Before I briefly explain the note-taking process, I want to take a few sentences to introduce William Zinsser, the author of ‘On Writing Well.’
A lifelong nonfiction writer, William began his career as a journalist for the New York Herald Tribune in 1946. In the 1970s, he taught a writing class at Yale University. He also wrote 18 books in a writing career spanning more than half a century.
First published in 1976, ‘On Writing Well‘ is widely regarded as his best work. To date, it has served as the canonical writing book for three generations of writers, journalists, & editors.
In his book, The Writer’s Art, author James J. Kilpatrick, said that if he were limited to just one book on how to write, it would William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.
Credentials and testimonials aside, as someone who likes to write, I enjoyed reading ‘On Writing Well.’ The book helped me sharpen my writing toolset, identify areas of the craft I should learn more about & rejuvenated my passion for writing.
‘On Writing Well’ is divided into four chapters — principles, methods, forms & attitudes — with each chapter having sub-chapters of their own.
My notes include highlights from all, except a few sub-chapters of the third chapter of forms.
I decided to exclude them because those sub-chapters focussed on how to write a specific kind of genre. For example, the excluded sub-chapters were about writing about people, writing about places, writing about yourself, etc.
The notes are lengthy but dense in insights. The words, after all, come from a master of the craft.
Book Notes of ‘On Writing Well’ by ‘William Zinsser’
Part 1: Principles
Some people write by day, others by night. Some people need silence, others turn on the radio. Some write by hand, some by word processor, some by talking into a tape recorder. Some people write their first draft in one long burst and then revise; others can’t write the second paragraph until they have fiddled endlessly with the first. But all of them are vulnerable and all of them are tense. They are driven by a compulsion to put some part of themselves on paper, and yet they don’t just write what comes naturally. They sit down to commit an act of literature, and the self who emerges on paper is far stiffer than the person who sat down to write. The problem is to find the real man or woman behind the tension.
Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is. I often find myself reading with interest about a topic I never thought would interest me—some scientific quest, perhaps. What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field. How was he drawn into it? What emotional baggage did he bring along? How did it change his life? It’s not necessary to want to spend a year alone at Walden Pond to become involved with a writer who did. This is the personal transaction that’s at the heart of good nonfiction writing.
Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important. The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating experiencing considerable precipitation wouldn’t think of saying it may rain. The sentence is too simple—there must be something wrong with it.
Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English. I don’t mean that some people are born clearheaded and are therefore natural writers, whereas others are naturally fuzzy and will never write well. Thinking clearly is a conscious act that writers must force on themselves, as if they were working on any other project that requires logic: making a shopping list or doing an algebra problem.
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 that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.
Is there any way to recognize clutter at a glance? Here’s a device my students at Yale found helpful. I would put brackets around every component in a piece of writing that wasn’t doing useful work. Often just one word got bracketed: the unnecessary preposition appended to a verb (“order up”), or the adverb that carries the same meaning as the verb (“smile happily”), or the adjective that states a known fact (“tall skyscraper”). Often my brackets surrounded the little qualifiers that weaken any sentence they inhabit (“a bit,” “sort of), or phrases like “in a sense,” which don’t mean anything. Sometimes my brackets surrounded an entire sentence—the one that essentially repeats what the previous sentence said, or that says something readers don’t need to know or can figure out for themselves. Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.
Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful? Simplify, simplify.
You have to strip your writing down before you can build it back up. You must know what the essential tools are and what job they were designed to do. Using the metaphor of carpentry, it’s first necessary to be able to saw wood neatly and to drive nails. Later you can bevel the edges or add elegant finials, if that’s your taste. But you can never forget that you are practicing a craft that’s based on certain principles. If the nails are weak, your house will collapse. If your verbs are weak and your syntax is rickety, your sentences will fall apart.
First, learn to hammer the nails, and if what you build is sturdy and serviceable, take satisfaction in its plain strength. But you will be impatient to find a “style”—to embellish the plain words so that readers will recognize you as someone special. You will reach for gaudy similes and tinseled adjectives, as if “style” were something you could buy at the style store and drape onto your words in bright decorator colors. There is no style store; style is organic to the person doing the writing, as much a part of him as his hair, or, if he is bald, his lack of it. Trying to add style is like adding a toupee. At first glance the formerly bald man looks young and even handsome. But at second glance—and with a toupee there’s always a second glance—he doesn’t look quite right. The problem is not that he doesn’t look well groomed; he does, and we can only admire the wigmaker’s skill. The point is that he doesn’t look like himself.
