Saturday, September 11, 2010

We Each Give Something

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I read this book for the first time when I was an English major scrounging for free books in the English Department Office at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). A beautiful sunny day, probably at the start of Fall, or maybe it was Spring. Either way, the day started well when I made a find about a book on writing.

Surprisingly, I found Zinsser's On Writing Well and was astonished it should find its way into the "free" pile. I now own 2 copies of the book (as well as an ebook that I carry with me). In remembrance of a time long ago, I find myself re-reading Zinsser's book and asking myself, do I really agree with everything he has to say? I'm not sure and that makes the book all the more memorable for me.

An Imperfect Summary of Reading #30:
Zinsser, William. On Writing Well.

William Zinsser provides sage advice on writing non-fiction for a variety of audiences. He explores writing as a craft, less as an outpouring of the writers’ feelings and thoughts, more of a careful, deliberate act of creation designed to solve a problem.

In “On Writing Well,” Zinsser describes writing as daily, hard work, focusing on the work of rewriting as critical to the production of a clear, readable piece. He emphasizes the importance of enthusiasm, and how writing is a personal transaction between the writer and his/her audience. His advice to writers is that they “be themselves.” He also suggest writers please themselves in their writing.

Since writing is a transaction, an exchange, Zinsser urges simplicity in his writing, advising writers to “strip every sentence to its cleanest components.” It is advice reminiscent of Strunk and White’s “omit needless words.” Zinsser makes the point that “clear thinking becomes clear writing,” eliminating the unnecessary clutter of mind and piece engages the reader. One way to identify clutter is to bracket off any word or sentences that is unnecessary, telling rather than showing.

Zinsser labels some clutter as “journalese” and/or jargon. Grand-standing words and pretentious phrases interrupt the reader’s progress through a piece of writing. Strip away the pretentiousness, reverse the order of a sentence, substitute a word, alter the length of sentences to create a piece that sounds well in the reader’s “ear.” Writers, however, should not be afraid to use words that fill a real need; the laws of usage are “relative.”

To help readers stay on track in a piece of writing, Zinsser encourages writers to maintain unity in several areas: 1) Pronoun; 2) Tense; 2) Mood; 3) Style; 4) Attitude; and 5) Breadth; and 6) Message. He emphasizes the final two items--breadth and message--through the use of two questions, including “How much do I want to cover?” and “What one point do I want to make?” Breadth is important because writing projects “must be reduced” before one begins writing, a large piece a threat to to the writer’s enthusiasm. Unity works as a frame for writing, although it should not prevent you from adjusting the piece as you go.

In addition to unity, Zinsser offers advice in a variety of areas, including crafting leads and endings, use of active verbs to give vitality to a piece, the use of superfluous adjectives and adverbs, and various punctuation advice. Zinsser continues his parade of helpful advice, such as: a) Take advantage of mood changes (e.g. but, yet, however); b) Employ contractions that are dictionary-approved; c) Avoid abstract nouns (e.g. reaction, cynicism, hostility) and replace them with people taking action; d) Use one noun instead of three; e) Avoid overstatement; f) Safeguard your credibility in avoiding incident inflation; g) Avoid dictation since it results in pompousity; h) Work at your own pace, rather than compete with other writers; i) Be alert to the world around you as source of content; j) Get rid of problematic sentences rather than try to fix them; k) Keep paragraphs short; l) Avoid sexism.

Zinsser also suggests gathering surplus content to construct a lead: 1) Collect more material than you will use; 2) Look for material everywhere; Avoid trite approaches to crafting a lead. In writing the end of a piece, Zinsser points out that “knowing when to end an article is far more important than most writers realize.” To that end, when a writer is ready to stop after presenting all the facts, making the point they sought to make, they should stop. One way of ending a piece is to revisit a point made in the lead.

The failure to rewrite a piece results in unclear, illogical, verbose, cliched, cluttered writing. Rewriting is about reshaping, tightening and refining what a writer first wrote. Ensure narrative flow by taking the role of the reader and reviewing the piece. Zinsser also advises that the writer’s voice remains the same, regardless of the form. “Writing,” shares Zinsser, “is the expression of every person’s individuality and we know we like it when it comes along.” If the writer feels good about his writing, it comes through. Even if he does not, the writing should read as he does (if that is the intent).

Various forms or genres appear in nonfiction; these include nonfiction as literature, writing about people, writing about places, writing about yourself, science and technology, business writing, sports, the Arts, humor. Regardless of the form, Zinsser points out that if the writer masters the fundamentals of interviewing, orderly construction, the power of the narrative, bring to a piece your intelligence and humanity, you can write about any subject.

On Writing Well, a collection of advice for writers, focuses on enhancing the benefits of the transaction between the writer and their remembered experiences and emotions.

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1 comment:

Angela Maiers said...

Thanks Miguel! Just added it to my bookshelf.

Are you familiar with

Great way to bring this conversation into the classroom.

Check out their "Authors on Call"- you might recognize a few familiar faces :-)

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