We learned last week that William Zinnser has died. He was known primarily as the author of On Writing Well, a classic guide to composing non-fiction. It is a book that has meant a lot to me as I have attempted to mature as a writer. This weekend I breezed back through all my notes and highlights and found that the ideas that most impacted me can be distilled into 5 simple headings. I also found that the ideas are applicable not only to professional writers like Zinnser, but to anyone who wants to grow in communication skills. Here are 5 things Zinnser taught me:
There is really no such thing as that fabled “natural writer.” What actually distinguishes the good authors from the great ones is simply their diligence. Good authors humble themselves with the knowledge of how poor they are, and then they commit themselves to endless practice.
- “Few people realize how badly they write.”
- “The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.”
- “Good writers of prose must be part poet, always listening to what they write.”
- “A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”
- “Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English.”
While Zinsser believes that writing is an act of ego (see below), he also calls for a kind of humility that manifests itself in ruthless editing. If he is known for anything, it is for his constant calls to cut the clutter that marks too much writing (my own included).
- “Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.”
- “Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose.”
- “Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.”
- “Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away.”
Zinsser hates writing that sounds unnatural and cannot tolerate people who have a writing voice that is completely separate from their speaking voice. His advice to the writer is simple: Be yourself. His basic assumption is that if your writing appeals to you, it will appeal to others. If you wouldn’t read it, then don’t write it!
- “You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for. If you lose the dullards back in the dust, you don’t want them anyway.”
- “You are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience—every reader is a different person.”
- “Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.”
- “Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. If you’re not a person who says ‘indeed’ or ‘moreover,’ or who calls someone an individual (‘he’s a fine individual’), please don’t write it.”
- “The way to warm up any institution is to locate the missing ‘I.’ Remember: ‘I’ is the most interesting element in any story.”
- “My commodity as a writer, whatever I’m writing about, is me. And your commodity is you. Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page, a voice that’s enjoyable not only in its musical line but in its avoidance of sounds that would cheapen its tone: breeziness and condescension and clichés.”
He also advocates a growing knowledge of the form and craft of writing.
- “Readers want to know—very soon—what’s in it for them.”
- “Good usage, to me, consists of using good words if they already exist—as they almost always do—to express myself clearly and simply to someone else.”
- “The race in writing is not to the swift but to the original.”
- “Quality is its own reward.”
- “The Thesaurus is to the writer what a rhyming dictionary is to the songwriter–a reminder of all the choices–and you should use it with gratitude. If, having found the scalawag and the scapegrace, you want to know how they differ, then go to the dictionary.”
Then, of course, he also provides a lot of very practical advice.
- “If you want to write long sentences, be a genius. Or at least make sure that the sentence is under control from beginning to end, in syntax and punctuation, so that the reader knows where he is at every step of the winding trail.” (This is a particularly brilliant sentence that perfectly models his instruction.)
- “The adjective that exists solely as decoration is a self-indulgence for the writer and a burden for the reader.”
- “E.B. White makes the case cogently in The Elements of Style, a book every writer should read once a year…”
- “Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with ‘but.’ If that’s what you learned, unlearn it—there’s no stronger word at the start. It announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is thereby primed for the change.”
- “You’ll never make your mark as a writer unless you develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive. The English language is rich in strong and supple words. Take the time to root around and find the ones you want.”
Much more could be said, of course. Zinner’s book remains a classic and one that bears repeated readings. I will be reading it again this summer with my interns, and am already looking forward to it.
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