Customer Reviews: Simple & Direct
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on April 20, 2002
I taught newswriting as an adjunct in the journalism department of a state university for a couple of years, and Barzun's "Simple and Direct" was on a list of books and essays I strongly recommended to all my students.

I used to work as a radio news and documentary producer and news director and I found Barzun's prescriptions on prose style a reliable guide for editng my own work and others as well.

Barzun's approach can be a bit irritating at first because he tends to be fairly prissy about style, but if you can get past that, you begin to perceive the prissiness as a tight focus on precision of the type that is lacking in much modern prose writing.

His main rule is one I paraphrased at the first meeting of every newswriting class...that there are only two reasons for producing bad writing; either you don't know what you're writing about, or you don't know how to write about it.

I lost my copy of Barzun years ago. I think one of my students walked off with it. If so, I hope he or she is using it. I'm glad to know it's still available.
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on May 22, 2000
I read this book - twice. I am not an academic; I am a writer, and I find book to be not only useful but entertaining (as are most of Barzun's writings). As a writer he is careful and exact if not always concise. But even his lack of brevity has its merits; there is no misunderstanding what he is saying. I believe that only someone who has difficulty understanding the English language could call this book ". . .one of the worst books on English composition. . ." It is well written, well organized, and, although not always simple and direct, always complete, grammatically correct, and understandable.
As to another review, modern linguistic research has little to do with learning to produce a composition in English? Additonally in that review, the not-so-thinly veiled ad hominem attack on Barzun as being "pompous" and "nasty" has little to do with the merits of the book and do not constitute a review.
I certainly recommend the book for some excellent insight on how to write properly. Be prepared to work at it a bit, but that's as it should be; correct English writing requires some effort.
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on May 25, 2003
Barzun has written one of the best guides to prose composition, one to be set on the shelf with Strunk & White's "Elements of Style" and Graves & Hodge's "Reader Over Your Shoulder" and consulted often. All three of these books adhere to the Strict Taskmaster method and demand that the writer PAY ATTENTION to what he (or she) is doing. Prissy? Perhaps. Overbearing? At times. But such discipline is the first essential step towards becoming a real writer.
Only after one has internalized the Taskmasters and made their advice an ingrained habit can one then go on to profit from such excellent books as Joseph Williams's "Style," Thomas Kane's "Oxford Essential Guide to Writing," and Arthur Quinn's "Figures of Speech".
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on February 21, 2000
If one desires to mould one's prose around the lumpy and shifting shapes thrown up by statistical sampling -- in other words, according to the latest results of the human birdwatchers known as linguistics professors -- then don't read this book. But if you seek concision and character for your writing, and if you don't mind taking the advice of a very great though very old prose stylist, then read, and profit. It is short the fifth star only in order to save something for his "House of Intellect", "Berlioz" and "Science: The Glorious Entertainment".
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on October 6, 2011
Point: Write clearly. Read what you have written. Rewrite. Simple and Direct provides a critique of the lazy writer and a challenge to those who seek to rise above the average. Barzun and Graff demonstrate the importance of writing clearly.
Path: By providing numerous examples and exercises, the authors demonstrate the pervasiveness of sloppy speech. In an effort to correct this problem, this work addresses key topics through six chapters. Interspersed throughout are twenty principles highlighting the key ideas of writing clearly.
The goal of the authors is not to provide ten easy steps to be understood. Rather, they seek to show the painstaking effort involved in effective communication contrasted with the devastating results of those who do not take the time. Their message is not easy, but it is necessary.
Agreement: One of the strengths of this book are the exercises given. If one would take the time to read thoughtfully and thoroughly, doing the exercises given, he would benefit greatly.
Another strength of Simple and Direct are the twenty principles found throughout the chapters. These short ideas can easily be compiled and reviewed, allowing the reader to remember the advice given.
The message of this book could not be timely enough. Whether through blogs, websites, or self published ebooks, people are speaking. Everyone has a voice, but few speak clearly.

It would be worth another read and I would recommend it.
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on April 12, 2013
Many textbooks that are written about how to improve your writing, insist that the reader memorize a long list of "Rules" to be memorized and practiced, in order to become a more effective writer. I've found this approach to be very boring and futile. By contrast, SIMPLE & DIRECT is a frank discussion of the most common writing faults possessed by folks such as you and me, who aspire to simply write ordinary prose in a more interesting and effective manner. Each of the seven chapters in this book covers a particular subject such as the one on Diction, which informs the reader of the true meaning of many of the common words that you and I use every day. This topic, then, is followed with about fifteen, or more, sentences that show examples of the subject being discussed. You are then asked to re-write each sentence, conforming as closely as you can with what you've learned in the topic above. At the end of the book, there's a list of these same sentences, shown as they might have been written more effectively. This little exercise has been very interesting and helpful to me.

