On Writing Well

I need to become a better writer. Part one was to start writing a lot; just writing a lot and paying attention to the craft from an intuitive standpoint. That part started in January 2006 with this blog and has burgeoned into books, golf, and food.

Part two was to learn more about the craft and build writing skills. That started about a year ago with my re-reading of Strunk and White. But after Strunk and White I got arrogant. I was content to just write and write and read and read in hopes that volume would lead to improvement. I think it did for awhile, but now I’ve stopped improving.

I’ve stagnated. I can’t think of new words for great. I struggle with tenses. My creativity seems to be shot. So I’m going to start mixing in some instructional books with my fiction and non-fiction. Plus, I’ve started listening to Grammar Girl. She kicks.

I had high hopes for On Writing Well. The subtitle is The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, which is right up my alley because that’s mostly what I write. It was an enlightening book, but I also struggled with it. The author is a nonfiction writer himself and believes strongly that nonfiction can be literature. The first third of the book contains instruction on form, grammar, and structure. The second third gives specific instruction on the various forms of nonfiction; like sports writing, writing your memoir, and writing for business. The last third is about high level, emotional, and motivational aspects of writing.

I learned a lot, but parts of it were a slow read. The first third (general instruction) and last third (voice and motivation) were very helpful, but the middle third (form-specific instruction) was a drag. I couldn’t stay interested in the instructional pieces for all of the different kinds of nonfiction writing. Zinsser gave a ton of examples but my eyes glazed over when I read them. I think I’ll reread this in a year. Maybe my frame of mind isn’t right at this time.

The most valuable learning moments in this book were the ones about “cleaning up your writing.” You see, I think I do have a cluttered up writing style. Wait, that’s a great example, why didn’t I say “I have a cluttered writing style”? Zinsser hates it when people start sentences with “you see.” He says it’s condescending to the reader. And he begs for us to use simple, plain English without extraneous words that have no value for the reader. He advocates decluttering mercilessly by rereading and rewriting to get to the point of efficient, straightforward, and informative writing. I’m working on it.

The last section about motivation, intention, voice, and quest is worth the wait. Zinsser gives a moving portrait of how he became a writer, why he loves it, how he teaches it, and why you should invest in the act of writing. It was very motivating.

I feel inadequate after reading this book. Most of the examples of poor writing that Zinsser identifies were (and are) perpetrated unknowingly by me regularly. Now that I know what they are, I will try and cut them out, but I don’t have the patience for re-reading and reviewing. I slap stuff on my blogs casually because they are mostly for me and nobody else really reads them. Maybe if I gave more a damn, more people would read them. I’m going to cut back on the volume and spend more quality writing and reviewing time for the next few months.