William Zinsser’s On Writing Well should be any writer’s well-worn companion. I’m sure you’ve already read it—it’s been indispensable to writers since it was published in 1976*—but I only finished parsing its advice last week, and I found it surprisingly captivating (for a how-to guide). I’ll try not to tell you everything you already know about Zinsser’s witty advice and clever mocking of writers’ worst practices, but I do want to extract and revisit some notable points. I’ll apply these to my own writing—the thesis-defense type—though Zinsser writes for all nonfiction writers. Here’s what I noted:
–“Don’t become the prisoner of a preconceived plan. Writing is no respecter of blueprints” (p. 53*). Though I try to tell students (and myself) that any clear writing comes from a clear outline, an outline shouldn’t restrict an essay’s development.
I always try to sketch a preliminary direction for my essays, but I also always end up diverting and re-sketching not only my route but also my destination (i.e., the very thesis I try to defend). So I think outlines are important—Zinsser would agree—but if in the middle of some piece I see some alternative argument for some subtly different and better thesis, I don’t hesitate to discard everything irrelevant to the old thesis in exchange for the new. I think I’ve learned—at least in this past year—not to be imprisoned by a preconceived plan, even if this means discarding something I already spent several hours developing. (And, usually, the revised thesis and argument come more easily than the one that I belabored.)
–Zinsser twice mentions the writer should know more than she tells the reader. In his words, “Every article is strong in proportion to the surplus of details from which you can choose the few that will serve you best (p. 58). Later, “Always start with too much material. Then give your reader just enough” (p. 156). I’m sure discerning the “just enough” is an art, but essential nonetheless. This is a weakness of mine—I feel I never acquire the requisite surplus before I must give the reader what little I have acquired. Never mind limiting the details. But this is how I let irrelevant and distracting details slip into my writing.
–The first draft of any writing is (to the attuned writer) painful to re-read, and Zinsser extols the revision process—tidying the loose ends from one sentence to the next: “Learn to enjoy this tidying process. I don’t like to write; I like to have written. But I love to rewrite… to press the DELETE key and see an unnecessary word or phrase or sentence vanish into the electricity” (p. 87).
Like any good writer writing about writing, Zinsser praises clarity and simplicity—the DELETE key is especially good for discarding clichés, jargon, and phrases the length of which could be considerably and mercifully shorter than when they were first written.
–On word choice and syntax: imitate writers with taste; read their words aloud to get a sense of their rhythm… (p. 235). I have a short list of writers I’ll be re-reading this summer hoping I can mimic their taste and thereby develop my own.
–“After verbs, plain nouns are your strongest tools; they resonate with emotion” (p. 238). The simplest words, used accurately, are often the best. Resist any urge to search a thesaurus for the intelligent-sounding three-syllable synonym to the one-syllable word you know already (as I often did in my early days as an undergraduate student…).
–If you’re working with these concepts of simplicity, the next step to ease into good writing is enjoying your subject. I like how Zinsser puts it:
Living is the trick. Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That’s almost the whole point of becoming a writer. I’ve used writing to give myself an interesting life and a continuing education. If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write. Learning is a tonic. (p. 245)
–Finally, as perhaps the most American writers do—whether academic or how-to gurus—Zinsser drives his point home with a baseball metaphor:
My favorite definition of a careful writer comes from Joe DiMaggio, though he didn’t know that’s what he was defining. DiMaggio was the greatest player I ever saw, and nobody looked more relaxed. He covered vast distances in the outfield, moving in graceful strides, always arriving ahead of the ball, making the hardest catch look routine, and even when he was at bat, hitting the ball with tremendous power, he didn’t appear to be exerting himself. I marveled at how effortless he looked because what he did could only be achieved by great daily effort. A reporter once asked him how he managed to play so well so consistently, and he said: “I always thought that there was at least one person in the stands who had never seen me play, and I didn’t want to let him down.”
The keys here are (1) the great daily effort that (2) makes your written work appear effortless (which it’s not; see (1)). Your best writing should be worth the effort required to produce it (which effort should often be enjoyable; see penultimate point) and worth the reader’s commitment (which should also be enjoyable, of course).
Since you’ve read to the end, I thank you for your commitment. Thanks! I also welcome your comments (e.g., the advice you gleaned from On Writing Well) and criticisms. Next I hope to read and distill Anne Lammott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, but please forgive me if the summer lethargy settles into my bones and prevents me from updating you soon enough.
*All page numbers correspond with the seventh edition.
**I don’t have hard facts corroborating this statement. I’ve merely inferred its indispensability because it’s in its seventh edition, and that’s usually a good indication.