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.