Friday, July 23, 2004

On Writing Well

William Zinsser, On Writing Well
The New York Times calls it "a bible for a generation of writers looking for clues to clean, compelling prose." Indeed, it is a model of clarity and brevity, Zinsser's fundamentals of good writing. He echoes Thoreau, charging the writer to "simplify, simplify." (The smart aleck in me always wondered why Thoreau had to repeat himself.) But Zinsser goes beyond mere platitudes, giving countless examples, often from his own writing, and addressing specific modes and genres (from memoir to science writing, from art criticism to sports). Zinsser's brain is a storehouse of pithy anecdotes. My favorite:
Many years ago, when I was writing editorials for the New York Herald Tribune, the editor of the page was a huge and choleric man from Texas named L. L. Engelking. I respected him because he had no pretense and hated undue circling around a subject. Every morning we would all meet to discuss what editorials we would like to write for the next day and what position we would take. Frequently we weren't quite sure, especially the writer who was an expert on Latin America.

"What about that coup in Uruguay?" the editor would ask.

"It could represent progress in the economy," the writer would reply, "or then again it might destabilize the whole political situation. I suppose I could mention the possible benefits and then--"

"Well," the man from Texas would break in, "let's not go peeing down both legs."
Which is why I can't wait to read another Zinsser classic, Writing to Learn.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I picked up "Writing To Learn" last year at Powell's in Portland. The title attracted me because I was thinking along the same lines, so I bought it and took it home. When I finally read it, I can not overemphasize the impact it has had on my personal life.

I am a huge fan of Zinsser.

greg_collver at

6:48 AM  

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