Farewell, Mr Zinsser

ZinsserIn Chapter One of William Zinsser’s classic guide to writing nonfiction, On Writing Well, he tells the story of sitting on a panel of two, answering the questions of a group of students and teachers eager to hear about the glamourous world of writing.

His fellow panellist was a surgeon who had started writing – with some success – in his spare time.  For each of the questions, Dr Brock, the surgeon-cum-writer, had a sunny answer.  Writing was easy.  Writing was fun.  The words just flowed.  There was seldom any need for revision.  And if, for some reason, the words didn’t flow, then just go for a walk, go fishing, whatever.  Tomorrow would be another day.

In answer to the same questions, Mr Zinsser said that writing was not easy.  And it was not fun.  It was hard work.  He also said that rewriting was the essence of writing; that writing was a craft not an art; and ‘the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself.’

The point of the anecdote was to illustrate that there is no single ‘right’ way to write.  Over time, each good writer discovers what works for him or her.

He concludes the chapter by saying:

Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to ‘personalize’ the author.  It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.

Can such principles be taught?  Maybe not.  But most of them can be learned.

I discovered On Writing Well in about 1982.  Since then, I must have read it – from cover to cover – at least twenty times.  It’s always a rewarding experience.

William Zinsser died last week at the age of 92.

Farewell, Mr Zinsser.

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The value of a well-written sentence

BrainGoing through some old papers, I recently came across a note from a writer friend who died at a relatively young age.

She had trained as a journalist and then tried her hand (unsuccessfully) at novel writing.  While waiting for a publisher to recognise her genius as a novelist, she became an advertising copywriter before, eventually, establishing herself as a reasonably successful dramatist, writing mainly for radio and TV.  But perhaps her most interesting writing was the writing that she did to – in her own words – ‘try to work out what I think.’

The note I found was written on the back of part of one of her ‘think’ pieces.  And what was striking about the think fragment was the fact that, despite being written solely for her own benefit (and in fat black pencil on a sheet of A4 lined paper), it was very carefully crafted.  Many ‘initial choice’ words had been changed.  And many sentences had been revised three or four times in what appeared to be an effort to get it ‘just right’ – not just in meaning, but also in style.

I couldn’t help but contrast this with a conversation I had recently with a young media studies graduate.  ‘The thing is,’ the grad said, ‘nobody really needs to know how to write a ‘proper’ [she did the bunny ears thing] sentence anymore.  Text and Twitter, that’s how people communicate.  And in five years’ time it will be something else, something that we haven’t even thought of yet.’

‘But you wouldn’t want to read a whole book of text speak,’ I said.

‘I don’t need to read a book,’ she replied.  ‘There are so many better ways to get in touch and stay in touch.  Spend some time on YouTube,’ she advised.

Our writer friend died a couple of years before YouTube and Twitter were invented.  But, had she survived a little longer, I wonder if either would have helped her to work out – with the clarity of a few well-written sentences – what she thought.

As another friend suggested recently: ‘In order to write well, you must be able to think well.  And in order to think well, you must learn to write well.’

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‘What is written without effort …’

WritingWhen I first began writing for a living, I was surprised by how much effort it took to write a few hundred words of clear, easy-to-read prose.

There was the gathering of the raw materials: the ideas, the facts, and the opinions.  There was the writing and the rewriting.  And there was the reviewing and the polishing.  (Lots of polishing.)

I put the amount of effort required down to the fact that I wasn’t a proper writer.  Writing was just something that I did, something that paid the rent and the grocer and the wine merchant, while I kept an eye out for an opportunity to do something else.  But, as the years went by, the opportunities to do something else, something proper, became fewer and fewer.  At 22, you can decide to go to law school; at 32, it’s a little more problematic.  By no means out of the question.  Just a little more problematic.

Of course, I realised that, sooner or later, someone was going to notice that I wasn’t a proper writer.  And then it would all be over.  Then I really would have to find something else to do.

In an effort to postpone the day when I was ‘tumbled’, I began to widen my playing field.  I started writing for radio.  If I was tumbled in radio, maybe I could still write for magazines.  Or TV.  Or for the corporate world.  But the radio guys failed to spot that I was an imposter.  I remained un-tumbled.  And the cheques continued to tumble in.

And then, in my mid-thirties, I had a chance lunch with a celebrated poet.  ‘I’ve read some of your work,’ he said.  ‘You’re a craftsman.  I hope that you are being properly rewarded.’  (Was being a craftsman the same as being a proper writer?  I probably should have asked him.)

A few years later, and again purely by chance, I had lunch with the head of the English department at a ‘proper’ university.  ‘Do you write every day?’ he said.

‘Pretty much.’

‘And how many words – finished words, publishable words – do you usually produce in a day?’

‘Not many,’ I admitted.  ‘Five hundred.  Seven hundred on a good day.  A thousand on a really good day.’

He frowned slightly.  But said nothing.

‘Well, you know,’ I said, ‘you write the words, you think about what you have written, you rewrite, you rearrange, you polish.  It all takes time.’

