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).

One thought on “To write well be curious, be engaged, think hard, revise

  1. dtburrows

    I very much like the phrase “compositional clutter” … and I agree, stripping a sentence to its “cleanest components” is the mark of good writing, *especially* good academic writing. People too often conflate “clean” writing with simplicity – not just simplicity of language, but simplicity of thought. I don’t think this is true at all – clean writing can be engaging and sophisticated. The very hard task, for any of us, is to spend the time and effort to get there.

    As an aside, I’ve been reading through a lot of Robert Bellah lately and am beginning to think of him as an admirable example of the sort of writing Zinsser seems to be describing above. What I find especially interesting about him is that his style of crisp writing hardly means that a reader comes away knowing *exactly* what he’s talking about. On the contrary: with Bellah, there’s a sort of intentional ambiguity at times that allows for a certain amount of creative and critical legwork on the part of the reader. So I think good writing can open up a particular interpretive space, too – it doesn’t have to aspire to a sort of sniper-inspired precision.

    I’ve been enjoying these writing posts and look forward to reading more.

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