New York Times Best-Selling Author Benjamin Dreyer Visits the University

Claire Stalder Staff Writer

This past Thursday, Benjamin Dreyer came to Villanova to give a brief reading of his recent book, “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style,” and to share his thoughts on writing. Thanks to Seth Pollins, a professor in Villanova’s English Department, who befriended Dreyer during the summer of 2013, the University was lucky enough to host a writer and editor as established as Dreyer.

Fans and students alike listened and laughed as Dreyer spoke about the art of writing and shared why he loves his work. He recalled the peculiar process of writing that he truly loves: where scratches on paper becomes sentences that evolve to stories with meanings. He also referenced a number of his own grammar rules you can find throughout the book: the uselessness of the word “actually,” the unnecessary use of a question mark before an exclamation point or vice versa, and the understated importance of clarity. In fact, he stressed clarity over everything else; the reader should be able to read a sentence from beginning to end without needing to restart. 

Dreyer, or “The Guardian of Grammar,” as the New York Times called him, is the current Vice President, Executive Managing Editor, and Copy Chief at Random House. He began his work as a freelance copy editor for St. Martin’s Press before expanding into copy editing and worked his way to the top.

He explained how he functions as the last set of eyes to each piece as it heads out the door, yet also acknowledged the limitations to editing. His goal is simply to make each piece the best it can be; noting that, as an editor, he can make a good piece better, but he can’t make a bad piece good.

Dreyer also spent a considerable amount of time preaching about Shirley Jackson, a personal favorite author of his. While writing his book, he spent the last couple years working on a project editing and publishing a newly discovered collection of essays and short stories by the late Jackson. He recalled that he was constantly impressed by the quality and skill within her first drafts and reflected on the difficulty of editing a writer who is no longer with us.

In copy editing, the majority of Dreyer’s work is a conversation with the writers; suggesting edits or critiques throughout their work that the writer can decide to accept or reject.  So, in working with Jackson’s writing, he found himself hesitant to make edits and working closely with her children to approve the few changes he incorporated before publishing.

Following his speech, Dreyer sat outside the Cinema signing copies of his new book and speaking to student and faculty fans. He also shared news of an upcoming book discussing his favorite works of fiction and analyzing why and how they are successful—a collection that will no doubt contain some of Jackson’s work.