The Bookshelf

WORD UP! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs, Marcia Riefer Johnston, 2012

Review by Joy Tataryn

Editor Joy Tataryn reviews Marcia Riefer Johnston’s new book of writer- and editorcentric essays.

Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them) is delectable candy for those who love to chew on the English language. It is not a handbook, style guide, or manual, despite what its subtitle might suggest. Rather, it is a collection of brief essays adapted from author Marcia Riefer Johnston’s Word Power blog.

Word Up! is like a travel guide, with many destinations and much to explore. As with Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, it is one of those books the very reading of which inspires improvement. Reading any portion of this book satisfies; readers can consume it in bite-sized pieces or remain at the banquet and sample it all in one sitting.

Johnston addresses readers directly, using the first- and second-person voice, in a confident display of wit and erudition as well as a showy blend of idiom (e.g., “I’m not caving [to the use of ‘they’ as a gender-neutral pronoun stand-in]”) and formality (e.g., “The day approacheth fast wherein the singular they shall pain the ear of humankind no more”). She parks herself squarely in the prescriptivist camp (while lauding evident descriptivism in sharp-eared dialogue penned by Mark Twain in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), and goes forth to prescribe, to opine, to advise—and to awaken and stimulate a joy all writers and editors will recognize but may have forgotten in the crush of earning a livelihood.

Journey of three legs

This book takes readers on a journey of three legs, grouping essays under the headings “Up with words,” “Up with sentences and paragraphs,” and “Up with writing.”

At the starting gate of her word-fueled joyride, Johnston greases the wheels with an epigraph by Thomas Mann (Essays of Three Decades, 1935): “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

Readers will find snippets of cultural commentary throughout the book (e.g., “Dropping the m [from ‘whom’] has become a form of cultural sensitivity, an expression of democratic values, a way of saying ‘We’re in this together’”). They will also find many an artful phrase, which, by providing an example of itself, reads like a tiny, nested story-within-a-story (e.g., “the lowly hyphen—that dinky half-dash, that barely there conjoiner of words”).


Pragmatism carries the day: Johnston substantiates her prescriptions on grammar and usage with examples and clear logic (e.g., “Try this test: say each adjective (true and blue) with the noun [friend] separately … Call on the hyphen’s unifying force, and you’ve got a true-blue friend”). In similar fashion, she sets out simple tests to assist readers to determine when to use whom, how to avoid pronoun misuse, and how to avoid misplaced and dangling modifiers.

In the midst of all this common sense, however, she occasionally shifts gears. Discussing prepositions, she writes, “Open yourself to a discussion unlike any other in this book: a deep exploration of one aspect of grammar to which few people will ever give much thought.” I won’t say more and rob you of Johnston’s guidance on the deep exploration—though I will tell you she delivers on her promise to provide “nothing less than the exhilaration of a new way of seeing language” and the ability “to write with more confidence and freedom.”

Depths and realms

In some of her essays, Johnston drifts into linguistics, first wading in the shallows, distinguishing form from function to teach parts of speech. She also dives into an ocean of sentence diagramming to illustrate employment of a tool called, variously, “anthimeria,” “grammatical shift,” and “enallage.” She keeps her sense of humour, though—tacking on a folksy fourth label, “twisty yankiness.”

She even wanders into musical and dramatic realms as she shows how to vary sentence and paragraph lengths like a composer and how to explore and heighten like a playwright (or comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus) for effect.

Johnston explodes the myth that writing for mobile devices means writing short and argues instead for economical writing, the challenge facing all writers at all times; she then provides tips for minimalist writing—both cutting and adding—for the small screen. She also provides a tutorial in procedure writing, right after deconstructing (and reconstructing) a passage from the Amazon Kindle Fire User’s Guide.

Finish line

The final section of Word Up! is devoted to additional writer’s tasks such as “re-vising,” using the creative mind, developing a brand, and understanding an audience. Johnston also analyzes one of her own essays to enumerate and comment on the many decisions made by a writer and—in “Up with human-crafted indexes”—makes the case that indexing is writing and that readers deserve indexes created and cued by brains—not bots.

Finally, Johnston pulls readers across the finish line with a 23-page glossary and 3 indexes (topics, names, and titles)—providing all the navigation readers need to repeat the journey and explore new signposts every time.


2 thoughts on “The Bookshelf

  1. Yes, thanks for taking the time to write this, Joy — it’s now on my want-to-read list. Towards the end of an online songwriting course I did recently, another participant posted a spreadsheet featuring a nucleus for each of the six weeks of the course, with lots of lines and circles emanating from each. The entire course had been summarized in one page. It left me thinking about how fabulous it is to be exposed to different styles of teaching and learning, and that’s just where this book seems to fit in. Or maybe you got me with the mention of music …


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s