This is the problem of writers who set out deliberately to garnish their prose. You lose whatever it is that makes you unique. The reader will notice if you are putting on airs. 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 two 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.
What I’m always looking for as an editor is a sentence that says something like “I’ll never forget the day when I… ” I think, “Aha! A person!” Writers are obviously at their most natural when they write in the first person. Writing is an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper, and it will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity. Therefore I urge people to write in the first person: to use “I” and “me” and “we” and “us.”
Soon after you confront the matter of preserving your identity, another question will occur to you: “Who am I writing for?’
It’s a fundamental question, and it has a fundamental answer: 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.
In terms of craft, there’s no excuse for losing readers through sloppy workmanship. If they doze off in the middle of your article because you have been careless about a technical detail, the fault is yours. But on the larger issue of whether the reader likes you, or likes what you are saying or how you are saying it, or agrees with it, or feels an affinity for your sense of humor or your vision of life, don’t give him a moment’s worry. You are who you are, he is who he is, and either you’ll get along or you won’t.
Notice the decisions that other writers make in their choice of words and be finicky about the ones you select from the vast supply. The race in writing is not to the swift but to the original.
The Thesaurus is to the writer what a rhyming dictionary is to the songwriter—a reminder of all the choices.
Also bear in mind, when you’re choosing words and stringing them together, how they sound. This may seem absurd: readers read with their eyes. But in fact they hear what they are reading far more than you realize. Therefore such matters as rhythm and alliteration are vital to every sentence. Good writers of prose must be part poet, always listening to what they write.
If all your sentences move at the same plodding gait, which even you recognize as deadly but don’t know how to cure, read them aloud. (I write entirely by ear and read everything aloud before letting it go out into the world.) You’ll begin to hear where the trouble lies. See if you can gain variety by reversing the order of a sentence, or by substituting a word that has freshness or oddity, or by altering the length of your sentences so they don’t all sound as if they came out of the same mold. An occasional short sentence can carry a tremendous punch. It stays in the reader’s ear. Remember that words are the only tools you’ve got. Learn to use them with originality and care. And also remember: somebody out there is listening.
Part 2: Method
Unity is the anchor of good writing. So, first, get your unities straight. Unity not only keeps the reader from straggling off in all directions; it satisfies the readers’ subconscious need for order and reassures them that all is well at the helm. Therefore choose from among the many variables and stick to your choice.
One choice is unity of pronoun. Are you going to write in the first person, as a participant, or in the third person, as an observer? Or even in the second person.
Unity of tense is another choice. You must choose the tense in which you are principally going to address the reader, no matter how many glances you may take backward or forward along the way.
Another choice is unity of mood. You might want to talk to the reader in the casual voice that The New Yorker has strenuously refined. Or you might want to approach the reader with a certain formality to describe a serious event or to present a set of important facts. Both tones are acceptable. In fact, any tone is acceptable. But don’t mix two or three.
Once you have your unities decided, there’s no material you can’t work into your frame.
Don’t ever become the prisoner of a preconceived plan. Writing is no respecter of blueprints. Just remember that all the unities must be fitted into the edifice you finally put together, however backwardly they may be assembled, or it will soon come tumbling down.
The Lead & the Ending
The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the “lead.”
Some leads hook the reader with just a few well-baited sentences; others amble on for several pages, exerting a slow but steady pull.
Take special care with the last sentence of each paragraph—it’s the crucial springboard to the next paragraph.
Every article is strong in proportion to the surplus of details from which you can choose the few that will serve you best—if you don’t go on gathering facts forever. At some point you must stop researching and start writing. Look for your material everywhere, not just by reading the obvious sources and interviewing the obvious people.
Knowing when to end an article is far more important than most writers realize. You should give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did to your first. If you have presented all the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the nearest exit.
A good last sentence—or last paragraph—is a joy in itself. It gives the reader a lift, and it lingers when the article is over.
