Tuesday, January 6, 2015

On Writing Well

My desire, as I write my novel, is to write with simple, clear, effective prose. I once told a friend that "I try to write lightly and cleanly, expressing the things I want to say in few and pastel-colored words, but I do try to move the reader as well, and add in little things that make it come alive." 

William Zinsser's On Writing Well was a healthy dose of affirmation and encouragement in this regards; the first writing book I've ever finished and could recommend. 

The Book: 
From the Amazon description: On Writing Well has been praised for its sound advice, its clarity and the warmth of its style. It is a book for everybody who wants to learn how to write or who needs to do some writing to get through the day, as almost everybody does in the age of e-mail and the Internet. 
Whether you want to write about people or places, science and technology, business, sports, the arts or about yourself in the increasingly popular memoir genre, On Writing Well offers you fundamental principles as well as the insights of a distinguished writer and teacher. With more than a million copies sold, this volume has stood the test of time and remains a valuable resource for writers and would-be writers.

On Writing Well has many editions, but for the purposes of today's review I will be drawing directly from the 30th edition. 

My Thoughts 
William Zinsser started writing on the typewriter and has seen the rise of computers, change in trends, and shifts in people's interests throughout his career. His book of advice, On Writing Well, stands out as a gem; for it is the advice of a man who is not basing his teaching on the latest fads or encouraging people to follow the market. He gives writers classic principles that will stand true time immemorial. 
That doesn't mean his advice is surface-level, or fluffy. On the contrary, his common sense is refreshing, simply because we don't get it any more. Writers nowadays hear a clash of "Use adverbs." "Don't use adverbs." "Start with action." "Start with character empathy." The whiplash from what sells is confusing. Zinsser cuts through all the confusion simply by ignoring it and focusing on what really matters: interesting content, distinctive voice, and clean prose; the three vital components to any writing project. 
On Writing Well is toted as "The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction", but don't let that subtitle deceive you. It's a book that any writer should read, whether you write memoir or science fiction. The principles of good writing hold true across the genres. Besides; any writer is going to have to write non-fiction at some point in the form of magazine articles and blog posts, and it doesn't hurt to learn what works in the industry. 
One refreshing thing about Zinsser's writing is that he's morally clean. Some writing books like Donald Maas's Writing the Breakout Novel use examples of modern-day novels with more explicit content than I want to know about. Zinsser is clean, classic, and refined. He doesn't require shock value and edgy writing to get his point across. He writes in a family-friendly style, and barring 3 passages of my recollection, I would read the book aloud to the family. 
Zinsser does have a few drawbacks to look out for. Occasionally he includes a swear word, though fairly mild as I recall.  Here and there I detect a hint of religious cynicism. Also, he spends a good chunk of a chapter on how 'sexism' should be removed from nonfiction, suggesting that male-specific pronouns such as 'he' should be replaced with 'one' or 'the writer' to remove gender in teaching books. Women reading his books were offended that they had to read male examples all the time, and Zinsser made changes accordingly. I found the politically-correct usage annoying, because it violated some of his other writing principles: don't use extra words if you can cut them out. 
"More damaging--and more subtle--are all the usages that treat women as possessions of the family male, not as people with their own identity who played an equal part in the family saga: 'Early settlers pushed west with their wives and children.' Turn those settlers into pioneer families, or pioneer couples who went west with their sons and daughters, or men and women who settled the west." ~Ch. 10, On Writing Well, by William Zinsser
While I appreciate Zinsser's point, using the male pronoun actually stems from the English language found in the Bible. Biblical genealogies were created with the male as the family head, followed by 'and their wives and children'. Biblical teaching is often, though not always, written with the word 'he', with the knowledge that the same commands and promises apply to women as well. The Bible designates the male as the head, and many Christians don't realize that removing gender in their nonfiction violates a biblical precedent. Besides, using the pronoun 'he' all the time doesn't change my ability to become a firefighter. Therefore, I disagree with Zinsser on that point. 
Zinsser includes excerpts from various books and articles to illustrate his points. They were all appropriate, but three in particular I skipped: the examples on pgs. 144-146 at the end of ch. 14 deal with adultery and broken lifestyles. Page 189, ch. 17, was a women's rights sports article that I skipped because I'd had enough of the women's rights theme. Pg 225, in ch. 19 is just...disturbingly weird. (Excerpt about the presidents.) Again, none of these are terribly explicit, but if you want to exercise extra caution, then I'd recommend skimming. 
A third of Zinsser's book is dedicated to specific forms of nonfiction: Interviews, travel articles, memoir, and sports. I enjoyed all of it, and I think if you want to be a perceptive reader in all genres, then it's worth reading the whole book to know what is good writing in those forms. Knowledge is power, and I like to tuck away all kinds of knowledge in case I need to refer to it later. But to get the meat of the writing instruction you don't have to read these sections, so feel free to skim.
My favorite point in Zinsser's book is the confidence he encourages writers to have. To be confident in their style, confident in their interests, and confident in their life experiences. Doubting your interests, he says, is not the way to build a career. Jennifer Freitag once said that "It's best to remember that the reader, like an animal, can smell fear in the author." I have found that to be true. Fear leads to wordy and fuzzy writing. Zinsser upbuilds his students with confidence. Write what you are interested in, he says, and people will appreciate it. Indeed, On Writing Well is calming in its reassurance. Some writing books make you dizzy with all the things you have to remember if you want to be a breakout seller. Zinsser tells you to write what you love most and write it well. And he gives you the key steps you need to accomplish that. 

