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A bible for a generation of writers
on 23 February 2012
A "New York Times" reviewer said William Zinsser's "On Writing Well" is "a bible for a generation of writers looking for clues to clean, compelling prose." I couldn't agree more. After reading the first draft of my book's manuscript an editor recommended I read Zinsser's book. It revolutionized how I wrote. I think of my writing career as before and after Zinsser.
Zinsser calls On Writing Well a craft book. He set out 25 years ago to teach the craft of writing warmly and clearly, He has revised and expanded it five times since 1976.
He says the clarity and strength of good writing gives it aliveness and keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next. The principles of good writing can be learned.
Rewriting is the essence of writing well: We all have an emotional equity in our first draft; we can't believe it wasn't born perfect. But the odds are close to 100% that it wasn't. The newly hatched sentence almost always has something wrong with it.
Zinsser says clutter is the disease of American writing. The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that's already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what - these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. For example in the 1960s the president of Zinsser's university told alumni, "You are probably aware that we have been experiencing very considerable explosive expressions of dissatisfaction on issues partially related." Instead he could simply have said, "The students have been hassling them about different things."
Zinsser's mantra is simplify, simplify. A reader is someone with an attention span of 30 seconds - a person assailed by many forces competing for attention. If the reader is lost, it's usually because the writer has not been careful enough. The sentence may be too cluttered that the reader, hacking through the verbiage, doesn't know what it means. With each rewrite Zinsser tries to make what he has written tighter, stronger and more precise. He eliminates every element that's not doing useful work. When he reads it aloud he is always amazed at how much clutter can still be cut. Every detail is worth bothering about. Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it. Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or the author's voice.
Few people realize how badly they write. You have to strip your writing down before you build it back up. If your verbs (an action or occurrence) is weak and your syntax (sentence or phrase) is rickety, your sentence will fall apart.
Sentence clutter is the enemy. Beware of the long word that is no better than the short word: assistance (help), numerous (many), initial (first), attempt (try) and hundreds more. Beware of fad words like "paradigm" or "prioritize" as they are weed words that smother writing. Just as insidious are words used to explain ourselves: I might add, It should be pointed out, due to the fact that (because), with the possible exception of (except), lacked the ability to (he couldn't), for the purpose of (for).
Zinsser recommends we put brackets around every component of a sentence that doesn't work. Common errors are an adverb that carries the same meaning as a verb (smile happily), an adjective that states a fact (tall skyscraper), qualifiers that weaken a sentence (a bit, sort of) or an unnecessary preposition appended to a verb (order up).
Other characteristics of good writing include active verbs. An active-verb style brings clarity and vigor. It's the difference between life or death for the writer. Active verbs push hard; passive verbs tug fitfully. Active words require a pronoun (he, she) and enable us to visualize the motion and activity. Verbs can carry imagery, meaning, sound and suggestion. They dazzle, glitter, scatter and poke. Good verbs make adverbs and adjectives unnecessary. Prune out small qualifiers: a bit, sort of, rather, quite, very and too. They dilute style and persuasiveness. Bad writing often uses nouns instead of verbs to tell what somebody did. Problem sentences can be solved by getting rid of them. Keep paragraphs short. Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting.
He urges us to write in the first person: to use "I"and "me" and "us" as they put up a fight. It says what we think and feel is important. There is only one of us. Nobody else thinks or feels in exactly the same way.
With more than a million copies sold "On Writing Well" has stood the test to time and remains a valuable resource for writers.