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The Perfect Kind of Grouch

In the opening chapter of his classic advice book On Writing Well, William Zinsser describes a scene where he is one of two guest speakers at a school. The two were there to discuss the craft of writing, though Zinsser didn’t know the other man, a surgeon in a red sportcoat whose hobby was writing. The questioning began in a perfunctory way — “What was it like to be a writer?” — and the surgeon answered first that writing was “tremendous fun,” telling the audience of students and teachers how the “words just flowed. It was easy.”

Zinsser, who had come not as a hobbyist but as a professional, disagreed: “I then said that writing wasn’t easy and wasn’t fun. It was hard and lonely, and the words seldom just flowed.” This anecdote came in the third paragraph of the book — on the very first page — and as I read it, I remember wondering, why on earth would anyone start an advice book this way? But by the time I had finished On Writing Well, I knew why.

William Zinsser, who passed away in 2015 at the age of 92, was a journalist and writer who also taught at Yale. On Writing Well was first published in 1976, and that copy that I picked up, read, and soon fell in love with was a thirtieth-anniversary edition, which sported “More Than One Million Copies Sold” on the cover. Zinsser was a writer’s writer, maybe not well known to the average American reader, but his underlying influence on American writing runs alongside that of Strunk and White.

As the chapters of On Writing Well unfold, so does William Zinsser. He explains more hard but necessary truths, like the fact that “words are the only tools we’ve got.” The early chapters deal heavily in respecting words and their uses, and with removing what he calls “clutter.” Whether clichés or wordiness, it is this phenomenon that has become “the disease of American writing.” Zinsser’s remedy: “Simplify, simplify.” Find the right words, simple ones if they’re available, and value clarity over the piling-on of unnecessary verbiage. One mistake made by bad writers is assuming, If I use big words, then I must seem smart, and if you can’t understand what I write, then I must be smarter than you, right? Wrong.

In teaching writing to high-school students, I emphasize these lessons each school year by having students to read and re-read the first two sections, “Principles” and “Methods,” every August. We discuss these early chapters for several days, and that discussion revolves not just around clarity but around two other concepts that Zinsser introduces in that initially grouchy first chapter: “humanity and warmth.” He writes, on the third page of the book:

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.

This is seminal. Although the students are certainly familiar with these two words — humanity and warmth — we talk about what Zinsser could mean. Despite how we humans like to think of ourselves, one side of the truth is that we’re weird. We are inconsistent, sometimes paradoxical, thoughtful but opinionated, rational and emotional, knowledgable and ignorant, charitable and selfish. We relish the idea that we’re unique as individuals, but we also need desperately to belong. We want our habitual daily lives to be predictable, but we also want to escape the same-old-same-old. And then there’s warmth, which people like. It’s not heat. Heat will burn you and hurt you. Warmth is nice. It’s comforting and appealing. Zinsser is telling us that the best writing embraces all of that weirdness and insecurity into a fold of understanding of and compassion for our common condition.

So, how do we do that? In chapter 4, titled “Style,” he lays down another biggie.

Therefore, a fundamental rule is: be yourself.

No rule, however, is harder to follow. It requries writers to do two things that by their metabolism are impossible. They must relax, and they must have confidence.

Inexperienced writers need to hear that. We all think we’re being ourselves and remain only vaguely aware of how social forces pull us toward being what we’re expected to be. Our class discussions, when we reach that point, shift gears. We talk about how hard it is to “be yourself” in a world where there is always someone ready to criticize, contradict, compare, or even bully. It takes strength of character to stand up to all of that. And writers must.

However, we don’t have to do it by being ugly back, and we don’t have to do it alone. We have the force of generations backing us, propping us up, guiding us to “be yourself” while understanding who we are in the larger context. By chapter 20, after a dozen chapters of advice for specific writing tasks and situations, Zinsser writes in “The Sound of Your Own Voice”:

Go with what seems inevitable in your own heritage. Embrace it and it may lead you to eloquence.

Not wholly, but in part, it is our heritage that shapes us. Young writers growing up in a place like the Deep South need to hear this, too. In a media-driven world that celebrates urbanity, newness, speed, and wealth, it can be difficult to see value in a culture steeped in nature, tradition, slowness, and poverty. But those are part of our heritage here. And though the ugly side is easy to recognize and lament, neglecting the beauty, strength, and “eloquence” that have arisen from it would be regrettable. That’s a reget that I don’t want my students to have.

Zinsser’s last chapter is titled “Write as Well as You Can.” In the early sections, he returns to being the man we saw in that opening scene, describing how his parents instilled in him “a bone-deep belief that quality is its own reward.” Within a few pages, he moves on to discussing editors, who he reminds us are helpmates to writers, not experts on what should be changed, and he drives his point home again:

If you allow your distinctiveness to be edited out, you will lose one of your main virtues. You will also lose your virtue.

Then Zinsser fleshes that out in book’s third-to-last paragraph:

But finally the purposes that writers serve must be their own. What you write is yours and nobody else’s. Take your talent as far as you can and guard it with your life. Only you know how far that is; no editor knows. Writing well means believing in your writing and believing in yourself, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel. You will write only as well as you make yourself write.

William Zinsser is the perfect kind of grouch, and in On Writing Well, he walks that fine line between being honest and being too honest. I can often tell whether a student has the stuffing it takes to be a writer based on his or her reaction to this book. When they face the fact that writing can be “hard and lonely” (among other things), some young people understand that they don’t want to be writers after all. And that’s OK. That’s what being young is all about— you can’t “be yourself” . . . until you’ve found yourself.

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Foster Dickson

Foster Dickson

writer, editor, & award-winning teacher in Montgomery, AL | editor of “Nobody’s Home” | proud Gen X | www.fosterdickson.com