“This is the book that changed my life. If you only read one, make it this one.”
These words from a trusted fellow reader (and writer) were all it took for me to crack open William Zinsser’s On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction.
I don’t know if I would call it life-changing, but it was worth reading. Zinsser emphasizes the importance of decluttering your writing, and this is a skill that I’ll be honing for a long time. I’ve always created long, complicated sentences, thinking their length was justified by their three or four commas. Earlier this year, I wrote:
I cringe at the lack of real-world complexity when I go back and read that now, but I need to remind myself that this was almost four years ago, and it’s all about taking baby steps. It’s not wrong, just overly rational and not very compassionate. What I find more telling, though, is that I made no mention at all in defense of trans identities, rights, or liberation, decrying only homophobia.Why I Wrote That Really Transphobic Blog Post and How I Changed My Mind
After reading Zinsser’s book, I feel qualified to critique this critique of myself. I hear Zinsser saying: “You don’t need to say you go back and read it now. Just say you read it. And split up that sentence. It’s good to throw in a short sentence every once in a while for the sake of cadence. ‘It’s all about taking baby steps’ can be its own sentence. How can you condense ‘I made no mention at all in defense of…’? ‘At all’ is redundant.”
A possible rewrite:
I cringe at the lack of complexity when I read that now, but this was almost four years ago. It’s about taking baby steps. What I said was technically correct, but it lacked compassion. I did not defend trans identities, rights, or liberation. I decried only homophobia.
Zinsser’s insistence on rewriting goes hand in hand with his call for simplicity. As I rewrote that paragraph, I realized how much I could toss without losing any meaning. I probably spent more time analyzing it now than when I first wrote and edited it, and I could have done more still. This is the biggest lesson I took from On Writing Well.
Removing unnecessary words is the bottom line of the first 50 pages of the book. I wouldn’t have missed much if I had stopped there. The rest is either Zinsser presenting his opinion as fact or giving instructions on writing specific genres that I don’t write about.
The Zinsser dictionary
On Writing Well was first released in 1976, and this third anniversary edition was revised in 2006. As we approach the book’s 50th anniversary, it is once again outdated.
Zinsser is hung up on words that he does or does not accept. He talks about the time in the 60’s when he was on a panel responsible for deciding which words would be approved for a new American dictionary. What an odd experience. Only 104 people voted on which words were okay. The rest of us, apparently, abided by whatever they said.
“Journalese” particularly offends Zinsser: “the greats,” “to host,” “beef up,” “staffers,” “upcoming.” Perhaps these (perfectly mundane) words were new when Zinsser criticized them. (It’s hard to say, since without an original edition of On Writing Well, I don’t know which passages are unchanged from the first 1976 writing and which are younger.) He is particularly exhausted by the language used here:
Last February, Plainclothes Patrolman Frank Serpico knocked at the door of a suspected Brooklyn heroin pusher. When the door opened a crack, Serpico shouldered his way in only to be met by a .22-cal. pistol slug crashing into his face. Somehow he survived, although there are still buzzing fragments in his head, causing dizziness and permanent deafness in his left ear. Almost as painful is the suspicion that he may well have been set up for the shooting by other policemen. For Serpico, 35, has been waging a lonely, four-year war against the routine and endemic corruption that he and others claim is rife in the New York City police department. His efforts are now sending shock waves through the ranks of New York’s finest. . . . Though the impact of the commission’s upcoming report has yet to be felt, Serpico has little hope that . . .
Other than it being about a cop, I’m not actually sure what is wrong with this passage. What is Zinsser mad about? He finds the following phrases cliché and dreary: “Shouldered his way,” “only to be met,” “crashing into his face,” “waging a lonely war,” “corruption that is rife,” “sending shock waves,” “New York’s finest.” I trusted Zinsser’s judgment in the moment, but now that a few days have passed since reading, I wonder if there is anything wrong with this wording other than that Zinsser didn’t like it.
Stuck in the past
He owns the persona of crotchety old white guy who’s not happy about all this newfangled slang. That’s not necessarily an insult—I think Zinsser would have agreed. So I wasn’t surprised to see his outdated opinion that “illegal alien” should not have been replaced with “undocumented resident,” a “pudgy new intruder from the land of sociology.” Maybe “illegal alien” was not such a xenophobic buzzword in 1976, but I doubt it. Writers would do well to pay close attention to “the land of sociology.”
People in marginalized groups must get to determine how writers refer to them, not the other way around. (Zinsser also criticizes “senior citizen,” but didn’t provide an alternative.) Perhaps “undocumented resident” was new, but it is also more accurate. People are neither illegal nor are they aliens. They can be undocumented, and they can be residents. This is what Zinsser would deride as “politically correct,” but it’s correct for a reason.
I don’t know if Zinsser was actually anti-immigrant or if he was just a product of his time, or just old, or maybe all of the above. In sharing his original rewrite of one section, he explains that “In later editions I eliminated the sexist pronoun ‘he’ denoting ‘the writer’ and ‘the reader.'” Considering that he goes on to add a whole section addressing sexism in writing, I have to think he is at least trying. (Although it makes me wonder why he kept his “humor” example where he makes fun of a trend in women’s hairstyles.)