‘Yes,’ he said.  ‘That’s a respectable day’s work.’

And later that very same day, now feeling slightly better about using so much effort to produce so few words, I came across a quote by Samuel Johnson: ‘What is written without effort is, in general, read without pleasure.’

These 483 words have taken me the best part of three hours to think about, write, rewrite, and polish.  I really hope that you find them a pleasure to read.

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To end a sentence with?

PrepositionOne of my vivid memories of life in the First Form was a pin board that displayed ‘Work we are proud of.’

As I recall, it was covered with rather indifferent prose written by people who, nevertheless, had neat (and prescribed) handwriting.  My own handwriting was somewhat unconventional – it still is – and so my own attempts at English Composition failed at the first hurdle – at least in the eyes of ‘the Duchess of Room One’.

After three or four weeks of failing to make the cut, I raised my hand at the beginning of the class.

‘Yes, Jack?’ The Duchess said.

‘Are you entirely happy with that heading?’ I asked.

The Duchess frowned and, for what seemed like a very long time, peered at the questioned caption.  Eventually she nodded and said: ‘Yes, I see what you mean.’  And while she wrote a new caption – in her own immaculate and prescribed handwriting – she asked: ‘And what is wrong with the current caption?’

‘A sentence is something we should never end a sentence with,’ I said.  (I was a smart arse even in those far off days.)


Of course, it was not correct then.  And it is not correct now.  If you want to end a sentence with a preposition, go ahead.  Be my guest.  Ninety-something percent of your readers won’t even notice.  But some will.  And therein lies the problem.

As with most grammar ‘rules’, the prohibition against ending a sentence with a preposition comes about because Dryden and several of his successors persuaded their publishers to publish lists of their personal preferences.  That said, even today there are some readers who are distracted by prepositions at the end of sentences.  It causes them to stumble.  It causes them to think about the construction rather than the message.

If you know that some in your audience are likely to be pedantic fuddy-duddies, perhaps you should rearrange your sentence.  Otherwise, a preposition is a perfectly good word to end a sentence with.  (Sorry, Your Grace.)

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‘The most readable argument’

BookCoverMore than half of the documents we are commissioned to edit and enhance are directed at board directors and senior business executives: CEOs, CFOs, CIOs, CMOs.  These are people who make the decisions that ultimately enable their organisations to succeed or fail.  They are also people who have 101 other documents clamouring for their attention.

Many years ago, my then-boss briefed me to write a doco aimed at convincing the head of a brewery to consolidate twelve of the brewery’s most successful outlets under the same brand name.

‘Apart from what’s in the notes, what else do I need to know?’ I asked.

‘That the guy who is going to make the call is going to get another ten, maybe 20 props on the day ours arrives.  And he is going to have time to read perhaps two or three of them.  Having the best argument is important; but having the most readable argument is even more important.’

I was reminded of this conversation the other day when I received a ‘pack’ from the guys who insure our motor vehicles.  The first three pages covered … I know not what.  I started reading but then fell asleep.  It was not until page four that we go down to what was covered and what they intended to charge.  All of that could so easily have been on page one.  As it is, I still haven’t got around to reading the last couple of pages – which will, presumably, tell us what we need to do next.

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Make it easy for the reader

olivetti portableWay, way back, I had the opportunity to work with a writer who was seriously under-rated.  It wasn’t that he wasn’t known.  He was a high-profile man-about-town: the star of many a party; the host of many a fine lunch.  He just wasn’t recognised for his writing.  And yet he wrote some of the most sublimely readable prose.

To be honest, when I first started working with him, I was a bit in awe of him.  If he said: ‘Are you sure this is the most elegant way of expressing this idea?’ I immediately assumed that it wasn’t.  And generally rewrote it.

But, as I got to know him better, I took his ‘challenges’ as invitations to a discussion.  One day (I seem to recall that it was after a couple of glasses of wine), I asked him if he had a guiding principle when it came to writing.

I remember him looking up at the ceiling; and then down at the table; and then back up at the ceiling; and, finally, his sparkling blue eyes engaged my neither-sparkling-nor-blue eyes.

‘Personally,’ he said, ‘I always try and make it as easy as possible for the reader to read.  If the reader doesn’t read it, what’s the point of writing it?’

It was a relatively short conversation, but it changed the whole way I went about my work.  Cheers, Mars.

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Recommended holiday reading

Mind the GaffeShortly before she died, a writer friend gave me a copy of R L Trask’s Mind the Gaffe: The Penguin Guide to Common Errors in English.

‘I think that you and Larry will get on very well,’ my friend said.

‘Oh?  Why is that?’

‘Well, even though he’s an academic, when it comes to written English he seems to have a strong dislike of both empty waffle and starchy pomposity.’

Mind the Gaffe is intended as a reference book.  The entries are arranged alphabetically, starting with a guide to when to use a and when to use an, and continuing on for another 293 pages until it arrives at a note on words ending in -yse (British English) and words ending in -yze (American English).