Bits & Pieces
This is a chapter of scraps and morsels—small admonitions on many points that I have collected under one, as they say, umbrella.
Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb. The difference between an active verb style and a passive-verb style—in clarity and vigor—is the difference between life and death for a writer.
“Joe saw him” is strong. “He was seen by Joe” is weak. Make active verbs activate your sentences, and try to avoid the kind that need an appended preposition to complete their work. Don’t set up a business that you can start or launch. Don’t say that the president of the company stepped down. Did he resign? Did he retire? Did he get fired? Be precise. Use precise verbs.
Most adverbs are unnecessary. You will clutter your sentence and annoy the reader if you choose a verb that has a specific meaning and then add an adverb that carries the same meaning. Don’t tell us that the radio blared loudly; “blare” connotes loudness. Don’t write that someone clenched his teeth tightly; there’s no other way to clench teeth. Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs.
Most adjectives are also unnecessary. Like adverbs, they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don’t stop to think that the concept is already in the noun. This kind of prose is littered with precipitous cliffs and lacy spiderwebs, or with adjectives denoting the color of an object whose color is well known: yellow daffodils and brownish dirt.
The adjective that exists solely as decoration is a self-indulgence for the writer and a burden for the reader.
The rule is simple: make your adjectives do work that needs to be done. “He looked at the gray sky and the black clouds and decided to sail back to the harbor.” The darkness of the sky and the clouds is the reason for the decision. If it’s important to tell the reader that a house was drab or a girl was beautiful, by all means use “drab” and “beautiful.” They will have their proper power because you have learned to use adjectives sparsely.
Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw: “a bit,” “a little,” “sort of,” “kind of,” “rather,” “quite,” “very,” “too,” “pretty much,” “in a sense” and dozens more.
They dilute your style and your persuasiveness. Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.
“Very” is a useful word to achieve emphasis, but far more often it’s clutter. There’s no need to call someone very methodical. Either he is methodical or he isn’t.
These are brief thoughts on punctuation, in no way intended as a primer. If you don’t know how to punctuate—and many college students still don’t—get a grammar book.
There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough. If you find yourself hopelessly mired in a long sentence, it’s probably because you’re trying to make the sentence do more than it can reasonably do—perhaps express two dissimilar thoughts.
The Exclamation Point
Don’t use it unless you must to achieve a certain effect. It has a gushy aura, the breathless excitement of a debutante commenting on an event that was exciting only to her: “Daddy says I must have had too much champagne!” “But honestly, I could have danced all night!” We have all suffered more than our share of these sentences in which an exclamation point knocks us over the head with how cute or wonderful something was. Instead, construct your sentence so that the order of the words will put the emphasis where you want it.
The semicolon brings the reader, if not to a halt, at least to a pause. So use it with discretion.
The dash is used in two ways. One is to amplify or justify in the second part of the sentence a thought you stated in the first part. “We decided to keep going—it was only 100 miles more and we could get there in time for dinner.” By its very shape the dash pushes the sentence ahead and explains why they decided to keep going. The other use involves two dashes, which set apart a parenthetical thought within a longer sentence. “She told me to get in the car—she had been after me all summer to have a haircut—and we drove silently into town.” An explanatory detail that might otherwise have required a separate sentence is dispatched along the way.
The colon has begun to look even more antique than the semicolon, and many of its functions have been taken over by the dash. But it still serves well its pure role of bringing your sentence to a brief halt before you plunge into, say, an itemized list. “The brochure said the ship would stop at the following ports: Oran, Algiers, Naples, Brindisi, Piraeus, Istanbul and Beirut.” You can’t beat the colon for work like that.
Learn to alert the reader as soon as possible to any change in mood from the previous sentence. At least a dozen words will do this job for you: “but,” “yet,” “however,” “nevertheless,” “still,” “instead,” “thus,” “therefore,” “meanwhile,” “now,” “later,” “today,” “subsequently” and several more.
Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with “but.” If that’s what you learned, unlearn it—there’s no stronger word at the start. It announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is thereby primed for the change. If you need relief from too many sentences beginning with “but,” switch to “however.” It is, however, a weaker word and needs careful placement. Don’t start a sentence with “however”—it hangs there like a wet dishrag. And don’t end with “however”—by that time it has lost its howeverness.
