On Writing Well
This book has become mantras I recite as I edit my work. I first turned to it when I worked for Cargill. After ten years in retail, I was rusty on the basics of a good paragraph. When you are heads down on a project, struggling with how to say it, the advice in this book grounds you to what is important; pulling weeds.
“Just because they’re writing fluently doesn’t mean they’re writing well.”
To revive my neglected blog, and market of The Fundamentals, I found that my online presence was missing a recording of the books I have read in my lifetime.
I never found time for a Goodreads profile, or sharing my opinions with the Amazon or Barnes & Noble faithful. If I am serious about my career as a fiction author, that must change.
My first challenge was to create a list of books I have read. I have bookshelves full of them, and boxes too. Never mind the books I have given to others, or abandoned to secondhand shops. I spent a day in various yoga poses, books scattered on the floor, making lists of the ones I liked, and the ones left with a bookmark somewhere in the middle.
The physical list finished, I moved on to my primary means of narrated consumption over the past thirteen years, Audible. I joined Audible in 2003, the moment after I plugged my first iPod into my Macintosh. At twelve books a year I should have 156 titles, I have 192. I have taken my fair advantage of specials. Still, I feel the total is fewer than I could have accomplished, podcasts having consumed much of the time I could have—should have—been listening to a book.
I sorted my library by date purchased, and behold, my first Audible book was a concise version of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.
Surprised, I looked for my paperback copy, which is missing, so I browsed to Amazon and purchased, not the tenth, or twentieth, but the thirtieth anniversary edition of Zinsser’s little book.
“But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”
Meant as a follow-up and modernization to Strunk’s The Elements of Style, On Writing Well¸ transforms the mechanical rules of the latter into a relatable narrative.
My concise Audible version is an hour long, but the essence of the book is still present. Writing is a transaction between you and the reader. For the transaction to be profitable you must follow four principles: clarity, simplicity, brevity, and humanity.
The longer print, and now Kindle, version starts with this Principles section, then expands into Methods, Forms, and Attitudes. While I find the Principles section required reading, the later sections are worth exploring. Especially late at night, before your brain goes to that magical place where dreams give birth to the morning’s edits.
Criticism of the book comes from fiction writers. Zinsser meant his book for nonfiction writing, but the fiction writer ignores his advice to their peril. Finding your voice after editing your manuscript to its barest necessity is something a good writer will practice on every work.
“Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”
My criticism is more personal. After spending an hour with On Writing Well, it is impossible to browse the Internet without your editor’s hat on. Maybe that is not a foul, but a feature. One worth applying to the above. I wonder what will survive?