October 15, 2010

The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking Like a Professional: Review

The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking Like a Professional by Philip Yaffe

Goodreads' description: 

"Effective writing and speaking are critical for all students and professionals in this challenging and competitive world. Professional level writing and speaking depend on only a handful of easy-to-understand principles. The Gettysburg Approach goes straight to the foundations, defines these principals and explains how to apply them. Through a variety of examples and simple exercises, this exceptional guide will help anyone sharpen their skills and rapidly learn to write and speak clearly, concisely, and persuasively."

I don't normally review non-fiction books, but since I was a full-time university student until recently, and I am currently still studying part-time, I thought I could approach this book from that perspective. It is intended more for the business professional, so many of the examples in the book are targeting that demographic; however, the conceptual foundations are general enough to be applicable to any kind of expository writing and presentations.


There are two main sections, one on the basics of good writing and the other on oral presentations. Yaffe argues that essentially the same approach should be taken to speaking as to writing: it should be clear, concise and dense. I appreciated that he used conceptual formulae to explain how to achieve each of these qualities. For example, D (density) = PL (precise information, logically linked). Furthermore, I liked that he teased out how listening to a presentation differs from reading an article, and pointed out how that will naturally affect how the presentation should be delivered.

Most of his tips made a good deal of sense, and I particularly enjoyed the section on the 'inverted pyramid' model of journalistic writing. I did quibble with a couple of his recommendations – for instance, he suggested only including images in a slide when you are intending to make a specific point about the illustration. In my experience, if the presentation only contains text, the audience interest starts to wane after a few slides. 

Readability/writing style:

Although I don't recommend trying to finish this book in one sitting, it is relatively easy to read given the topic. Yaffe's points are made clearly and often backed up with examples, and follow a logical progression. The layout, by breaking down the text into short sections with headings, facilitates understanding. My one gripe is that I did catch a few typos (spelling and punctuation errors) and grammatical problems (sentence fragments, though that may have been intentional). Normally I wouldn't pay so much attention to these, but this is a book on improving writing, so it is critical that it should be error-free. Generally, it would have benefited from more careful editing.

The tone of the book was generally informative without being terribly dry. However, occasionally it lapsed into a kind of 'sales pitch' I did not appreciate, and at other times it was a bit too didactic. I did find his use of quotes to be thoughtful and sometimes humorous, livening up the material a little.


Yaffe mentions at the beginning that he used to think "the essence of good writing was intricate sentences liberally sprinkled with sophisticated vocabulary." I think this is a very common misconception for writers starting out. His story of receiving lower grades than expected on his first papers in journalism school rang true with me. I remember learning the hard way, for my psychology research papers, that the professors weren't looking for flowery, smooth writing but simple, logical arguments grounded in cited evidence.

The author provides short examples of his tips throughout the text, and fleshes some of them out further in the accompanying appendices (for instance, ways of increasing reader interest, how to use a Q&A analysis, and even a comparison of the Gettysburg Address and Shakespeare.) This helps to show how the conceptual model is reflected in real-life examples. The appendices also include exercises (with answers) for improving certain aspects of writing and analyzing speeches.

Overall, I think it would be most useful to a beginner to expository writing (perhaps a first- or second-year college student new to writing research papers or making class presentations), but even those who consider themselves more seasoned writers/speakers may find this book a helpful resource.

(I'm not including a rating here because my rating system was designed for fiction, and I don't think it would work well for a non-fiction book.)

Disclaimer: I was asked to review this book by the author and given a copy by the publishers. This did not affect my review in any way.

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