Monday, March 30, 2009

Zinsser's "On Writing Well": 33 Years Later

William Zinsser's classic On Writing Well was first published in the spring of 1976 (just a few months before I was born). It's now sold nearly 1.5 million copies.

In the latest cover story for The American Scholar the 86-year-old author-teacher reflects on how the book came about and how it has changed over the past three decades.

Zinsser, "liberated from E.B. White" (he explains in what sense) needed a new model: "a writer I would emulate not for his subject but for his turn of mind, his enjoyment of what he was teaching. His model for On Writing Well was American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950, published in 1973 by the composer Alec Wilder. Zinsser writes, "His pleasure was to praise. That connected with my own principle of not teaching by bad example. I may cite some horrible example of jargon or pomposity to warn against the prevailing bloatage, but I don’t deal in junk. Writing is learned by imitation, and I want my students to imitate the best.

The whole piece is worth reading. Here are a few snippets that stood out to me:
  • "I learned to delete every word or phrase or sentence that told readers something they had already been enabled to know or were bright enough to deduce. I also tried to stop using phrases like of course and adverbs like surprisingly, predictably, understandably, and ironically, which place a value on a sentence before the reader has a chance to read it. Readers, I learned, are not as dumb as the writer thinks; they must be given room to play their role in the act of writing—to discover for themselves what’s surprising or predictable or understandable or ironic. They don’t want that pleasure usurped." (Cf. C.S. Lewis's principles on how to become a better writer, point #4.)
  • "The hard part of writing isn’t the writing; it’s the thinking."
  • "[C]cut every word or phrase or sentence or paragraph that isn’t doing necessary work. That, finally, is the life-changing message of On Writing Well: simplify your language and thereby find your humanity."