Monday, August 23, 2010

"Write the Right Words" book review


Full disclosure: I am reviewing this book for readers based on the request from a publicist. I was sent a free copy and promised to read it and share my thoughts, and I will have a giveaway for this book in a separate post. (I'll tell you more about the giveaway rules there.)

The book is Write the Right Words: Messages from the heart for every occasion by Sandra E. Lamb.

I was interested in the idea of writing handwritten messages in greeting cards, based on this publicity blurb:

Every greeting card needs a personal, handwritten message to make it complete. In this comprehensive, encouraging guide, journalist and lifestyle expert Sandra Lamb offers a wealth of advice, inspiration, and examples for anyone who wants to add the perfect personal touch to their card messages---as well as anyone who wants to know the etiquette of when and what to write.

Now, I don't think that greeting cards are the best way to write. But if it gets someone into the habit of writing letters, what the hey - any kind of introduction to that process has to serve a purpose.

That being said, I did not care for most of the book. Let me get my criticisms out of the way in the beginning, and save the praise for the end.

Each section lists "suggested" greetings you can write in a card, and anyone who needs to find a book to come up with "You are my Valentine, [Name]" as a Valentine's card message needs a heck of a lot more help than a book can give them. Were these awful messages just thrown in to make a page count? There is a section for social rites of passage, including a "sweet sixteen" or "quinceanera" type coming-of-age card for a young lady, and the messages are so off the mark it's laughable. "Playing grown-up was always one of your favorite things, and here you are doing it for the real!" Aside from "for the real," (is "the" a typo, or is that an archaic version of that phrase?) all that message would produce with the teenage girls I know is a massive eye-roll and further distancing from the old geezer who wrote it. Still, I will try to refrain from snarking too much - I think the messages are ridiculous myself and would never use them (and would probably roll my own eyes at most of them if I received them in a card - but full disclosure, I LOATHE sappy greeting cards), I still support the endeavor of any book trying to encourage anyone to put pen to paper for sincere handwritten sentiments. So let us say, this book is just not my style.

Perhaps more insipid are the gender stereotypes. Nowhere in this book did I find written "this is a book for women," but it was certainly implied. Do only women write greeting cards? A fairly large proportion of my pen pals and blog readers and fellow mail artists are men, but apparently not in the Write the Right Words realm. I do not think the assumption of using "she" or "her" all the time is just a feminist retelling of assuming that "he" covers both genders. I think the author assumes you are a woman and you are writing to women, with the exception of particularly gendered cards, such as Father's Day. Here's a great gender stereotype gem from p.98 about Father's Day message etiquette: "Whether your dad finds verbalizing his feelings difficult or not, he'll still appreciate -- though he may not say so -- your heartfelt expression of love and caring on this special day." Oy! That would SO not translate into her writing style for mom. Hey, plenty of women have trouble verbalizing feelings as well, but not in this gender-stereotype land. If you are a casual reader of my blog, you may not have picked up on what a crusader against gender stereotypes I am, but since I am reviewing, I'm going to be honest - this aspect of the book aggravated me on a regular basis.

I will say that I appreciate her inclusion of the Jewish holidays in her holiday listing (I mean, of course they should be there, but so often aren't) as well as Ramadan of the Muslim faith, and I appreciate her caution on p.75 about sending holiday greetings: "But before you do, it's important to know -- in at least a bit of detail -- the beliefs of those you're sending a message to, in order to be sure your message will add to their celebration, and not offend." Well said. For that I can forgive her slight generalizations/inaccuracies about the dates of the Jewish high holidays.

All right, one more snark before I get to the positive ending. In a former life, I worked in publication and web design. I am a minor (but not a major) typesetting geek. If you are not, you can skip this paragraph. One would think St. Martin's Press would figure out the kerning for script fonts. On some of the section headers (like p.205), the fancy scripty letters don't line up - they usually require manual kerning in software programs - and it looks awful. But they got the kerning right for the end section, dates to remember - the header months look fine. So the layout editor either missed that, or it was rushed through to print. Yeah, I notice stuff like that. See my own blog header, the scripty words of "The Missive Maven?" I custom kerned that so that the letters would connect and look like cursive. 'Cuz otherwise it looks bad.