Your style will be warmer and truer to your personality if you use contractions like “I’ll” and “won’t” and “can’t” when they fit comfortably into what you’re writing. “I’ll be glad to see them if they don’t get mad” is less stiff than “I will be glad to see them if they do not get mad.” (Read that aloud and hear how stilted it sounds.) There’s no rule against such informality—trust your ear and your instincts.
THAT AND WHICH
If your sentence needs a comma to achieve its precise meaning, it probably needs “which.” “Which” serves a particular identifying function, different from “that.” (A) “Take the shoes that are in the closet.” This means: take the shoes that are in the closet, not the ones under the bed. (B) “Take the shoes, which are in the closet.” Only one pair of shoes is under discussion; the “which” usage tells you where they are. Note that the comma is necessary in B, but not in A.
Nouns that express a concept are commonly used in bad writing instead of verbs that tell what somebody did. Here are three typical dead sentences:
The common reaction is incredulous laughter.
Bemused cynicism isn’t the only response to the old system.
The current campus hostility is a symptom of the change.
What is so eerie about these sentences is that they have no people in them. They also have no working verbs—only “is” or “isn’t.” The reader can’t visualize anybody performing some activity; all the meaning lies in impersonal nouns that embody a vague concept: “reaction,” “cynicism,” “response,” “hostility.” Turn these cold sentences around.
Get people doing things:
Most people just laugh with disbelief.
Some people respond to the old system by turning cynical; others say. . .
Its easy to notice the change—you can see how angry all the students are
This is a disease that strings two or three nouns together where one noun—or, better yet, one verb—will do. Nobody goes broke now; we have money problem areas. It no longer rains; we have precipitation activity or a thunderstorm probability situation. Please, let it rain.
“The living room looked as if an atomic bomb had gone off there,” writes the novice writer, describing what he saw on Sunday morning after a party that got out of hand. Well, we all know he is exaggerating to make a droll point, but we also know that an atomic bomb didn’t go off there, or any other bomb except maybe a water bomb.
Don’t overstate. You didn’t really consider jumping out the window. Life has more than enough truly horrible funny situations. Let the humor sneak up so we hardly hear it coming.
Credibility is just as fragile for a writer as for a President. Don’t inflate an incident to make it more outlandish than it actually was. If the reader catches you in just one bogus statement that you are trying to pass off as true, everything you write thereafter will be suspect. It’s too great a risk, and not worth taking.
WRITING IS NOT A CONTEST
Every writer is starting from a different point and is bound for a different destination. Yet many writers are paralyzed by the thought that they are competing with everybody else who is trying to write and presumably doing it better.
THE SUBCONSCIOUS MIND.
Your subconscious mind does more writing than you think. Often you’ll spend a whole day trying to fight your way out of some verbal thicket in which you seem to be tangled beyond salvation. Frequently a solution will occur to you the next morning when you plunge back in. While you slept, your writer’s mind didn’t. A writer is always working. Stay alert to the currents around you. Much of what you see and hear will come back, having percolated for days or months or even years through your subconscious mind, just when your conscious mind, laboring to write, needs it.
THE QUICKEST FIX
Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it. Unfortunately, this solution is usually the last one that occurs to writers in a jam.
Keep your paragraphs short. Writing is visual—it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain. Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, whereas a long chunk of type can discourage a reader from even starting to read.
Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost. That idea is hard to accept. We all have an emotional equity in our first draft; we can’t believe that it wasn’t born perfect. But the odds are close to 100 percent that it wasn’t. Most writers don’t initially say what they want to say, or say it as well as they could.
Most rewriting consists of reshaping and tightening and refining the raw material you wrote on your first try. Much of it consists of making sure you’ve given the reader a narrative flow he can follow with no trouble from beginning to end. Keep putting yourself in the reader’s place. Is there something he should have been told early in the sentence that you put near the end? Does he know when he starts sentence B that you’ve made a shift—of subject, tense, tone, emphasis—from sentence A?