Zinsser tells us in this section how he struggled to replace all his “he”s and “him”s.
“He” and “him” and “his” are words that rankle. “Every employee should decide what he thinks is best for him and his dependents.” What are we to do about these countless sentences? One solution is to turn them into the plural: “All employees should decide what they think is best for them and their dependents.” But this is good only in small doses. A style that converts every “he” into a “they” will quickly turn to mush.
Another common solution is to use “or”: “Every employee should decide what he or she thinks is best for him or her.” But again, it should be used sparingly. . . .
Nevertheless I found three or four hundred places where I could eliminate “he,” “him,” “his,” “himself,” or “man,” mainly by switching to the plural, with no harm done; the sky didn’t fall in. Where the male pronoun remains in this edition I felt it was the only solution that wasn’t cumbersome.William Zinsser, On Writing Well, pp. 82-83
He is trying; however, he misses the solution that is so painstakingly obvious: the singular “they”. Although it was used as early as the 1300s, Zinsser does not so much as entertain it. I imagine that he wouldn’t have liked it, considering that he didn’t even like the plural “they”. Knowing the ease of use the singular “they” provides, both Zinsser’s “his”s and his “his and hers”s make me twitch a bit. If he wouldn’t use the singular “they”, he could have at least swapped out half of his “he”s for “she”s.
One clunky pair that Zinsser has no qualms with is “men and women.” In the very beginning he condemns “individual” as clutter, declaring that writers should use “man or woman” instead. Why? Even if “men and women” was not politically incorrect, turning a word into three words doesn’t obey Zinsser’s own rules of simplicity. The gender neutral “folks” was not popular yet, but “people” certainly existed. Yet there were no people in sight.
The narrowness of Zinsser’s perspective means that it will not help all kinds of nonfiction writers. He includes chapters on writing interviews, travel articles, memoirs, and business correspondence, and about science, sports, humor, and the arts. (I skipped the chapters on sports and travel articles, and most of the chapters on interviews and business.) Zinsser doesn’t include anything on political writing, but then again, he’s not the person I would ask. Although he is adamant that he teaches his students not to sell but only to write, other readers have noted that his style is strikingly capitalist:
What Zinsser is doing in this book is applying a capitalist sensibility to prose. Keep it simple. Economize. Cut out the fat. Go straight for the point. Zinsser’s approach to writing is that of a factory owner seeking to improve his business model.Goodreads Reviewer
Zinsser only appreciates the most efficient writing. Writing was not something he did for fun. Writing was work. Even if he didn’t want people to write to sell, that’s what he had to do, as writing was his job. But it’s not my job, and I actually do want to have some fun writing.
Most writers sow adjectives almost unconsciously into the soil of their prose to make it more lush and pretty, and the sentences become longer and longer as they fill up with stately elms and frisky kittens and hard-bitten detectives and sleepy lagoons.William Zinsser, On Writing Well, p. 71
There are plenty of words I’ve learned I don’t need, but an adjective whose purpose is to create imagery is not one of them. Some sentences have serious jobs to do, but some sentences can just be art. They can be lush, they can philosophize. Kittens can be frisky. It sounds great to your ear and it tells you that these kittens were acting one way out of any number of ways.
While my opening quote said “If you only read one [book on writing], make it this one.” Notice it did not say to only read one book. On Writing Well is a good start, but insufficient. Luckily, we have George Orwell’s Why I Write for political writing and Kavita Das’s Craft and Conscience for writing on social issues.
Even with Zinsser’s problematic views, his friend Diana Goetsch felt that he understood her on a fundamental level—despite Zinsser’s never knowing that Diana was trans. He never knew her as Diana at all, only as “a person named Douglas Goetsch, who was fading out of existence.” It’s heartbreaking that after being Zinsser’s friend for 15 years, Diana knew that “if I came out to him, there was a good chance that we would lose each other. Trans people are forced to make such judgment calls all the time—our survival depends on it.”
Diana continued visiting Zinsser to his last days, changing her entire presentation before meeting him to teach him poetry and get lectured about her supposedly inauthentic cover letters. It was through these lectures that Diana felt that Zinsser saw right through her: not that she was trans but that it was imperative that she be true to herself.
What Bill said about holding myself back feels true not just for me but for every trans person I know. Until we are out of the closet, we do allow others to define us; we may be afraid to take up space or to ask for things, such as a job, or more appropriate clothing or pronouns. Our bodies feel like borrowed shells, our lives are in rooms we don’t enter, and the people around us sense that something is missing, something they can’t quite place. Bill, who had no clue about trans experience, nevertheless understood that I had yet to “throw the switch.”Diana Goetsch, Teaching William Zinsser to Write Poetry
Diana’s article is written exactly in the style Zinsser teaches in On Writing Well, down to the last sentence. It feels at once abrupt and yet complete. How bittersweet, then, that “Mourning Bill that day was the last time I ever wore a man’s suit and tie.”