Some of the topics covered in SIMPLE & DIRECT are:

DICTION, or Which Word to Use. LINKING, or What to Put Next. TONE AND TUNE, or What Impression Will It Make? MEANING, or What do I Want to Say? COMPOSITION, or How Does It All Hang Together? REVISION, or What Have I Actually Said?

"Writing", the author says, "can only be self-taught.". This excellent little book will give you a practical, down-to-earth way to teach yourself how to write better.

The author, Jacques Barzun, was born in France, and died recently in El Paso, Texas. He has written several best-selling books, such as THE CULTURE WE DESERVE and FROM DAWN TO DECADENCE, both of which I own and value very highly.
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on May 19, 2007
"Simple and Direct" has a well deserved reputation for anyone wanting to improve their writing skills.

In print for a quarter of a century (updated with a fourth edition in 2001), the book is a "handbook for whoever wants to conquer some of the permanent difficulties of writing prose".

Barzun recognises this challenge upfront: "Writing always presents problems, dilemmas, some of which beset all writers, even great ones; but there is no need to be baffled by all the difficulties every time you write."

The book is hard going at first because of the detailed explanations but once you grasp how he has broken English into its basic elements and then combines them it's difficult to put "Simple and Direct" down.

Barzun can be didactic but his gentle wit makes up for finger wagging. For instance on diction: "But his real interest lay elsewhere than the Court of George II." Barzun notes: "It turns out on further reading that his real interest (singular) did lie at the court; it was one of the ladies-in-waiting; but his real interests (plural), meaning what would be better for his fortune, lay in his country estate."

Finding the right tone can be torture. Barzun's advice: "The best tone is the tone called plain, unaffected, unadorned. It does not talk down or jazz up ... it does not try to dazzle or cajole the indifferent; it takes no posture of coziness or sophistication. It is the most difficult of all tones, also the most adaptable. When you can write plain you can trust yourself in special effects."

Structuring your writing for maximum interest and flow is challenging. His remedy: make a quick "shorthand" outline of your draft using a key word (or key words) for each paragraph. It helps disentangle your meaning and more effectively order your ideas.

This is one of the better books on writing and style. It's a useful companion to gems like "Elements of Style" (William Strunk Jr and E B White) and "Newsman's English" (Harold Evans) - revised in a modern edition as "Essential English".

"Simple and Direct" is a rewarding read for those determined to write better -- with economy, clarity, vigour -- and, most importantly, to be understood.
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on November 18, 2006
A couple of months ago I saw a reference to this book, which aims to improve one's writing style.

After reading a couple of reviews, and seeing that it had gone through four editions since first being published in 1975, I sprang for it (second hand on Amazon, of course.)

There are six chapters (Diction, Linking, Tone and Tune, Meaning, Composition and Revision). Each chapter has discussions and exercises (basically correcting errors in sentences and paragraphs), as well as examples of good writing. The book can work as a kind of textbook in a beginning or intermediate writing class; or as a supplement. However for a casual reader such as myself, looking for hints, clues and ideas, it was too much. I only did about 10% of the exercises.

I would only recommend this book for someone who was going to seriously engage it, with all the exercises.

The author, Jacques Barzun (a well-known academic; here's the opening line in Jacques Barzun - Wikipedia, "a leading American historian of ideas and culture. He has also eloquently defended tradition in the practice of higher education and scholarship.") wouldn't have been too impressed with the cliche I used in the second paragraph above "I sprang for it".
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on October 29, 2014
This is one of the best books on writing out there. The author is very full of himself, like a Nicholas Taleb but his views, tips and examples are gold.

This book is a must read every few years if you are a writer. It's not in most curriculums for some reason so it makes a great gift for high school or college age people interested in writing.

I wish more people would read this book then the world wouldn't be as full of crap writing as it woefully is.
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on May 25, 2015
Very helpful and entertaining read. It contains exercises for the reader that get progressively more difficult. I have to admit that I couldn't follow the latter exercises, but that just means I should read it again because there's more to learn. Highly recommended!
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