The Author is Alive: A Reading of Marcia Riefer Johnston’s “Word Up!”

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As would anyone interested in language or looking to improve their writing, I really enjoyed “Word Up!” It’s a book full of tips and tricks and amusing tidbits. There’s sound advice on how to get paragraphs flowing from sentence to sentence. There’s wisdom on writing for mobile (don’t write less; write right), on procedures (I got my “if”s straightened out), on metaphors, the writing process, and far more. There are funny bloopers with an instructive purpose. Lots of them! My favorite: “As a mother of five, with another on the way, my ironing board is always up,” which evoked the patter of tiny rubberized feet! And there’s a really useful glossary; one that you’ll actually find yourself browsing through. So, for anyone interested in language or improving their writing, I thoroughly recommend +Marcia Riefer Johnston’s book. No question.

How practical is it really, though? Understanding the correct usage of “whom” or the inner workings of phrasal verbs feels a bit like belonging to a secret club these days. Do readers actually care if we polish our writing, or are we just doing it because it’s the right thing to do? How important are we as authors anyway, given that people pretty much get what they want to from a piece of writing anyway?

In a lit-crit course at university, I was saddened to hear of the death of the author. Not any particular author, but rather the concept of the author as someone who communicates an original meaning through text, a meaning that he or she is in control of. According to Roland Barthes:

We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.

He continued by explaining that it was a pathetic, outdated view that one had to polish one’s writing, because the author’s hand:

… cut off from any voice, borne by a pure gesture of inscription (and not of expression), traces a field without origin-or which, at least, has no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins.

I really couldn’t get along with this. After a few other encounters of this kind, I realized that Eng. Lit wasn’t for me any more, and transferred to the more pragmatic area of Theology and Religious Studies: an area where the meaning of “meaning” was still debated, but with an underlying historical and moral framework that appealed much more.

Later, my views on Barthes softened. Firstly, it became clear to me that authors really did not control the meaning of their writing. They could hope to shape their writing to communicate a meaning more precisely but, for good or bad, the final interpreter was always the reader.

Secondly, whether I liked it or not, as Internet culture matured, Barthes’s announcement of the death of the author became more plausible. Of course there were the immense benefits of a democratized, networked communication system where the old authorities didn’t always hold sway. And there was a lot of good writing being done; more than ever before. But sometimes the writer’s intention and the context for a piece were lost or disregarded entirely, as readers swiped through disconnected snippets of text. Also, too often, groups of partisans clustered in echo chambers, transforming any voice that entered into a facsimile of their own. What’s more, Barthes’s view of the source of all writing as “the immense dictionary of the scriptor” seemed a perfect description for the copy-and-rephrase techniques of the content farm. Perhaps this had gone even beyond what Barthes had envisaged: how would he feel if his essay surfaced as a piece on “5 Ways You’re Wasting Your Time Writing!”, displayed next to a picture of a weird Chinese goat?

A normal goat, from an original photo by George Chernilevsky ( normal goat, from an original photo by George Chernilevsky (

A normal goat, from an original photo by George Chernilevsky (

More recently, there’s been a rise in so-called descriptivism, a view that because language has no inherent rights and wrongs, it’s silly or perhaps even snobbish to prescribe particular usages. Though Steven Pinker’s balanced, nuanced view is more typical of real descriptivism, it seems that many writers doubt whether it’s appropriate or useful to prescribe particular language forms because they’re “right” rather than the most commonly used forms, especially for online writing.

So where does “Word Up!” fit into this careless world of the web? There are certainly a few recommendations in the book that seem not quite suited. Regarding “whom”, there are situations where I’ll use it, but not too many — it generally sounds a little uptight these days. And I’m not sure we always need to confine ourselves to placing “only” next to the phrase it modifies. Upfront, it emphasizes the limitation, though a strict approach to sentence parsing seems to render it illogical. In the middle or out the back, it can seem like the small print.

The true relevance of the book lies at a slightly higher level. There was a chapter later in the book that made it click for me. That chapter gave a real-world example of a sign in a hospital hallway. The sign could not help anyone, for a combination of reasons. Not because of the writing, but because there could not possibly be an audience. (I won’t spoil it here; read the book to find out why.) The writer could not have had any clear picture of the audience in mind, and so the sign was useless.

This was really the answer. The concept of authorship might have become less important on the Internet, but the role of an author in addressing an audience was more important than ever. Whatever someone wrote – whether a thoughtful piece on Medium or a Gawker headline — had to be crafted with an audience in mind to have any chance of working. Crafting meant coming back to the raw materials of writing: words and sentences. And if we only had the reader’s attention for fragments of our text (or had to cut through a partisan filter), it was even more important to make all of our words work really, really hard to convey their meaning clearly, expressively, and without wastage. This is what Word Up! is about. It’s about putting the right words in the right places to express whatever needs to be expressed. There’s passion, there are opinions, there are examples that may or may not reflect the actual field of writing you’re involved in, but it all comes down to clear, purposeful expression.

There’s much more I’ll get out of this book. I’m currently on my second reading, and will continue to dip in afterwards. When you read it, you may well pick up on things that I will never see. It certainly is a reader’s world now. But the author can’t die. A sympathetic, skilled interpreter benefits any subject. “Word Up!” is a required read for anyone who’s interested in language, wants to improve their writing, or just needs a clickworthy headline about a weird Chinese goat.

[I got a free review copy of “Word Up!” in PDF form. Which was nice, although I would have bought it anyway. And my review would still have been the same.]