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Like most 'How to write' books
on 27 April 2017
Not quite the bible sold up to be. Like most 'How to write' books, it's a collection of good points lost within an autobiography, which goes against the underlying concept of keeping your writing concise and to the point. At least Zinsser openly admits that he likes this style.
Another common trap that this guide falls into like so many others is the author's obsessive need to big up those who influenced their own work, in this case, E.B. White. Now, there's nothing wrong with that--those writers are considered great for a reason--but at least take the time to choose the passages to quote that support the argument being made.
When given a quote like: "I spent several days and nights in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting," take the time to dissect the sentence and explain how it does its job so well. Telling a reader seeking understanding to, "Look at the sentence again. Nothing about it is accidental. The grammar is formal, the words are plain and precise, and the cadences are those of a poet," doesn't tell them anything at all. It's these very vague overviews that we're constantly being advised against.
Maybe I'm lacking context, or maybe I'm one of the hacks Zinsser often refers to, but I can't see any of what he claims is in this sentence. I don't understand what 'more particular' even means--I've heard of the term 'in particular--and despite having read the passage ten times over, the final clause remains awkward and leaves me baffled.
All of that said, when Zinsser does stay on topic, there are some real gems here. I found the parts on punctuation, clutter, and leads and endings to be of particular value, organising your sentences and paragraphs. There's also some good clarification on the Active and Passive voice that so many others talk about, yet rarely educate on. When not bombarding us with tales of classroom events and holidays, Zinsser also does a fine job of delving into editing side of writing--the importance of rewriting, the hourly battles with single sentences, and how you can only ever strive towards perfection, but never truly attain it. I found that all very comforting.
On a final note, the book is primarily aimed towards non-fiction writing, especially in the article world. If you're doing that, the value you take from this guide will likely jump up, since there are entire chapters dedicated to writing on specific topics such as people, places, the arts, sports, science etc. For those focused purely on fiction, the technical value mostly comes in the first tenth of the book, with some confidence building thoughts dotted throughout the rest. So there's value to be had, for sure, but don't expect a miraculous transformation in your understanding on how to deliver a gripping novel.