Archive for June, 2009

On Writing Well

Monday, June 29th, 2009

William Zinsser’s On Writing Well longevity on campus reading lists is remarkable, what is even more amazing is that Zinnser has continually updated the book adapting it to the times and the tools of the current age. My fourth edition has something so quaint as writing using a word processor, I have yet to see if today’s edition talks about writing using an iPhone. But as dated as the references to the tools of the time, Zinsser understood that the tools shape our thinking, and if writing is nothing else it is captured thought. On Writing Well can be summed up in three basic themes, the understanding of the Why, the How and the What of non-fiction writing. 

That last sentence unfortunately has condemned the book to the Ghetto of expository writing when the themes of the book are much more universal and applicable to all writing. Zinsser focuses first on the why. The necessity (not the desire, but necessity) of communicating succinctly and with intention. Writing should be alive and encourage the reader to keep reading. It is in effect the contract, or the transaction between writer and reader that must be satisfied.

With a clear sense of the goal, Zinsser explores the mechanics of writing an expository piece. Well conditioned for journalistic goals it focuses on the basics of the lede, the ending, how to interview, how to set the stage. The secret of great writers is that they are relentless thieves, borrowing the great turn of phrase of trick of other writers to cause a pause in their own work. My favorite is the accidental creation of adjectives that don’t naturally lend themselves to object at hand. Richard Ford once wrote about a character who dropped her old-eyed stare on others. However, the original in earlier editions was cold eyed. Now I never read the tale, but I liked that adjectives can be used in new ways.

That anecdote is not covered in the book, but other juicy excerpts are presented on how to give the different parts of your essay strength. They are not meant to be copied, but to demonstrate what is possible and serve as a guidepost for your own writing. 

On Writing Well also explores the what of non-fiction writing. Exploring the different genres of non-fiction writing and how they are structured to achieve their aims. Writing exists in the context of what came before it, without such context metaphors, allusions and aphorisms lose their power. And each context has it’s idioms and flow. Understanding the implicit assumptions of the form is critical.

Zinsser takes these tools and closes by imploring the writer to believe that they are holding the truth and defend it. Too often our writing is ripped to shreds, weakened by the goals of others, or defined by the incongruent tastes who’s flavors are dulled altered. Zinsser reminds that with training and desire that good writing can appear anywhere, and often does. So get on with it. 

On Writing Well’s breezy style and mission make it a rare combination of inspiring one to enter the writing zone, while providing the mechanics to write well once there. A natural follow on to this is James Stewart’s Follow the Story.

Writing Down the Bones

Monday, June 29th, 2009

Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is probably the most popular writing book out there based on my unscientific sampling of people who keep recommending it. Not so much a book with a sustained narrative, the book is structured as a series of exercises and anecdotes that emerged from Goldberg’s experience as a writing instructor. The book eschews topics such as character and narrative, but instead relies on vignettes that say one thing — it is ok to write lousy stuff. With the premise that writing the bad stuff will lead to the good stuff. This is not radical stuff not much different than the notion of constant revisions that John Gardner advocates in On Becoming a Novelist (to be overviewed later). 

Goldberg’s approach is heavily influenced by her practice of Zen Buddhism, and could have as easily been titled “Zen and The Art of Writing” In a contradiction fitting of a Zen koan, she says that the way to become a good writer is to become detached from your writing. Do not let the quality of the writing reflect on yourself. A good example is one of her exercises to open a poetry booth at a local fair. Let people pay you to write a poem on a topic of their choice, and then read it once and let it go.

Writing Down the Bones doesn’t make you a better writer, but it does its best to inspire you to practice and persevere with the act of writing and write more, and by writing more you should become better. If you have strong perfectionist tendencies, than you may struggle with the ideas presented, but you would probably be the best candidate for thinking about what’s presented. 

If you want to be a writer, (and as they say if you say you want to be a writer, you aren’t one, since it’s a job title you have to take yourself no one is going to give it to you) and you are struggling, this is a good book. If you are a writer, you really are beyond this but the exercises can be fun if you are bored or want to try something new.

Reading on Writing

Sunday, June 28th, 2009

The next few posts are going to be overviews and reviews of books on the art of writing. I am hesitant to use the word review because anything which improves ones chances of getting words on paper shouldn’t be denigrated as reviews often do. Nor does one know what motivate a person. What is rah rah to a person may be blah blah to another and demotivating. That said, the books I will be covering are considered “Classics” or books on writing.

Books on writing come in two major forms. The first is the helping individuals get into the “writing zone”. Tips, tools and stories on how to turn off the inner editor and give oneself permission to write without judgment. Writing is a scary task in that every action is a form of commitment. You commit words to paper, ether and others can see it. Others will judge it and the truth others will tear you down. Most will. The art critic Rene Ricard said ‘You can never explain to someone who uses God’s gift to enslave that you use God’s gift to be free.” Those who criticize without the experience of creation have different aims. The first group of books provide exercises to move beyond those voices, even if one of them is your own.

The second set of books focus on the mechanics of writing. These are not books on grammar or style, but instead books on developing voice and point of view. What does it take to create verisimilitude of voice such that truth resonates in the words that emerge. Inevitably, mechanics books focus on the art of rewriting. 

These books do not make writers, but they provide tools, camaraderie, connectedness to other writers and make what is necessarily a lonely practice not an isolated one.