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Five Questions with Benjamin Dreyer ’79

In his best-selling book, Dreyer’s English, the Random House copy chief says it’s OK to bend the rules of grammar.

benjamin dreyer
Benjamin Dreyer at home with his dog SallieImage: VINCENT TULLO

Summer 2019
People
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You have more than 50,000 Twitter followers. How did social media influence this book?

dreyers english book coverI was having great difficulty figuring out what voice I wanted to use in the book, and I wrote tens of thousands of words and threw them out because they were stodgy and I was boring myself to death. My “aha” moment was realizing that I needed to take the voice I was cultivating on Twitter — trying to be succinct, trying to be funny, trying to be engaging — and expand it to fit onto the page properly, and that was how I was meant to write the book.

How do you deal with writers who are protective of their words?

Happily, I have found that all of the best writers love to be copy edited. Excuse me, they love to be copy edited well. They recognize that nobody is ever going to read them quite as carefully as their copy editor is going to. If the copy editor approaches the work in a supportive fashion, to help the author make their book into the best version of itself that it can be, well, authors really like that.

What are a few of your writing pet peeves?

Novelists will sometimes fill out their pages with characters nodding and shrugging and all the things that we do in real life that are not all that interesting on the page. I try to inspire them to cut back on that sort of thing. Also, though I’m not opposed to adjectives and certainly not, as some people are, to adverbs, I do keep an eye on the pointless ones. I’ve made a public enemy of the word “very” because I think it’s essentially a waste of time. 

How did your time at Northwestern influence the trajectory of your career?

I arrived as a theater major and fairly early on recognized that I was in classes with a lot of actors who were vastly more talented than I was. But what happened that was great for me was that I was the assistant director of a production of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance. The director was David Downs, who was a professor of theater then. In working on the script, David was all about investigating every single line to figure out why the line was there, why Albee put it there, why he put a pause here instead of there. And this process was important in my learning how to read and how prose works, not just in a storytelling way, but sentences and commas and the arrangement of words.

What’s one lesson you learned at Northwestern?

One simple lesson is that if you’re trying to write a line that you want to get a laugh on, you need to put the word that’s going to inspire the laugh at the end of the line, because if it’s in the middle, the audience is going to laugh over the rest of the line and not hear it. And that technique, of taking a strong word in a sentence that is sitting in the middle and moving it to the end for maximum impact, is something I find myself doing as a copy editor. That is definitely something I learned from working on scripts.

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Reader Responses

  • More than anything else I have ever encountered, Dreyer’s English has made me think deeply about writing and editing — with the added benefit of making me laugh.
    It was a delight, then, to see the interview with its author, alum Benjamin Dreyer ’79 [Five Questions, Creation, page 48, summer 2019]. Even more so, I was impressed by the fresh insights that the piece elicited. Well done!

    Matt Baron ’90 Oak Park, Ill., via Northwestern Magazine

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