On Writing Well, by William Zinsser

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Puritan Board Freshman
Turning the last page of On Writing Well, by William Zinsser, I compulsively kissed the cover—an act of grateful reverence bestowed on few books in the Spotts library, effectively Knighthood in the realm of my reading. This distinction was earned by Zinsser’s incomparable usefulness to the Writer that Would Be. Many “accomplished authors” have assumed the task of sharpening our nibs, and showed themselves little more than grammarians, or seized the chance to flaunt their cloying style and terribly terrific wit—without saying anything about the actual process of writing.

But On Writing Well gives only the most functional tips. Where others drag out a trunk of fancy silverware to vainly oodle, Zinnser knows you are lost in a jungle with limited time, and hands you a few stout blades to cut through the thicket. His tools are based on a simple survival tactic: cut excess weight and get into the clear fast. It’s the difference between dead prose and living text. This is not to say his book is light on material. Spartan, yes, but not frail. In 300 pages he covers such dilemmas as: How to create a sense of persona—What sort of words and phrases to avoid—Where to get fresh ideas—How to maintain interest. But be prepared to work, because Zinsser’s key idea is, “You will write only as well as you make yourself write.” (p. 293)

Just how much work goes into good writing? The Teacher himself admits in one place, “Altogether, the sentence took almost an hour.” He is quick to add, however, “I didn’t begrudge a minute of it. On the contrary, seeing it fall into place gave me great pleasure. No writing decision is too small to be worth a large expenditure of time. Both you and the reader know it when your finicky labor is rewarded by a sentence coming out right.” (p. 271)

All this effort tempts writers to indulge themselves with keeping every hard-won sentence in the final draft. But good writing is as much about what you reserve as what you say. “At such moments I ask myself one very helpful question: “What is the piece really about?” (Not just “What is the piece about?”) Fondness for material you’ve gone to a lot of trouble to gather isn’t a good enough reason to include it if it’s not central to the story you’ve chosen to tell. Self-discipline bordering on masochism is required. The only consolation for the loss of so much material is that it isn’t totally lost; it remains in your writing as an intangible that the reader can sense. Readers should always feel that you know more about your subject than you’ve put into writing.” (p. 273-274)

The right amount of content still means little if your ideas are jumbled. An undirected crowd quickly dissolves into an unruly mob, and text that is not strictly governed by logic will run mad, disorienting your reader:

“Learning how to organize a long article is just as important as learning how to write a clear and pleasing sentence. All your clear and pleasing sentences will fall apart if you don’t keep remembering that writing is linear and sequential, that logic is the glue that holds it together, that tension must be maintained from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next and from one section to the next, and that narrative—good old-fashioned storytelling—is what should pull your readers along without them noticing the tug. The only thing they should notice is that you have made a sensible plan for your journey. Every step should seem inevitable.” (p. 265-266)

On Writing Well is as biographical as it is grammatical. Zinnser illustrates his points with detours into his history as a newspaper writer for the Herald Tribune, and with anecdotes from his worldwide travels. These sidelines serve an important purpose, which is to embed the fact that nonfiction thrives on interesting details and stories which are most often found outside of the writer’s carrel. Narrative asides and unlikely points of trivia lend human feeling to your prose, but also require a lot of legwork.

“As a nonfiction writer you must get on the plane. If the subject interests you, go after it, even if it’s in the next county or the next state or the next country. It’s not going to come looking for you. Decide what you want to do. Then decide to do it. Then do it.” (p. 285)

“Given a choice between two traveling companions — and a writer is someone who asks us to travel with him — we usually choose the one who we think will make an effort to brighten the trip.” (p. 288)

As stated above, for all but the most sainted writers, developing your craft will inevitably involve sweat, swearing, and late nights glaring at a rebellious blank page. The sentence you want is often huddling in the corner behind a half-wrought, mangy animal that hisses until you get up the courage to make it submit. Don’t be intimated. Keep at it, and you’ll eventually dominate the phrase so that it becomes man’s best friend.

“The final advantage is the same one that applies in every other competitive venture. If you would like to write better than everybody else, you have to want to write better than everybody else. You must take an obsessive pride in the smallest details of your craft. And you must be willing to defend what you’ve written against the various middlemen – editors, agents and publishers — who sights may be different from yours, whose standards not as high. Too many writers are browbeaten into settling for less than their best.” (p. 289)

Eventually you will master the mechanics of strong English. You’ll breath the four cardinal maxims—Brevity, Clarity, Simplicity, Humanity—as your native air. From there, you will begin speaking with a new tongue, one unique to you, composed of your tastes and experience—your style. Once you gain your voice, whatever you do, fight for it. Editors and self-made critics will suggest you scrub your text of those flavorful nuances that make it your own. But, says Zinsser, “if you allow your distinctiveness to be edited out, you will lose one of your main virtues. You will also lose your virtue.” (p. 292)

Final Verdict: Reformed believers are above all, people of the Word. Naturally, we wish to be clear and compelling in our choice of words we use to speak about doctrine and faith. If you wish to become a better writer and speaker, here is a hearty recommendation. If you want to improve your prose, leave all and sit for a while at the feet of Zinsser.
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