Part 3: Forms
Nonfiction as Literature
Those of us who are trying to write well about the world we live in, or to teach students to write well about the world they live in, are caught in a time warp, where literature by definition still consists of forms that were certified as “literary” in the 19th century: novels and short stories and poems. But in fact the great preponderance of what writers now write and sell, what book and magazine publishers publish and what readers demand is nonfiction.
Every writer must follow the path that feels most comfortable. For most people learning to write, that path is nonfiction. It enables them to write about what they know or can observe or can find out. This is especially true of young people and students. They will write far more willingly about subjects that touch their own lives or that they have an aptitude for. Motivation is at the heart of writing. If nonfiction is where you do your best writing, or your best teaching of writing, don’t be buffaloed into the idea that it’s an inferior species. The only important distinction is between good writing and bad writing. Good writing is good writing, whatever form it takes and whatever we call it.
Part 4: Attitudes
The Sound of Your Voice
Here’s how a typical piece by E. B. White begins:
“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”
It’s a disciplined act of writing. The grammar is formal, the words are plain and precise, and the cadences are those of a poet. That’s the effortless style at its best: a methodical act of composition that disarms us with its generated warmth. The writer sounds confident; he’s not trying to ingratiate himself with the reader.
Inexperienced writers miss this point. They think that all they have to do to achieve a casual effect is to be “just folks”—good old Betty or Bob chatting over the back fence. They want to be a pal to the reader. They’re so eager not to appear formal that they don’t even try to write good English. What they write is the breezy style.
How would a breezy writer handle E. B. Whites vigil with the pig? He might sound like this:
“Ever stay up late babysitting for a sick porker? Believe you me, a guy can lose a heckuva lot of shut-eye. I did that gig for three nights back in September and my better half thought I’d lost my marbles. (Just kidding, Pam!) Frankly, the whole deal kind of bummed me out. Because, you see, the pig up and died on me. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t feeling in the pink myself, so I suppose it could have been yours truly and not old Porky who kicked the bucket. And you can bet your bottom dollar Mr. Pig wasn’t going to write a book about it!”
If you’re smitten by the urge to try the breezy style, read what you’ve written aloud and see if you like the sound of your voice.
Finding a voice that your readers will enjoy is largely a matter of taste. Saying that isn’t much help—taste is a quality so intangible that it can’t even be defined. But we know it when we see it.
For writers and other creative artists, knowing what not to do is a major component of taste. Two jazz pianists may be equally proficient. The one with taste will put every note to useful work in telling his or her story; the one without taste will drench us in ripples and other unnecessary ornaments. Painters with taste will trust their eye to tell them what needs to be on the canvas and what doesn’t; a painter without taste will give us a landscape that’s too pretty, or too cluttered, or too gaudy—anyway, too something.
If a writer lives in blissful ignorance that clichés are the kiss of death, if in the final analysis he leaves no stone unturned to use them, we can infer that he lacks an instinct for what gives language its freshness. Faced with a choice between the novel and the banal, he goes unerringly for the banal. His voice is the voice of a hack.
Not that clichés are easy to stamp out. They are everywhere in the air around us, familiar friends just waiting to be helpful, ready to express complex ideas for us in the shorthand form of metaphor. That’s how they became clichés in the first place, and even careful writers use quite a few on their first draft. But after that we are given a chance to clean them out. Clichés are one of the things you should keep listening for when you rewrite and read your successive drafts aloud. Notice how incriminating they sound, convicting you of being satisfied to use the same old chestnuts instead of making an effort to replace them with fresh phrases of your own. Clichés are the enemy of taste.
Taste chooses words that have surprise, strength and precision. Non-taste slips into the breezy vernacular of the alumni magazine’s class notes—a world where people in authority are the top brass or the powers that be. What exactly is wrong with “the top brass”? Nothing—and everything. Taste knows that it’s better to call people in authority what they are: officials, executives, chairmen, presidents, directors, managers. Non-taste reaches for the corny synonym, which has the further disadvantage of being imprecise; exactly which company officers are the top brass? Non-taste uses “umpteenth.” And “zillions.” Non-taste uses “period”: “She said she didn’t want to hear any more about it. Period.”
