and political science (tomes that are full of statistics and graphs). The Curmudgeon’s Guide is a brief and easy read—with nary a graph or equation in sight. Every piece of advice he offers, from writing to philosophy and ethics to personal behavior, is informed by decades of serious thinking. Murray is the rare intellect who is also down-to-earth, and this combination shows both in the clarity of his prose and in the profundity of his thought.
If you’ve read some of his other books, you will see in The Curmudgeon’s Guide the distillation of key findings from them. For example, he talks about the ability of humans to make meaningful discriminations in art and aesthetics (a major point of Human Accomplishment). He reviews the key components of a life-well-lived, including the importance of religion (also from Human Accomplishment, and an interesting argument given the fact that Murray is an agnostic). He advocates the centrality of family, marriage, community, and vocation—and his conclusions are not surprising to those who’ve read Losing Ground (an analysis of the effects of the welfare state on the family unit) and Coming Apart (an alarming discussion of the increasingly bifurcated class structure in the United States).
The Curmudgeon’s Guide starts with Murray’s recollection of how the book got started. American Enterprise Institute, the think-tank where he works, created an in-house online resource that AEI interns and staff could consult for tips on English grammar and usage. Murray’s advice about writing soon expanded into tips about life in general. He realized that young people across the country—not just the interns at AEI—could benefit from his insights.
So how do you get teens and twenty-somethings to pay attention to a self-described crotchety, middle-aged, opinionated guy? Answer: By being up-front about what it means to be a curmudgeon, and by telling young people why they should care about what curmudgeons think (p. 15-16):
The first thing you need to understand is that most large organizations in the private sector are run by curmudgeons like me. . . . Technically, a curmudgeon is an ill-tempered old man. I use the term more broadly to describe highly successful people of both genders who are inwardly grumpy about many aspects of contemporary culture, make quick and pitiless judgments about your behavior in the workplace, and don’t hesitate to act on those judgments in deciding who gets promoted and who gets fired.
The key is “inwardly grumpy.” As Murray explains, a curmudgeon may come across as hip, young-at-heart and affable, while secretly cementing (and perhaps even acting upon) the “quick and pitiless judgments” he’s forming about you. Is it fair? No. But you’d better get used to it, because it’s reality.
The Curmudgeon’s Guide is divided into three major sections. The first section deals with how to present yourself so that you don’t make a negative impression on your curmudgeonly boss. I especially liked his advice on how to use strong language--I’ve made some of the same points in my own advice to writers . Murray recounts an anecdote of a business owner who refused to hire an applicant when the young man dropped the F-bomb twice during the job interview. Murray is not against profanity per se, he just offers reasonable guidelines on when and where to use strong language.
Skipping ahead to the third section (I'll talk about the second section below), you'll find the most philosophical, big-picture part of the book. That’s where Murray gives advice “On the Formation of Who You Are” and “On the Pursuit of Happiness.” His points (in my curmudgeonly opinion) should be required reading not just for young people, but for older folks as well. That section alone qualifies the book as a good gift for someone graduating high school or college or entering the work force for the first time.
The second part of the book, “On Thinking and Writing Well,” is probably one of the most concise summaries of the writing process you’ll find anywhere. It contains valuable advice for both the experienced and inexperienced writer. Murray is himself a clear writer; although, as he points out, it’s not that he is a good writer, he is a good re-writer.
Murray recommends basic reference books that are essential if you are going to create decent prose: a dictionary, thesaurus, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, and a small selection of websites and grammar books that describe common errors every writer should avoid. The Chicago Manual of Style is his style reference of choice. I’ve found that what stylebook you should use depends on the audience you’re writing for. If your audience is primarily academic, then The Chicago Manual makes sense. But if you’re writing for magazines and newspapers (whether online or in print), the Associated Press Stylebook is probably a better choice because it’s the standard reference in that industry.
On p. 58 of The Curmudgeon’s Guide, Murray presents a brief primer on using certain words and phrases that must be used properly so that a curmudgeon won’t “pigeonhole you as hopeless.”
These are familiar words that are commonly interchanged or misused, and you’ll be downgraded for not knowing the difference. Examples include: disinterested/uninterested, literally/figuratively, which/that, can/may, it’s/its, continual/continuous.
On p. 67, there is another list of words that, while not as critical as the first list, are easily confused and should have any writer reaching for the dictionary when he is tempted to use them. Here are a few examples: ceremonial/ceremonious, biweekly/semiweekly, axiom/premise, rob/steal. Confession: These are words I need to look up because they have precise meanings that I can’t always remember.
And then there are the homophones that spellcheck won’t catch, but that a good writer should get straight: gaff/gaffe, gibe/jibe, demur/demure, discreet/discrete, etc. In short, the word lists on pp. 58-70 are a good resource for sharpening your vocabulary and avoiding all-too-common errors that will blemish your prose.
The most interesting part is Murray’s discussion of the writing process itself. Those of you who write regularly will be familiar with the process. But if you’re not as experienced, or you’re just starting out, knowing some of the inside secrets can save you time and anguish.
For example, Murray points out that false starts are normal. It takes a lot of work to get the beginning of an essay or story in shape. He is a big believer of getting your paragraphs and sentences as close to right as possible during the earliest draft, instead of “plowing ahead” and fixing it later. This approach can prevent false starts that go on for pages and pages until the true thesis appears.
This is one point where I differ from Murray. Plowing ahead can be useful, and I often do it. Here’s why: If you’ve got a hairball of words and ideas swirling around inside, go ahead and cough it up in the first draft without worrying about fixing it. I find that if I can get it all out, onto paper, I can see everything more clearly. At that point I can begin to separate the good ideas from the bad ones, the relevant from the irrelevant, and identify those fragments that will form the backbone of the piece. Sometimes the true beginning paragraph appears down the first page or somewhere on the second or third page. When I’ve identified my true beginning (often after producing several useless paragraphs or even pages), I can get rid of the irrelevant stuff and refine what will now make it into the final draft. How each writer approaches the first draft is, of course, an individual decision, and what ultimately counts is the final product.
Murray’s discussion of intellectual creativity as it relates to writing is one of the most valuable portions of the book for writers and would-be writers (p.75):
Don’t assume that you are aware of all you know before you have written it. No one can think through all of the implications of a complicated body of information before putting a word on paper, any more than one can think through how all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle will fit together when they are spread out on a table.
Re-reading is crucial, according to Murray, because it can help you sharpen your thinking ability, especially when you re-read your draft with a critical eye and make sure your sentence order is correct, that sentences are not obscured with too much information or too little clarity, and transitions between paragraphs are smooth.
And then there are other basic rules-of-thumb that every writer should follow: cut material that doesn’t belong no matter how brilliant (the “murder your darlings” rule), delete “very” in most instances, let a final draft cool overnight before going over it again, and edit your final version in hard copy because you’ll catch more errors that way than if you keep it confined to the computer screen.
In short, The Curmudgeon’s Guide has some of the best advice on writing I’ve seen anywhere, presented in a clear, concise way from a major thinker who always has something worthwhile to say, and who is himself an excellent writer. The fact that the book also offers sage advice on life, marriage, and career is a bonus if you’re just looking for advice on writing. But since it is more than a style and usage handbook, why not enjoy everything The Curmudgeon’s Guide has to offer. It is the kind of book you can re-read and still learn something new.