I highly recommend William Zinsser's On Writing Well. If it's the only writing book you ever read, it's worth the time it takes to improve your writing-craft. 



  1. Glad you liked it! It sounds like a great writing manual. :) I liked your point about Zinsser encouraging writers to be confident in their story, because the readers will be able to tell when they are.

    First book review of the year! ;)

    1. You might eventually find this book helpful.

      I think his book was so encouraging to me because I find confidence in other's reactions rather than my own gut instinct. But my gut instinct is generally right when I listen to it, so I'm trying to grow a little in that regards this year. Or the Holy Spirit, to be more precise. ;)

      You're right! Hooray!

  2. Recently I have been pondering style. The trickiest thing about it is that it must sound natural. Sometimes a book is awkward to read because the author has obviously taken some guidelines for good writing as Immutable Laws. Descriptive words lose their power when every sentence is hung with diverse and attention-grabbing specimens. The flow of a story suffers when an author refuses to use "said" as a dialogue tag (or, conversely, uses only "said"). We have been instructed never to use a fancy word when you could use a common word. We have also been urged never to use a common word when you could use an extraordinary word. Which is it?
    Writing, like music, is a matter of voice. Bach is not Tchaikovsky is not Mendelssohn is not John Williams. Play me a piece by each man, and I'll tell you who wrote it, because each voice is distinctive. G.K. Chesterton and Ann Voskamp are worlds apart, yet both are good writers. How do you think Ben-Hur, Great Expectations, and The Lord of the Rings would fare in the hands of modern style critics? Probably terribly!
    I have read this Zinsser book more than once, and the lesson it has driven home for me is clarity, clarity, clarity. Say what you mean in such a way that it cannot possibly be misunderstood. What I didn't understand after my first read-through many years ago is that writing does not have to be plain, stark, and boring to be clear.
    Meaning can be made more powerful by beauty. The words and the sentence flow should fit the subject: hard or soft on the ear, old and weighty or new and zingy. Some things must be written about in hard, lean sentences that crackle with clarity. Other things should be dealt with more gently. The challenge for authors is to be discerning in the wide world of style--giving and taking, expanding and cutting until the power of the story shines out uninhibited through the words.
    I didn't mean to write a small book there. :) But thanks for reviewing this book, and giving me the chance to add my thoughts...they've been roiling around in my brain waiting for a chance to get on paper where I could look at them properly.

    ~the Philologist

    1. I very much enjoyed your thoughts. Style, I think, more than plotting or characterization or believability or action, takes the most time to clarify in the editing process. I loved your music analogy. :)


  3. This book was required reading as part of my English dual-enrollment class. It helped me tremendously and I also highly recommend it.

    1. It would be great taken in a class! I'm so glad you enjoyed it too. :)


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