TEXT review

Sharpening your ‘rhetorical cutlery’

review by Rosemary Williamson


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Roslyn Petelin
How Writing Works: A field guide to effective writing
Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW 2016
ISBN 9781925266917
Pb 336pp AUD39.99


A good metaphor can delight the reader, distilling as it does the author’s perception of her subject in an original way, so it is a pleasure to encounter one early on in How Writing Works. In the first chapter, Roslyn Petelin uses the metaphor of ‘sharp rhetorical cutlery’ for the tools writers need to produce something ‘worth reading’ (13). By using rhetorical cutlery, the writer cuts up and arranges words, tests the effect, and even tosses words off the plate before deciding that what’s offered up is worth reading and will have the intended effect. This book helps to keep the cutlery sharp and in good working order.

In other words, How Writing Works is a guide to writing well across a range of professional contexts. It has eleven chapters. The first provides a thought-provoking explication of writing contexts, careers and practices, and nudges the reader to action: ‘To get you started on keeping a journal, you might like to write …’ (9). A list of activities concludes the chapter. Subsequent chapters follow this format, and like Chapter one contain plenty of bullet point lists and illustrative matter to clarify and complement content. Chapter two explores the ‘osmotic relationship’ (19) between writing and reading. (By the way, I complete one of the Chapter two activities as I write this review.) Chapters three to five interrogate writing at word, sentence and paragraph levels, and provide a grounding in grammar and punctuation. Chapter seven, on structure and design, moves to visual as well as verbal elements of writing. The next two chapters deal with genre (workplace and academic). Chapter ten has sections on established or emerging forms of digital writing, such as twitter and texting. The final chapter covers revising, editing, and proofreading. Whatever its topic, each chapter helps readers ‘to gain control’ over their writing and produce ‘the concise, lucid, nuanced, and compelling prose that is so valued in universities and in the professions’ (ix).

Petelin states that How Writing Works’ intended primary audience is writers in universities and workplaces but ‘that much of the material and advice will be valuable for creative writers, who also need to be their own best editors’ (x). As somebody who bridles at the ‘academic’, ‘professional’, and ‘creative’ divide, and who advocates sensitivity to the confluences between the genres, I would recommend this book unequivocally. Petelin occasionally reminds writers of such confluences; for example, figures of speech ‘are usually regarded as the province of creative writing, but they are often present in academic and workplace writing’ (47), and some genres of academic writing ‘are also central to many government and industry workplaces’ (206). Anybody who writes, or writes to be published, must make rhetorical decisions in response to differing situations that recur within and across differing professional contexts. Creative writers striving to establish themselves professionally will find plenty in this book that is instrumental to making those decisions.

Those who teach across genres, as I do, will do well to add this book to their shelves. We can trust Petelin as an authority on writing. She co-authored Professional Communication (Putnis & Petelin 1996) and The Professional Writing Guide (Petelin & Durham 1992), both of which inform How Writing Works. TEXT readers may remember her as editor of Australian Journal of Communication from 1988 to 2013. Through these and other achievements, such as corporate consultancies and her highly successful WRITE101x English Grammar and Style MOOC (University of Queensland), Petelin has shown a longstanding commitment to communicating the principles of effective writing within and beyond universities. How Writing Works draws on her wealth of expertise.

That is not to say that the book is exhaustive or definitive. For example, workplace writers who want more on inclusive language than the summary provided in Chapter three will need to consult other sources, such as the Australian Government’s Style Manual (Snooks & Co. 2002), including for advice on language appropriate to Indigenous Australians. Teachers of writing may have an occasional quibble. Mine was with the section on ‘thesaurus syndrome’ (64-65), which cautions against telling students to vary nouns to maintain readers’ interest but has a caveat in my classroom, where ‘issues’ is sometimes peppered across prose made tedious by the indiscriminate and imprecise use of this word. However, such details are not symptomatic of a problem with the book, which makes no claim to be anything but introductory, but rather are symptomatic of the capacity of the book to stimulate reflection on writing and to encourage wider reading.

Petelin does draw attention to many resources for writers who want to supplement as well as sharpen their rhetorical cutlery. Many of these are online and show sensitivity to the differing needs of readers (for example, useful sites listed for revising, editing, and proofreading range from ‘chicagomanualofstyle.org’ to ‘chompchomp.com’). The book contains a list of further reading, with YouTube clips, although only for chapters one to seven. There are also many sources cited across the chapters and listed in the References for those readers wanting to advance their knowledge of writing theory and practice.

What may come as a surprise is that How Writing Works is also a good read, even if student or workplace writers are likely to understand some chapters more easily than others. Subject matter is selectively grounded in rhetorical theory that is explained clearly and succinctly, and it is also richly illustrated with anecdotes, and with quotations, advice, and tips from established writers past and present, including Petelin herself. Cautionary tales are told, such as that of a company claiming millions in damages because of poor proofreading. Other writers about writing have, of course, similarly enlivened potentially dull topics, as did Lynne Truss to popular acclaim in Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (Truss 2003). Petelin sustains this approach across a range of topics yet also makes theoretical principles accessible. Despite that, the chapters on grammar will challenge some readers. They present a great deal of information that may frustrate student writers who need more extended and scaffolded grammar instruction than is possible in a book of this scope and size.

How Writing Works contains much that can inform or refresh writing and pedagogic practice and so lends itself to being set as a textbook. It achieves its aim of being ‘a substantial and engaging introduction to contemporary writing’ (ix). Having said that, it is not the only field guide to writing: Norton also publishes one, and as an e-book (Bullock et al 2013), but it is more expensive and over three times as long, and is not pitched at workplace as well as student writers. As a print book, the size, format and vivid yellow cover of How Writing Works make it easy to use and find on a desk. Keeping the rhetorical cutlery sharp can be a chore for some, but Petelin shows that it is worthwhile and will be made easier by having her book close by.


Works cited



Dr Rosemary (Rose) Williamson is Senior Lecturer and Convenor of Writing, School of Arts, University of New England. She teaches across a range of units in writing and rhetoric. Her research interests include writing pedagogy; Australian political discourse on, and press reports of, natural disaster; Australian magazine history, genres and writing; and the role of narrative in the formation of communities.


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Vol 21 No 1 April 2017
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste