Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Tribute to William Zinser

William Zinser is my hero. He is, or should be, every writer’s hero. He is best known for his seminal book, On Writing Well, now in its 30th anniversary edition. That means he wrote it in 1976, and it is not only still relevant, it’s the gold standard. His book on Writing About Your Life should be, required reading for anyone who wants to write a memoir.

I read On Writing Well when it first came out, consulted it many times over the years, and am rereading it, once again with a yellow highlighter. Then, I’m taking notes on the most compelling sentences in each chapter—the essence of good writing. I want to write a dozen blogs filled with Zinsser’s amazing quotes, such as this one: “Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.” That is so basic, so right! Each time I read that sentence, I am struck by its stripped down wisdom.

William Zinsser knows how to write well. He has spent his life honing his craft and teaching it to others. He is writer, an editor, and a teacher. He was a journalist with the New York Herald Tribune and a contributor to many prestigious magazines. He has written seventeen books, taught at Yale, the New School in New York, and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

It is hard to explain how he has influenced my own writing. In this brief blog post, I have cut out words, rewritten whole sentences, hit the thesaurus for better words to make certain points, and played editor to my own prose. Mr. Zinsser has made it impossible for me to dash off a blog post, an e-mail, or any piece of writing. He is always hovering at my shoulder, urging me to do my best writing. I know I am not alone. This man has made more writers than he will ever know.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

What Every Writer Should Know About Writing

I teach people how to write books. Yet, it’s surprising how little time I spend on the craft of writing. There is so much to say and only one two-hour class in which to say it. I’m afraid it gets short shrift, which is regrettable because it is so important.

I have been a writer all my life but didn’t think about it as “a career” until I was thirty years old. That’s what they all a late start. For a long time I had no idea what I was doing. I was going on pure instinct, not always the best teacher. Stringing sentences together, telling a story, threading in quotes, writing a good first paragraph—these were all mysterious processes I learned over time. I always knew good writing from bad but was pretty oblivious to how that pertained to my own.

In the last twenty-four years, I have come to understand what is most important about writing. I would like you share with you some of what I have learned.

Don’t talk about writing. Don’t explain your story or your article or your book until your listeners are bleary eyed. If you have something to say, write it. Writing is not something you discuss; it is something you do. My favorite quote is by a writer named Hugh Prather in a little book called Notes to Myself. “If the desire to write is not accompanied by actual writing, then the desire is not to write.” I have a hand-lettered, six-foot-wide sign in my office that reminds me of that every day.

Know your subject. Most things require research. Don’t skimp on this step. In fact, overdo it if possible. You’ll never know everything there is to know about any topic. The more information you have, the better you can explain it clearly, concisely, and very carefully. If you have ten pages of data, you should be able to compress then into one, maybe two really tight paragraphs. If you can’t, you didn’t understand the material.

Take time to process what you have learned. Your subconscious mind is a computer. Everything you feed into it is churning around in there—organizing itself, coming to conclusions, solving problems, getting ready to bring forth a finished product. All you have to do is translate it into the right words. When I first stumbled on this principle in a book called Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz, computers filled rooms and the PC was a distant dream. Maltz referred them as servo-mechanism machines. That was a mouthful, but the man was ahead of his time.

Have respect for words. Learn a lot of them. If you don’t know what they mean, look them up. Don’t use the same word twice. Find the perfect synonym. Buy the best dictionary (Webster’s New World College Dictionary) and thesaurus (Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus). Compare what you find to online sources. I grew up with books, so I reach for them first, but there are great tools on the Internet. Look for them and use them. Don’t trust spell check. It will often give you the wrong word—there when you mean they’re, it’s when you want its, apiece when you typed a piece.

Grammar counts. Nothing—absolutely nothing—is worse than a piece of writing filled with inexcusable errors. Of course, you will need an editor at some point, but if you can’t construct a decent sentence with proper punctuation, take a course, buy a book (Chicago Manual of Style 16th Edition), hire a tutor. Grammar and punctuation are the foundation of everything you write.

Finally, trust your gut. When your writing is mechanical, awkward, overly wordy, sloppy, or unclear, you’ll know it. Don’t muscle your way through a bad sentence. Don’t keep something because it’s “beautiful” and you love the sound of it; but it doesn’t fit, doesn’t say anything, doesn’t advance your story. It’s hard, I know, but highlight the whole thing and hit the delete button. Your Jury of the Deep (inner voices, for you who don’t know me) is never wrong. Never.