Friday, January 10, 2014

How William Zinsser Came to Write “On Writing Well”

On Writing Well” is a classic. It moves beyond “writing dos & don’ts” to give vitality and imagination to the process. William Zinsser once wrote a column explaining how his writing style developed and how he came to write the book.  Here is an excerpt:

Such a book would require a different kind of model, written by someone whose company and turn of mind I enjoyed, whatever he or she was writing about. The book I chose was American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, by the composer Alec Wilder. Wilder’s book, which had just been published, was one I had been waiting for all my life—the bible that every collector hopes someone will write in the field of his addiction. I was an addict of the songs generically known as the Great American Songbook.

Wilder studied the sheet music of thousands of songs and selected 300 in which he felt that the composer—Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin—had pushed the form into new terrain. In the book he provides the pertinent bars of music to illustrate his point or to single out a phrase that he finds original or somehow touching. But, beyond Wilder’s erudition, what I loved most was his commitment to his enthusiasms, as if to say, “These are just one man’s opinions—take ’em or leave ’em.”

Thus I saw that I might write a book about writing that was just one man’s opinions—take ’em or leave ’em. Like Wilder, I would illustrate my points with passages by my favorite nonfiction writers. Above all, I would treat the English language spaciously, not as a narrow universe of rules and regulations, talking to my readers directly (“you’ll find,” “don’t forget”) and taking them along on decisions I made during my own career as a journalist.

So it came about that I found my true style when I was in my mid-50s. Until then it more probably reflected the person I wanted to be perceived as—the youthful and witty columnist and critic. But that person was never really me. Not until I became a teacher and had no agenda except to be helpful did my style become integrated with my personality and my character.

You can read more here.


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William Zinsser's The Writer Who Stayed is wonderful as well. The essays touch on some of the themes raised in the excerpt above. His essay on boiling anything down to 300 words was the inspiration for the call for New Year's Resolution essays in the winter 2013 AALS newsletter. The essays themselves are wonderful!

Posted by: Jennifer Romig | Jan 12, 2014 2:13:35 PM

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