Learning to Write with William Zinsser

on writing well

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In his book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser says all writers should read E.B. White’s The Elements of Style once a year. I feel the same way about his book, though admittedly I hadn’t read either for a while.

I pulled out my copy of On Writing Well — procured from a collection of used books being thrown out that I came across at the student union when I was a freshman in college — a couple of weeks ago when Zinsser died at age 92. on writing well

It takes a special person to find reading about writing fun, but I love this book. Here I find a kindred spirit, someone who understands the importance of protecting the language from those who would make any noun a verb or use a fancy, new word when a plain, old one would do.

His love of language is evident on every page. This book is easy to read and would be enjoyable even for those who wouldn’t call themselves word freaks (as he does, and I would happily claim that descriptor, too).

It’s not just a book about writing, or at least not just about mechanics, grammar and usage. It provides a good training for writers of nonfiction in how to conduct interviews and write stories based on interviews, how to write about place, memoir writing, story structure, writing for work and more.

There’s good advice on nearly every page, but it boils down to being yourself, writing the way you want to write, being confident in your choices and being delicate with the language and with your reader. Good advice that should often be repeated.

He advises learning the mechanics first before trying to develop a style:

First, then, learn to hammer the nails, and if what you build is sturdy and serviceable, take satisfaction in its plain strength.

But you will be impatient to find a “style” — to embellish the plain words so that readers will recognize you as someone special … There is no style store; style is organic to the person doing the writing, as much a part of him as his hair, or, if he is bald, his lack of it. Trying to add style is like adding a toupee.

So how do you get to your style? By doing a lot of reading:

Make a habit of what is being written today and what has been written before. Writing is learned by imitation. If anyone asked me how I learned to write, I’d say I learned by reading the men and women who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it.

Zinsser did the kind of writing I wanted to do. Plain but engaging. Every word makes a difference, and every word is the right word. It’s writing that comes in the rewriting, rethinking, trying again.

Reading this book for the first time in high school and in the years thereafter has influenced me as writer, probably more than I realized until I started reading it again.

I will definitely be adding it to my reading list more often.

Do you have writing books that you go back to again and again? I’d love to hear about them!

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