But finally taste is a mixture of qualities that are beyond analyzing: an ear that can hear the difference between a sentence that limps and a sentence that lilts, an intuition that knows when a casual or a vernacular phrase dropped into a formal sentence will not only sound right but will seem to be the inevitable choice.
Does this mean that taste can be learned? Yes and no. But a certain amount can be acquired. The trick is to study writers who have it.
Never hesitate to imitate another writer. Imitation is part of the creative process for anyone learning an art or a craft. Bach and Picasso didn’t spring full-blown as Bach and Picasso; they needed models. This is especially true of writing. Find the best writers in the fields that interest you and read their work aloud. Get their voice and their taste into your ear—their attitude toward language. Don’t worry that by imitating them you’ll lose your own voice and your own identity. Soon enough you will shed those skins and become who you are supposed to become.
Enjoyment, Fear and Confidence
When I was teaching at Yale I invited the humorist S. J. Perelman to talk to my students, and one of them asked him, “What does it take to be a comic writer?” He said, “It takes audacity and exuberance and gaiety, and the most important one is audacity.” Then he said: “The reader has to feel that the writer is feeling good.” The sentence went off in my head like a Roman candle: it stated the entire case for enjoyment. Then he added: “Even if he isn’t.” That sentence hit me almost as hard, because I knew that Perelman s life contained more than the usual share of depression and travail. Yet he went to his typewriter every day and made the English language dance. How could he not be feeling good? He cranked it up.
Writers have to jump-start themselves at the moment of performance, no less than actors and dancers and painters and musicians. You also have to turn on the switch. Nobody is going to do it for you.
Unfortunately, an equally strong negative current—fear—is at work. Fear of writing gets planted at an early age, usually at school, and it never entirely goes away. The blank piece of paper or the blank computer screen, waiting to be filled with our wonderful words, can freeze us into not writing any words at all, or writing words that are less than wonderful. I’m often dismayed by the sludge I see appearing on my screen if I approach writing as a task—the day’s work—and not with some enjoyment. My only consolation is that I’ll get another shot at those dismal sentences tomorrow and the next day and the day after. With each rewrite I try to force my personality onto the material.
Probably the biggest fear for nonfiction writers is the fear of not being able to bring off their assignment. They are infinitely accountable: to the facts, to the people they interviewed, to the locale of their story and to the events that happened there. They are also accountable to their craft and all its perils of excess and disorder: losing the reader, confusing the reader, boring the reader, not keeping the reader engaged from beginning to end.
How can you fight off all those fears of disapproval and failure? One way to generate confidence is to write about subjects that interest you and that you care about.
Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That’s almost the whole point of becoming a writer. I’ve used writing to give myself an interesting life and a continuing education. If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write. Learning is a tonic.
That doesn’t mean you won’t be nervous when you go forth into unfamiliar terrain. As a nonfiction writer you’ll be thrown again and again into specialized worlds, and you’ll worry that you’re not qualified to bring the story back. I feel that anxiety every time I embark on a new project. I felt it when I went to Bradenton to write my baseball book, Spring Training. Although I’ve been a baseball fan all my life, I had never done any sports reporting, never interviewed a professional athlete. Strictly, I had no credentials; any of the men I approached with my notebook-—managers, coaches, players, umpires, scouts—could have asked, “What else have you written about baseball?” But nobody did. They didn’t ask because I had another kind of credential: sincerity. It was obvious to those men that I really wanted to know how they did their work. Remember this when you enter new territory and need a shot of confidence. Your best credential is yourself.
Also remember that your assignment may not be as narrow as you think. Often it will turn out to touch some unexpected corner of your experience or your education, enabling you to broaden the story with strengths of your own. Every such reduction of the unfamiliar will reduce your fear.
Think broadly about your assignment. Don’t assume that an article for Audubon has to be strictly about nature, or an article for Car & Driver strictly about cars. Push the boundaries of your subject and see where it takes you. Bring some part of your own life to it; it’s not your version of the story until you write it.
I’m struck by how often as a writer I say to myself, “That’s interesting.” If you find yourself saying it, pay attention and follow your nose. Trust your curiosity to connect with the curiosity of your readers.
The Tyranny of the Final Product
This fixation on the finished article causes writers a lot of trouble, deflecting them from all the earlier decisions that have to be made to determine its shape and voice and content.