Once I got to Part Four/Social Grace Messages, I started seeing some good in the book. The intro to that section is a lovely sentiment, and what made me start seeing the book in a better light:

Beyond those simple tenets of etiquette (which are, granted, so often missing in our society)-- respect for others, consideration of the rights of others, and honesty-- there exists a whole higher realm of spiritual possibilities: connection, love, communion, and shared joy, to name a few. It's to this elevated level of relationships that this section is devoted. It requires writing from a deeper level of yourself that includes both the hand and the heart. And it requires living, and giving, from a generous spirit.

Such generosity can be practiced and cultivated, and it reaps beautiful rewards for both the giver and the recipient.

Hear, hear! Despite occasional cheesy turns, I couldn't agree with that sentiment more, and perhaps her target audience is one that really hasn't written a greeting card in a while, and needs to be eased into the process. But, I will share with you another quote from the "thank you" section (and really, this is where I think a lot of people can use the reference help - I fight against the notion that "letter-writing is a lost art," but I fear the art of writing a good-thank you note is indeed suffering) that I found really accurate and inspiring:

It's been scientifically demonstrated that expressing thanks can make you happier, too, as well as spread your joy, plus a measure, back to the giver. It's a wonderful law of life: multiplying the joy.

Again, hear hear! That is a lovely spirit from which to approach the writing of any letter, but especially a thank-you letter.

Her "suggested messages - in steps," four pages of them, are what caused me to write in my notes, underlined, "This section redeems the book." And it does. I do feel that this is where many folks will be paging for regular help - because really, who needs help to write a little happy birthday message? - and it is very thoughtfully done. I will not detail her steps and strategies here, because I'm sure the motivation of the publicist in asking me to do this review was to sell the book, so I'll let those that are interested check it out for themselves, or enter a subsequent giveaway. But I appreciate her structure and thought it was well done.

Another quote, from the Friendship and Family section on p.140, that I think my blog readers will find appropriate:

Sure, the telephone is a wonderful tool and long-distance rates have diminished or disappeared for many of us, and email is great, too; but there's nothing that can substitute for finding that special hand-addressed envelope or package in the mailbox with a personal message written by the hand of someone close. It's a wonderful way to keep the lifeblood flowing between you and friends and relatives.

Indeed - isn't this why so many of us enjoy writing letters?

At the end of each section, she includes a number of "quotable quotes;" either as food for thought or for possible inclusion in a note, I'm not sure, but some were quite fun. One of my favorite gems from p.147:

"Mental reflection is so much more interesting than TV it's a shame more people don't switch over to it." - Robert M. Pirsig, American author

...but those of you that have been reading my posts carefully for a while already know that I don't have a TV and haven't had one for many years. (And to anyone who asks me, how do I find the time to write so many letters - one of my first answers is usually "I don't have a TV." But I digress.)

Another fine section of the book is the one on writing letters of sympathy or condolence. Many of us, myself included, find ourselves at a loss for words but wanting to offer support and comfort. She has many fine suggestions, and I earmarked one of her quotes as one I may use in a condolence letter someday.

I did my homework for this review, and in perusing the author's website, I came across another of her books: Personal Notes: How to Write from the Heart for Any Occasion; I have to wonder how that book differs from this one, and whether I'd enjoy that one more. From the descriptions, they seem awfully similar, but that one seems to lack the greeting card focus. Interesting.

In summary, this book is not for me, and I found the writing choppy and hackneyed at times, but I support anything that's going to get people putting pen to paper (or even greeting card) and sending something in the proper postal mail. And it did have some fine sections. I wonder how much she crafted carefully, and how much was churned out for some particular publication deadline, but I am the first to say I am hardly objective, and often a curmudgeonly fussbudget in my expectations.

This review is part of a virtual book tour being featured on several blogs, including that of one of my pen pals and fellow bloggers, Julie of Okami-Whatever; her much kinder review is here.

The full tour/review schedule can be found here. All of the other reviews so far, at least as I write this, are bubbly and effusive, so let my somewhat negative tone provide the variety that is the spice of life, no? I can be that one super-obnoxious picky reviewer that everyone makes fun of. I'm down with that.

If you're interested in this book, check out my giveaway.

And now... go write a letter!