Any invention that reduces the fear of writing is up there with air-conditioning and the lightbulb. As George Orwell pointed out in Politics and the English Language, an essay written in 1946 but often cited during the wars in Cambodia, Vietnam and Iraq, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Who is this elusive creature, the reader? A clear sentence is no accident. Today everybody in the world is writing to everybody else, making instant contact across every border and across every time zone. I had no inkling of the electronic marvels that would soon revolutionize the act of writing. It was hard and lonely, and the words seldom just flowed.
White, as it happened, was very much on my mind. It is a book for everybody who wants to learn how to write or who needs to do some writing to get through the day, as almost everybody does in the age of e-mail and the Internet. They sit down to commit an act of literature, and the self who emerges on paper is far stiffer than the person who sat down to write. But the list would be tedious. He was going to talk about writing as an avocation.
Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time? During the 1960s the president of my university wrote a letter to mollify the alumni after a spell of campus unrest. He teaches at the New School in New York. How could such beautiful sentences not be perfect? How was he drawn into it? That condition was first revealed with the arrival of the word processor. What gets their attention is the simplicity of the process. Some people need silence, others turn on the radio. Remember this in moments of despair.
I also often meet gray-haired matrons who remember being assigned the book in college and not finding it the horrible medicine they expected. We no longer head committees. The window is open to a view across the water. Do you put symbolism in your writing? On one level the new torrent is good news. Sometimes they bring that early edition for me to sign, its sentences highlighted in yellow. William Zinsser April 2006 Part I Principles 1 The Transaction A school in Connecticut once held a day devoted to the arts, and I was asked if I would come and talk about writing as a vocation.
What member of an insurance or medical plan can decipher the brochure explaining his costs and benefits? Experiencing is one of the worst clutterers. Yet the idea can always be expressed by now to mean the immediate moment Now I can see him , or by today to mean the historical present Today prices are high , or simply by the verb to be It is raining. They blame themselves—they obviously missed something, and they go back over the mystifying sentence, or over the whole paragraph, piecing it out like an ancient rune, making guesses and moving on. How can they even begin to impose a coherent shape on the past—that vast sprawl of half-remembered people and events and emotions? In later editions I eliminated the sexist pronoun he denoting the writer and the reader. . Kommentar: Spine creases, wear to binding and pages from reading. My tools were a dangling lightbulb, an Underwood standard typewriter, a ream of yellow copy paper and a wire wastebasket.
Brock said he was greatly enjoying his new life as a man of letters, and he told several stories of being taken to lunch by his publisher and his agent at Manhattan restaurants where writers and editors gather. They are the same decisions that confront every writer going in search of his or her past: matters of selection, reduction, organization and tone. Even your dentist will ask if you are experiencing any pain. Clutter is the ponderous euphemism that turns a slum into a depressed socioeconomic area, garbage collectors into waste-disposal personnel and the town dump into the volume reduction unit. Then they must look at what they have written and ask: have I said it? During the 1970s he was master of Branford College at Yale. Whether you want to write about people or places, science and technology, business, sports, the arts or about yourself in the increasingly popular memoir genre, On Writing Well offers you fundamental priciples as well as the insights of a distinguished writer and teacher. That made us a panel, and we sat down to face a crowd of students and teachers and parents, all eager to learn the secrets of our glamorous work.
The man or woman snoozing in a chair with a magazine or a book is a person who was being given too much unnecessary trouble by the writer. Who can understand the clotted language of everyday American commerce: the memo, the corporation report, the business letter, the notice from the bank explaining its latest simplified statement? Brock told me he was enormously interested in my answers—it had never occurred to him that writing could be hard. But nothing has replaced the writer. By using a more pompous phrase in his professional role he not only sounds more important; he blunts the painful edge of truth. The next day everyone in America was saying at this point in time instead of now. White was doing in his boathouse—and the plain old tools of the English language. Some write by hand, some by computer, some by talking into a tape recorder.
They come to talk through a writing problem or to catch me up on their lives. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. With more than a million copies sole, this volume has stood the test of time and remains a valuable resource for writers and would-be writers. Let it all hang out, he told us, and whatever form the sentences take will reflect the writer at his most natural. Good writers welcomed the gift of being able to fuss endlessly with their sentences—pruning and revising and reshaping—without the drudgery of retyping.
Examine every word you put on paper. New varieties sprout overnight, and by noon they are part of American speech. It is worth bothering about. I have an unbroken record of missing the deeper meaning in any story, play or movie, and as for dance and mime, I have never had any idea of what is being conveyed. Clutter is political correctness gone amok. When I first wrote On Writing Well, the readers I had in mind were a small segment of the population: students, writers, editors, teachers and people who wanted to learn how to write.
Physicians are physicians, friends are friends. Bad writers became even more verbose because writing was suddenly so easy and their sentences looked so pretty on the screen. Take the adjective personal, as in a personal friend of mine, his personal feeling or her personal physician. Beware of all the slippery new fad words: paradigm and parameter, prioritize and potentialize. Whether you want to write about people or places, science and technology, business, sports, the arts or about yourself in the increasingly popular memoir genre, On Writing Well offers you fundamental priciples as well as the insights of a distinguished writer and teacher.