William Zinsser: On Writing Well

I admire people who write fast and don’t have to think and rewrite like me. So I was surprised to read that even a writer and teacher like William Zinsser thought writing wasn’t easy.

William Zinsser
William Zinsser

Here is what he says in his book, On Writing Well:

Good writing doesn’t come naturally, though most people seem to think it does…

Writing is hard work. 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 writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.

Earlier in the same chapter called Simplicity, Zinner urges writers to write clearly, simply, so readers can understand them. He writes:

Who is this elusive creature, the reader? The reader is someone with an attention span of about 30 seconds – a person assailed by many forces competing for his attention…

If the reader is lost, it’s usually because the writer hasn’t been careful enough. That carelessness can take any number of forms. Perhaps a sentence is so excessively cluttered that the reader, cutting through the verbiage, simply doesn’t know what it means. Perhaps a sentence has been so shoddily constructed that the reader could read it in several ways…

Writers must therefore constantly ask them: what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they don’t know… Thinking clearly is a conscious act that writers must force on themselves.

Be yourself

Writers must also have confidence and be themselves, says Zinsser. In a chapter called Style, he writes:

Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself.

No rule, however, is harder to follow. It requires writers to do things that by their metabolism are impossible. They must relax, and they must have confidence.

Telling a writer to relax is like telling a man to relax while being examined for a hernia, and as for confidence, see how stiffly he sits, glaring at the screen that awaits his words. See how often he gets up to look for something to eat or drink. A writer will do anything to avoid the act of writing…

Assume that you are the writer sitting down to write. You think your article must be of a certain length or it won’t seem important… You think that its style must dazzle. No wonder you tighten; you are so busy thinking of your awesome responsibility to the finished article that you can’t even start…

Writers must learn to relax and be confident, or they won’t be able to write at all, says Zinsser. He ends the chapter on Style by urging writers:

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.

Write for yourself

In the next chapter, called The Audience, Zinsser says:

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…

Don’t worry about whether the reader will “get it” if you indulge a sudden impulse for humour. If it amuses you in the act of writing it, put it in. (It can always be taken out, but only you can put it in.)  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.

This may seem to be a paradox. Earlier I warned that the reader is an impatient bird, perched on the thin edge of distraction or sleep. Now I’m saying you must write for yourself and not be gnawed by worry over whether the reader is tagging along.

I’m talking about two different issues. One is craft, the other is attitude. The first is a question of mastering a precise skill. The second is a question of how you use that skill to express your personality…

First work hard to master the tools. Simplify, prune and strive for order. Think of this as a mechanical act, and soon your sentences will become clearer.

Think of the other as a creative act: the expressing of who you are. Relax and say what you want to say. And since style is who you are, you only need to be true to yourself to find it gradually emerging from under the accumulated clutter and debris, growing more distinctive every day. Perhaps the style won’t solidify for years as your style, your voice. Just as it takes time to find yourself as a person, it takes time to find yourself as a stylist, and even then your style will change as you grow older.

But whatever your age, be yourself when you write… 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.

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