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Author Topic: “One Man’s Meat” - Communicating Better in English  (Read 426 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: June 04, 2017, 09:00:03 AM »

One Man’s Meat
By Jose A. Carillo

Dear Jay:

You asked me last week to give you advice on what books to read to help you develop your communication skills. I will tell you at the very outset that you will need to read and talk a lot to become a good communicator. Of course, to become one doesn’t mean that you have to be a certified bookworm or a fiery interscholastic debater. You could, in fact, be worse off aiming to be either. Many of the certified bookworms I know became so detached from reality that they started to talk to themselves, to plants, and later to things you couldn’t touch or see. And not a few of the spellbinding college debaters in my time had metamorphosed into lawyers who would argue anything and everything to death, or into politicians who are horribly long on rhetoric and promises but woefully short on tangible results.


I take it that you are probably a high school or college student or a professional having some difficulty in your written or spoken English. I would therefore presume that you still don’t have The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. It is a very slim, spare, but eminently useful book on the basic rules of English usage. My old third edition is always near me on my desk and I always consult it when I am suddenly seized by doubt about my English. (And there is a great bonus in reading the two co-authors, both consummate stylists of the English language: Strunk, a veteran newspaper editor, taught English 8 as a Cornell University professor, and White was one of his students. White went on to become one of the finest essayists in the English language. Many years later he updated his mentor’s English stylebook, which by then had already become a classic, and on the side wrote fascinating animal stories like The Talking Swan and—would you believe?—Stuart Little the mouse.)


But if you want your English prose to be more methodical, forceful, and stronger in logic, I would suggest you buy yourself a copy and read The Lively Art of Writing by Lucile Vaughan Payne. I discovered this highly instructive book only after college, and it is much to be regretted that, at a time that I needed it most, I did not have its nuts-and-bolts wisdom in doing the essay. I have yet to see another book on English writing that matches Payne’s very forceful and lucid discussion of “the hooks of language,” and how your increasing mastery of them can actually mark your progress as a writer.

Now, if you are already confident of your English but simply wish to develop a practical and saleable prose style in your business or career, get yourself On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Non-Fiction by William K. Zinsser. Many years ago this book knocked some sense into my head when I was rushing headlong on a purely literary route in my writing. Zinsser showed me that you need not be a Dylan Thomas or a William Faulkner to be understood, get published, and get income from English prose. The book, now on its 25th edition, will be a great companion volume to The Elements of Style and The Lively Art of Writing. They are all you’ll really ever need for basic equipment to confidently navigate the terrain of the English language and travel in comfort with it.

These three basic readings in English writing will, of course, not be enough to make you an accomplished or great writer. They will only provide you with a wealth of devices to focus your thoughts and to edit and rewrite yourself. You can be sure that once you have read them and taken their prescriptions for good English prose to heart, you will already have won half the battle. To win the other half, of course, you will need further instruction on the writing craft. But you don’t have to go far to get that instruction. To me, the best English writing teachers have been—and still are—the masters of the writing craft. If you are serious about your English, I suggest that you seek them out every now and then, maybe just one at a time, for good measure.


Begin with Loren Eiseley. I have not found a better than this consummate stylist in showing the great lyric power that can be achieved with English prose. Try The Immense Journey, his maiden collection of essays about animal and human evolution, and make it a point to read his other works later. Then go back to E. B. White and read his very lucid and compelling essays on city life and its frustrations, such as One Man’s Meat and The Essays of E. B. White. After that, get a little bite (but not too much) of H. L. Mencken, that savage American iconoclast who, with incomparable wit and style, had mastered the art of taking the blinkers off people’s eyes. And then, to round off your readings on great English prose, read The Lives of the Cell by Lewis Thomas. This microbiologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning master of the essay can explain the intricate workings of life clearly and magically by getting under our skins with pleasure instead of pain.

This, Jay, is essentially the road I have taken to arrive where I am in English prose. It is admittedly just one man’s meat. It may be poison to some academics who may howl and rant against the poverty and eclecticism of my reading suggestions. Well, let them. I am too delighted to mind. You have asked me a question that I have wanted to answer for many years, except that nobody asked until you did. For this reason, the pleasure of answering it is as much mine as I hope it will be yours. (circa 2003)

Joe Carillo

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times and subsequently appeared as Chapter 33 in the Uses and Misuses section of his book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language, © 2004 by Jose A. Carillo, © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
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