There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with getting published. Writing for yourself is a powerful search mechanism: there’s no better way to find out who you are and what you know and what you think. Writing for your children and your grandchildren—the family history or the personal or local memoir—is also satisfying.
The quest is one of the oldest themes in storytelling, an act of faith we never get tired of hearing about. Any time you can tell a story in the form of a quest or a pilgrimage you’ll be ahead of the game. Readers bearing their own associations will do some of your work for you.
Intention is what we wish to accomplish with our writing. Call it the writer’s soul. We can write to affirm and to celebrate, or we can write to debunk and to destroy; the choice is ours.
Writing is related to character. If your values are sound, your writing will be sound. It all begins with intention. Figure out what you want to do and how you want to do it, and work your way with humanity and integrity to the completed article.
A Writer’s Decisions
Learning how to organize a long article is just as important as learning how to write a clear and pleasing sentence.
No less important than decisions about structure are decisions about individual words. Banality is the enemy of good writing; the challenge is to not write like everybody else. If you look long enough you can usually find a proper name or a metaphor that will bring those dull but necessary facts to life.
No writing decision is too small to be worth a large expenditure of time. Both you and the reader know it when your finicky labor is rewarded by a sentence coming out right.
Fondness for material you’ve gone to a lot of trouble to gather isn’t a good enough reason to include it if it’s not central to the story you’ve chosen to tell. Self-discipline bordering on masochism is required. The only consolation for the loss of so much material is that it isn’t totally lost; it remains in your writing as an intangible that the reader can sense. Readers should always feel that you know more about your subject than you’ve put in writing.
Write as well as you can
Besides wanting to write as well as possible, I wanted to write as entertainingly as possible. When I tell aspiring writers that they should think of themselves as part entertainer, they don’t like to hear it—the word smacks of carnivals and jugglers and clowns. But to succeed you must make your piece jump out of a newspaper or a magazine by being more diverting than everyone else’s piece. You must find some way to elevate your act of writing into an entertainment. Usually this means giving the reader an enjoyable surprise. Any number of devices will do the job: humor, anecdote, paradox, an unexpected quotation, a powerful fact, an outlandish detail, a circuitous approach, an elegant arrangement of words. These seeming amusements in fact become your “style.” When we say we like a writer’s style, what we mean is that we like his personality as he expresses it on paper. Given a choice between two traveling companions—and a writer is someone who asks us to travel with him—we usually choose the one who we think will make an effort to brighten the trip.
Unlike medicine or the other sciences, writing has no new discoveries to spring on us. We’re in no danger of reading in our morning newspaper that a breakthrough has been made in how to write a clear English sentence—that information has been around since the King James Bible. We know that verbs have more vigor than nouns, that active verbs are better than passive verbs, that short words and sentences are easier to read than long ones, that concrete details are easier to process than vague abstractions.
We’re all working with the same words and the same principles. Where, then, is the edge? Ninety percent of the answer lies in the hard work of mastering the tools discussed. Add a few points for such natural gifts as a good musical ear, a sense of rhythm and a feeling for words. But the final advantage is the same one that applies in every other competitive venture. If you would like to write better than everybody else, you have to want to write better than everybody else. You must take an obsessive pride in the smallest details of your craft.
Writing well means believing in your writing and believing in yourself, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel. You will write only as well as you make yourself write.
My favorite definition of a careful writer comes from Joe DiMaggio, though he didn’t know that was what he was defining. DiMaggio was the greatest player I ever saw, and nobody looked more relaxed. He covered vast distances in the outfield, moving in graceful strides, always arriving ahead of the ball, making the hardest catch look routine, and even when he was at bat, hitting the ball with tremendous power, he didn’t appear to be exerting himself. I marveled at how effortless he looked because what he did could only be achieved by great daily effort. A reporter once asked him how he managed to play so well so consistently, and he said: “I always thought that there was at least one person in the stands who had never seen me play, and I didn’t want to let him down.”
More Books from William Zinsser
We’ve created a list of books every aspiring/existing entrepreneur should read, and it’s nothing the book lists you will come across when you search for “Best Business Books” on Google. You can check out the list and our explanation of why we created it here.