William Zinsser taught me how to be a good writer.* Unfortunately, I don’t actually practice what I’ve learned from him. He’s says to rewrite rigorously; I don’t even proofread. He says the prerequisite for good writing is a clear mind; I write in order to clear my mind. He says, “constantly ask, what am I trying to say?”; I write first and then, in hindsight, ask, what did I just say?
But, Professor Zinsser is always lurking in the back of my mind. And even though I resist his instructions for a while, I tend to come back eventually. Now is one of those times.
Here are some reminders from Dr. Z’s book:
- Writing is Hard. I want writing to be easy. I have few gifts, but one that I lean on is being a fast writer. Sadly, the faster I write, the worse I write. Or, to reframe it, I write my first drafts quickly. Unfortunately, I often fail to turn those drafts into final products. Two sub-points: a) writing is a craft that needs to be practiced on a schedule and b) rewriting is the essence of writing.
- Most Drafts Can Be Cut By 50%. Our culture is drowning in clutter. Our writing is too. Clutterd writing hides what we are trying to say. We can overcome this by removing everything that serves no purpose: replacing long words with short ones; removing adjectives and adverbs that simply restate what the noun or verb already say; avoiding symbolism whenever possible.
- Write In The First Person. We’re at our most natural when we use “I” and “me” or “us” and “we”. First person writing helps us achieve a basic rule of compelling prose: Be Yourself.
- Relax. When I sit down to write, I’m nervous. I start and stop constantly. I check emails and get coffee and do the laundry. Dr. Z, thankfully, describes most writers this way. What helps me here is to accept that most of what I write is going to be bad, but eventually I’ll get to something good.
- Be Confident. I’ve gotten into the habit of hedging my prose. I do this by saying things like, “I suppose it’s possible to consider the likelihood of a supernatural deity that may or may not resemble the Christian God, but my impression is that such a position is subjective and therefore not wholly acceptable to the analytical aspect of my personality.” WTF? What I mean to say is, “I’m an agnostic.”
These notes are from the first few pages of Zinsser’s book, On Writing Well. By reviewing just half a chapter, I already feel inspired and improved as a writer. Anyone interested in becoming a better non-fiction writer should pick up a copy… or at the very least contemplate the very reasonable likelihood that the thoughtful consideration of acquiring Dr. Zinsser’s book may or may not, but most probably may, improve the quality of his or her writing… 🙂
* FYI, I’ve never met William Zinsser, I just learned a lot from his book.