For the past twelve or so years, this handy blue-covered volume has sat on my desk, along with The Concise Oxford Dictionary and The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage.  And seldom does a week pass without me dipping into it for clarification of some point or other.  What is the difference between dissent and dissension?  When is it preferable to use lengthy rather than long?  And what is the currently preferred spelling of yogurt/yoghurt/yoghourt?  (According to Professor Trask, it’s yogurt.)

This summer, Mind the Gaffe has also been one of my most satisfying holiday reads.  Over a couple of days, I read it from cover to cover (accompanied by the occasional glass of chilled rosé).  I can thoroughly recommend it.

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If at first you don’t succeed, start again

wastebasketNot everything you write is worth your reader’s reading.

Most writers, having toiled over a piece of prose, are reluctant to admit that, sometimes, what they have written is simply not good enough.  Perhaps it doesn’t say what they need it to say.  Or perhaps it doesn’t say it very clearly or concisely.

But the writer has already invested time and effort in this piece of sub-standard communication.  She has written it; she has reviewed it; she has tweaked it (often several times); and now time is running out.  The deadline that had once seemed comfortably distant is now scarily close.

What to do?

In my experience there are only two things worth trying.  The first is to get someone who hasn’t been involved in the writing or tweaking to review it.  Sometime a fresh pair of eyes will be able to quickly spot what’s right and what’s wrong.  And, hopefully, what’s wrong can be quickly put right.

The second option is to start again with a clean sheet of paper.  Unfortunately, many writers are reluctant to consider this second option.  But, in my experience, the sooner you start again the better.  And it does need to be a clean sheet of paper.  Don’t try and work over the old version.  Don’t try to save what you thought were ‘the good bits’.  That’ll just take you back into the unsuccessful past.

Sometimes, as Isaac Bashevis Singer once observed: ‘the wastebasket is a writer’s best friend.’

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Polished wibble

AcademiaI have spent my working life in the communication business.

I have written for print media.  I have written for radio.  I have written for film and TV.  And, for a good part of the past 20 years, I have written (or edited) reports designed to inform or influence decision-makers.

In the early days, the people with whom I worked were often marketers or market researchers.  Latterly, I seem to have worked with more and more academics.

The marketers were often one step away from being snake oil salesmen.  As one of my former clients was wont to say: ‘It’s all about promise writ large.  Forget the sausage.  A sausage is just a sausage.  Sell the sizzle.’

And the market researchers were often unhelpfully cautious.  On the one hand this; on the other hand that.  ‘Oh, I would so like to meet a one-handed market researcher,’ a client once told me.

But the shortcomings of both the marketers and the market researchers pale in comparison with those of many academics.  The marketers may often have overstated their case.  And the market researchers may sometimes have been reluctant to get off the fence.  But at least they generally said what they said reasonably clearly.  Too many academics employ several thousand words – many of them long, esoteric words – to say, well, who knows what?

As one of my colleagues observed, the language of academia is often ‘polished wibble.  It looks impressive.  But it says very little.’

He also observed that many general readers think that if they can’t understand what an academic has written it must be because they are not brainy enough.  But that’s seldom true.  If the general reader can’t understand what the academic has written, it is probably because the academic has not written it very well.

More than 50 years ago, Rudolf Flesch devised a Reading Ease formula.  (You will find it included in many word processing programs.)  A score of 60 or more suggests writing that most general readers will easily understand.

But the majority of academic writing that has crossed my desk over the past couple of years has struggled to score 20.  One memorable piece scored a miserable 2.3.  That’s not effective communication.  That’s just wibble.

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The advantage of getting it down on paper

write it downA year or two back, we were approached by a fast-talking (literally) businessman with a bunch of almost totally unrelated ideas and sentences that he wanted us to assemble into ‘a key document’.

‘What’s the key message of this key document?’ we asked.

‘The key message?’

‘Yes.  What do you want the reader to take away?’

‘What I’ve just told you,’ he said.  ‘Oh, and there are a couple of diagrams that you need to include.  They’re really important.  I’ll email them.’

The more that we thought about his ‘notes’ and ‘thoughts’, the more clear it became that he really had no idea of what he wanted to say.  He had some glib phrases and some almost-impressive sound bites.  But he had no real message.  He had no clear objective.

He had given us 30 or so plausible-sounding sentences.  But, taken as a whole, they didn’t say anything that made sense.  Tossed off at a dinner party, some of them may have sounded vaguely interesting.  A couple may even have sounded slightly impressive.  But, written down, they added up to ‘So what?’

And that’s why writing it down can be so useful.

As the American cartoonist and commentator Dick Guindon once said: ‘Writing is nature’s way of letting you know how sloppy your thinking is.’

If you think you have a great idea – or something important to say – write it down, carefully, in the simplest language that you can muster.  And then put it aside for an hour or a day before reading it back.  Does it in fact say what you want it to say?  Does it say something worthy of your reader’s attention?

Unfortunately, not everything that trips off the tongue says something worth saying.

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