Effective Writing: Plain English at Work - Book Review

Tina Mattei reviews the second edition of this guide to clear and meaningful writing, which has excellent advice applicable to a wide variety of writing and editing tasks. Follow the link at the end to buy it on sale now.

Elizabeth Manning Murphy, Distinguished Editor and Honorary Life Member of the Canberra Society of Editors, and Hilary Cadman, Accredited Editor, have collaborated to produce a new edition of a book first published 25 years ago. The aim of the publication has remained the same - to be a 'go-to' guide for writers and editors on the basics of correct expression.

The publication has been updated to reflect the current times, with sage advice on composing emails and writing for websites. Even text messaging is mentioned (although this cynical editor doubts the best advice will be applied in the real world). The book is friendly and accessible, making it easy to understand and follow and a valuable supplement to other writing stalwarts, such as the Style Manual (which is not nearly as accessible). Each section contains exercises for the reader to complete, with sneaky answers included.

The book is aimed primarily at the workplace and covers a number of areas overlooked by many similar publications. It is pleasing to see references to writing minutes, about which there is very little good published guidance. There are also sections on writing formal letters, composing presentations, drafting job applications and writing reports. While the book is aimed at the work environment, it has application for all writers, both official and recreational, and would be particularly useful for students, as well as editors wishing to practise for the IPEd accreditation exam.

Elizabeth Murphy and Hilary Cadman alternate between providing sound grammatical advice and explaining the elements of good writing. There are sections on the absolute basics - such as the nuts and bolts of nouns, verbs, adverbs, conjunctions, adjectives and punctuation - as well as points that even seasoned writers and editors sometimes struggle with, such as modifiers, pompous words, redundancy and fillers. Then there are more theoretical sections about the enduring importance of clear writing and understanding a document's purpose and audience.

At the heart of the advice are the merits of plain English, which is almost always welcome. As the publisher of the book writes, 'If you want to write in a way that is clear and meaningful, to avoid writing "gobbledegook" and to be able to explain effective writing to others, this book is for you'. I couldn't have said it better myself.

If I had to offer constructive criticism it would be about the inclusion, or at least the placement, of the practical exercises. Effective Writing: Plain English at Work is the sort of book you reach for when needing to quickly look up the answer to whatever concern you're grappling with on screen (or to a lesser extent these days, on paper). I found the exercises a little distracting, sometimes interruptive and not something I'd ever be likely to find the time to complete. So I wonder if they wouldn't be better placed at the end of the book or perhaps not included at all. Also, the next time Murphy and Cadman revise this publication, I would relish a section on writing for government, including drafting memos and briefs - about which there is little good published information.

Tina Mattei
Projects Editor at the Department of Justice

Elizabeth Manning Murphy (with Hilary Cadman), Effective Writing: Plain English at Work, Second edition, 2014, Lacuna.

The paperback edition is on sale until 10 December for $30 (plus $5 postage), a saving of $8.50 off the recommended retail price. It's also available as an ebook for $12.99 (RRP).