Josh j Smith

writing for beginners | Post 2 | On Writing Well Reflections
November 25, 2007, 8:26 pm
Filed under: art | Tags: , ,

On Writing Well is a great book for those of us who need the words to find the words to write words.  Honestly, I approached this book with very low expectations and perhaps that explains my appreciation for it – how good can a book on writing actually be?  I’m convinced Zinsser is a good writer because he published a book on writing.  But he does not merely give strategy and tips, but inspires and challenges our framework for what writing actually is. 


Zinsser teaches literary art and has us wrestle with language.  Literary art is not to use language to communicate.  Art is to use language for story.  For fiction it is another world beyond this one.  Non-fiction is the world we live – a true story.  As writers we have the ability to mold words and sentences into images, emotions, experiences, and action.  A good writer does not merely entertain, but is able to link the story written with the reader’s story being lived. 


The task of becoming a good writer is not simply accomplished by reading my reflections, or reading Zinsser.  But understanding the ideas expressed in this book get the aspiring writer to perform the task.  Three themes from Zinsser can help us with the task of writing for art – clutter, momentum, and voice.  


We are not writers because we have a lot to say, but because we can say it with less.  “Clutter is the disease of American writing” (Zinsser 2001, p, 7).  Zinsser communicates this theme by encouraging us to edit frequently, to master the English language, and to cut out unnecessary word usage.  There is a myth that long is good.  Very few teachers challenge students to communicate complex ideas with little and less words.  In the beginning, teachers create writing to be a sluggish, cumbersome monster that causes more evil than good.  This is where Zinsser completes his task.  He deconstructs writing systems only to reconstruct.  He does not deconstruct only to leave us to be overtaken by our own monsters that we reconstruct from his demolition pile.  


There is a chapter that is worth buying the book and reading it on its own.  It is a chapter that needs to be read repeatedly.  It is a chapter that needs to be meditated on.  Chapter 10, titled “Bits and Pieces” has numerous tips that involve parts of speech, punctuation, and the act of writing.  This chapter is filled with useful sound bites that are loaded enough to teach a course.  Some of the sound bites are:

       “Most adverbs are unnecessary” (Zinsser 2001, p, 69).

       “Most adjectives are also unnecessary” (Zinsser 2001, p, 70). 

       “Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw: ‘a bit,’ ‘a little,’ ‘sort of,’ kind of…”  (Zinsser 2001, p, 71).  It shows that we are afraid to commit.  I am not somewhat of a writer.  I am a writer.  Or, I am not a writer. 

       “Many of us are taught that no sentence should begin with ‘but.’  If that is what you learned, unlearn it – there’s no stronger word at the start” (Zinsser 2001, p, 74). 

       “Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it” (Zinsser 2001, p, 80).

       “Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost” (Zinsser 2001, p, 84).

Clutter is obviously a soapbox for Zinsser.  But it is a soapbox that is worth the time and appreciation.   


It is valuable to know that clutter, momentum, and voice are here communicated as separate themes, but they are co-dependent for their execution.  Clutter ruins any possibility for momentum and communicating with a clear voice.  Likewise, momentum cannot co-exist with clutter, and the reader is sure to be confused trying to listen to the ebb and flow of any writing.  


Therefore, there is not much to say about momentum that is separate from clutter.  Zinsser said, “Make sure every component is your memoir is doing useful work.  Write about yourself, by all means, with confidence and pleasure.  But see that all the details – people, places, events, anecdotes, ideas, emotions – are moving your story steadily along” (Zinsser 2001, p, 135).  This is true with all writing.  Unnecessary information only adds to the deadening of our voice. 


I remember the scene in Finding Forester when Sean Connery (Forester) has his protégé copy something that he has already written.  I remember when I was learning to teach I would listen to other teachers and try to copy their style.  Some critiqued and said that I sounded like Rob or Jason.  But soon I discovered my own voice through copying others.  “Imitation is part of the creative process for anyone learning an art or a craft” (Zinsser 2001, p, 238).  So let’s imitate the best that we can.  Copy excerpts of our favorite writers for practice (not publication) and soon our voice will emerge.  It is like the daughter imitating her mother’s cooking.  Time brings experience and liberates her to add and delete elements to give it her personal touch. 


My reflections on clutter, momentum, and voice cannot take us where we want to go with writing; neither can Zinsser.  But the advice from this post and even more the wisdom of Zinsser can help us in the task of writing.  Art does not just happen; it emerges from messy and embarrassing mistakes.  And the key is becoming embarrassed because if we are not embarrassed than we have not realized that our writing can be better.  Zinsser takes us to that place of embarrassment and gives us the map to find our way out.    


2 Comments so far
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Good to see you writing more frequently.

Love ya

Comment by Jason Mitchell

my english teacher would be tearing his hair out yelling Blasphemy!!!! lol good stuff

Comment by Josh

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