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Review: Penguin Writer’s Manual

Updated: Jun 11

Is it as essential as it claims on the cover?

The cover of the Penguin Writer's Manual

When I started on my journey to become a professional editor, I knew my knowledge of English grammar, punctuation and usage needed a thorough polish. I graduated decades ago, and I belong to the school generation expected to absorb good writing skills through osmosis. I don’t remember having any formal grammar lessons (granted, it was a long time ago).


There are a lot of books covering the technical and stylistic aspects of writing in English. It’s difficult to know where to start. The Penguin Writer’s Manual is frequently recommended, so it was one of the first books I picked up. This is my review of the Penguin Writer's Manual.


Layout and tone

The book is divided into two parts. Part One is a reference manual for technical aspects of writing in English. Part Two discusses a sensible method for composing written material and good style before looking in more detail at particular forms of writing.


The tone is precise and professional but not exactly riveting. I’ve certainly read more entertaining books on the same subject, but this is meant as a technical manual, and the tone suits that aim.


Part One

The material in the first part of the book is arranged in sensible sections on grammar, usage, vocabulary, spelling, punctuation and abbreviations. I have read it cover-to-cover (recommended only for nerds or dedicated students of grammar and usage) but find I’m referring to it frequently for help on precise details.


The sections are in a logical sequence, and the index is thorough, so I can usually find the advice I need in a few moments. There are lots of examples, so the mechanics of grammar or punctuation are clear.


I found the section on the history of English particularly interesting. That’s my love of Old and Middle English showing.


Part One does what it claims to do – sets out the rules for writing well in English clearly and concisely.


Part Two

This part of the book is a series of essays addressing the bigger picture of writing well. It opens with a solid chapter on the steps you should go through to create a piece of writing: preparing, organising, planning, drafting and revising. You probably learnt most of this at school, but here it is set out in a logical summary that we could all do with reminding ourselves of occasionally.


The next chapter is an examination of the critical points of good style. It is concise and well-targeted but also takes the time to acknowledge that the rules can be bent or broken for effect. It’s a chapter I’ve re-read several times because I know it’s aimed at some of my writing weaknesses. I find it useful.


So far, it’s all good, but now we’ve arrived at the book’s main failing. The next few chapters address the most important forms of writing – as they were twenty years ago when the book was written.


The chapter on reports, essays and theses still has relevance, and people still grapple with agendas and minutes (my sympathies). But social media is not mentioned at all, the internet receives a rather quaint paragraph on how to look things up on it, and email (still styled

‘e-mail’) gets a page and a half. Writing letters receives a whole chapter, and I can’t remember the last time I sent one of those.


The last eighty pages or so are of limited use because changes in the way we share and consume words have left them behind.



The Penguin Writer’s Manual is a useful reference, but that comes with a couple of important caveats.


Firstly, the book is about British English as the default. It does take care to point out the differences in US English in grammar, punctuation and spelling, but someone writing in US English is probably going to feel that this book is not addressed to them.  


Secondly, the book is over twenty years old, and it is in serious need of an update.


The book’s focus does serve as a potent illustration of how much our use of the written word has changed, but that’s overshadowed by the fact that it fails to give any advice on the current venues for the written word. If you were hoping for help writing your next blog, webpage splash or social media post, you won’t find it here. 


Despite that, I would recommend this book to anyone wanting help with their writing skills or their knowledge of the technical rules for writing in English. I refer to it often. But I will be at the front of the queue when a 2nd Edition arrives.


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