To write well be curious, be engaged, think hard, revise

That’s not all there is to writing well of course, but in On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction William Zinsser argues that the best writers are those who remain curious about and interested in their subject, write in a manner that engages both the subject and the reader, think as hard and clearly as possible, and revise what they’ve written to weed out any muddiness of thought or clutter. Zinsser also has some pretty strong feelings about the ways clutter thwarts good writing.

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon…But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. – Zinsser, 6.

While I’m not sure I buy his argument that clutter and pompous language are problems particular to American writing, as a tenant of academia and member of a writing-based society I sympathize with Zinsser’s disdain for compositional clutter. How many misunderstandings could be avoided if we always took the time to rethink and revise each piece of writing we unleashed, from the briefest status update to the most serious e-mail? How much less rigid would the barrier between the so-called ivory tower and the rest of the world be if fewer writers mistook jargon for a sign of status and authority?

Zinsser’s merciless scrutiny of clutter parallels that of his mentor, E. B. White, in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (which I blogged about several weeks ago). Zinsser credits White for the development of his respect for the English language and the work of refining and expressing ideas through writing – out of which his crusade against clutter was also born. Although a handful of the chapters in On Writing Well are more useful to journalists or general nonfiction writers than historians, Zinsser manages to complement Strunk and White without replicating too much of their work. Below are some of Zinsser’s main arguments that I found most helpful.

  • Bad writing makes it harder for the reader to pay attention, let alone understand what you’re trying to say. Zinsser writes, “The man or woman snoozing in a chair with a magazine or a book is a person who was being given too much unnecessary trouble by the writer. It won’t do to say that the reader is too dumb or too lazy to keep pace with the train of thought. If the reader is lost, it’s usually because the writer hasn’t been careful enough” (Zinsser, 8). This isn’t to say that all readers who have trouble paying attention to or understanding what they’re reading are the victims of a bad writer. Everyone faces distractions and approaches reading with different levels of motivation. But it’s the writer’s responsibility to ensure that as little as possible obstructs the reader. Clear writing takes hard work, and Zinsser has no sympathy for writers who blame readers for their own failure to hone their craft and force clarity into their writing.
  • Clear, simple writing is a sign of hard work and intelligence. In other words, the quality of writing and thought does not increase in relation to the amount of jargon that accompanies it. “Actually a simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking; a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too arrogant, or too dumb, or too lazy to organize his thoughts.” Furthermore, “If what you write is ornate, or pompous, or fuzzy, that’s how you’ll be perceived. The reader has no other choice” (Zinsser, 174).
  • Words are your greatest tools, so use them wisely. To improve your writing you must cultivate a respect for words that propels you to continually investigate the English language. Consult your dictionary often, learn the small differences in meaning between words, and pay attention to the rhythm and to the visual appearance of words in your writing.
  • To write well you must rewrite. Revision is “where the game is won or lost…clear writing is the result of a lot of tinkering” (Zinsser, 83; 84). This can be a difficult reality to accept. Writing well is hard work, and forcing yourself to revise can almost seem like a punishment for getting it “wrong” the first time. But it takes time for thoughts to coalesce and crystallize and for you to find the best way to convey your ideas clearly – much more time than a single writing sessions allows. Try to think of revision as an opportunity to do your best work by undoing – or redoing – your mistakes. Try to think of rewriting as “the essence of writing” (Zinsser, xii).

Writing as meditation practice

The biggest struggle was not with the actual writing, but working out the fear of success, the fear of failure, and finally burning through to just pure activity. NATALIE GOLDBERG

Two ways to Zen, an e-doodle
Two ways to Zen, an e-doodle

When I was in grade school, my teachers would often tell me how well I wrote and how they just knew I was going to be a writer someday. My internal response to these assurances was always to wonder if my teachers were insane. I appreciated the compliment and always worked very hard to do well. (An example: upon being congratulated for receiving a near-perfect score on my third grade C.A.T., I was so disappointed that I’d missed two questions that I cried when I told my mother the news. Yes, I was that kid.) But in spite of the praise, I hated writing. Yes, I could write well when I needed to and I sometimes enjoyed the direction a particular story or report took me, but writing was so hard. I thought professional writers were people who enjoyed writing and found it easy. Why else would they choose to do it for a living? It wasn’t until my first year of graduate school that I recognized the hard truth about writing: composition is agony and it won’t get much easier with time. But that doesn’t mean the process of writing can’t be both a positive and valuable experience.

In Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within Natalie Goldberg discusses the ways meditation and writing can intersect. Goldberg, a dedicated Zen student and writer, views writing as an extension of her meditation practice. Although much of Writing Down the Bones is geared toward writers of creative fiction, Goldberg’s core argument that the lessons of meditation also apply to writing is one any writer can use. Depending on your perspective, however, it may take some time and effort to get used to Goldberg’s writing style.

I admit that for about a third of the book I was rather annoyed with Goldberg’s habit of using plain, staccato sentences. Whenever I see someone do that it makes me think they are trying to seem profound just by nature of putting things simply. Goldberg’s Zen-influenced language, too, can seem a bit odd and new-agey if you don’t consider its context. Still, Writing Down the Bones validates the experience of every writer: writing IS a perpetually difficult process. You are not alone in your struggles. What’s more, with time and effort you can train yourself to cut through the mental noise, focus on the process, and extend the value you find in writing into the rest of your life. Here are my favorite themes of Goldberg’s thesis:

  • Writing can be meditation practice because both activities require you to focus and gain control of your thoughts. As someone who practices both meditation and writing, I can attest to how excruciatingly difficult this can be within the context of either task. Yes, some days things will flow more easily than others and regular practice goes a long way, but ultimately you must accept that you are always going to have to work hard to calm and quiet your mind. The human brain will always have a little too much skittering around inside of it. But, as Goldberg notes, “Once you’re deep into [writing], you wonder what took you so long to finally settle down at the desk. Through practice you actually do get better. You learn to trust your deep self more and not give in to your voice that wants to avoid writing” (Goldberg, 14). And since all writers write for a reason, surely getting deep into writing is something you can look forward to and enjoy.
  • The key to good writing is clarity and the key to clarity is a commitment to read a lot, listen intently, develop relationships with other writers, and “shut up, sit down, and write.” That last part is Goldberg’s harsh way of saying “quiet your mind and practice your writing.” Sometimes you have to be a little blunt with yourself to recognize what’s preventing you from achieving your goals. But it’s not all bad – part of becoming a better writer also involves reading about other people’s ideas, figuring out what sort of writing you admire, and seeing what writers you’d most like to emulate. Learning to really listen just might be the trickiest part. Many of us, especially those of us in the competitive culture of academia, become overly obsessed with argument and with proving ourselves right. This can lead to a lot of halfhearted listening – listening for holes in logic, errors in method, sketchy evidence, or even just an opening to speak and let the other person know they’re wrong. Really make an effort to slow your thoughts and listen deeply to others. If you don’t, not only will you not be able to truly hear and consider what the other person is saying; you’ll also be missing an opportunity to improve your writing by becoming more open and receptive to the truths and perspectives of others.
  • Don’t get caught up in some ideal notion of your writing practice; instead, focus on the process of writing. Ah, if only life could be about the process and not the product. Oh wait, it can – IF you adopt a more Zen-like perspective. This is not to say the product doesn’t matter. We all know it does, particularly if you expect to reap benefits such as a paycheck from your work. It also doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive for your ideal – you should, but focus more on the process of writing. Goldberg asserts that “Ultimately, if the process is good, the end will be good. You will get good writing” (Goldberg, 16). You don’t need to convert to Buddhism or practice zazen four hours a day to see the logic in this argument. While it’s unsurprising that focusing as well as you can on precisely what you are doing leads to clarity, precision, and advancement, it is surprisingly difficult to fully give oneself over to focus. My mind has probably wandered 372 times since I ended the last sentence and began this one. Yet mindful, determined writing practice – what Goldberg calls “honesty of practice” – will yield the best results. And, if you get into it and start feeling really Zen, you might just try extending the best, most honest aspects of your writing practice into other areas of your daily life. But I’ll let Goldberg preach to you on that topic, in her own words:

What is important is not just what you do – “I am writing a book” – but how you do it, how you approach it, and what you come to value…Writing can teach us the dignity of speaking the truth, and it spreads out from the page into all of our life, and it should. Otherwise, there is too much of a schism between who we are as writers and how we live our daily lives. That is the challenge: to let writing teach us about life and life about writing. Let it flow back and forth (Goldberg, 151; 172).