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Face it, you're not F. Scott Fitzgerald

May 18, 2008 |  5:45 am

Bryson

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a notoriously poor speller; it's one of those endearing details of the legend of a great writer. But none of us are Fitzgeralds, so to work on the mechanics of your writing, you can get started with Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors, which Broadway Books is set to publish this month by bestselling author Bill Bryson.

Despite its design — the terms are arranged alphabetically — Bryson calls it, in his preface, "a personal collection, built up over 30 years as a writer and editor ... so inevitably — inescapably — it reflects my own interests, experiences, and blind spots."

Among such blind spots are those traps familiar to anyone writing about literature (it's Stephen Dedalus, not Daedalus) or about medicine (it's Down syndrome, not Down's syndrome). There are also plenty of words that writers misapply: "crass," for instance, isn't just tasteless — it's "stupid and grossly ignorant to the point of insensitivity." "A thing must be pretty bad to be crass," Bryson writes. "Enormity" doesn't refer to size but to the wickedness of something. I'm guilty of misusing that one. An appendix on punctuation points out the many ways that writers are tripped up by commas.

Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors is a good read, strange as that may sound: It has been — how shall I say? — helpful to me in composing this sentence.

Nick Owchar

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