William Zinsser Taught Me One Important Lesson About Writing
It’s easy to be a lazy writer. Which is scary. I fall into habits, ruts, and techniques that feel comfortable and, after a while, it doesn’t feel wrong. It feels normal and right to put words on a page and never look at them again, thinking it’s good to go. It’s not, of course. After reading “On Writing Well,” by William Zinsser, I learned quite a lot, but perhaps the most important lesson was taking the craft very seriously.
Zinsser is a stickler. Throughout his book, he makes that perfectly clear. He painstakingly pours himself over grammar, syntax, rhythm, meter, and every element of good writing. For Zinsser, if you aren’t fixing and tweaking your writing with tweezers and a magnifying glass, then you’re doing it wrong. He’s perhaps the most Type-A writer I’ve read.
That’s good. Because, I’m Type-B.
The way I’ve always approached writing has been an Indiana Jones, hop-into-the-fray, shoot first and figure things out later mentality. Often, this breeds laziness in the editing process. It’s a great way to let the words flow in the first draft. All subsequent drafts, however, are treated with contempt. The laziness seeps in around then. Suddenly, I’m ready to write something else and sign off on a bad draft. So, I need writers like Zinsser to speak a little truth into my frame of mind.
Zinsser truth is a hard slap across the face.
I learned a writer who doesn’t obsessively and compulsively re-read and rework their writing is a bad writer. We all learn in school to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, but for Zinsser this is only half the formula. When you go back into the battle to rewrite, you better know what you’re doing. For me, this caused me great anxiety.
Do I know what I’m doing with grammar, syntax, and style?
It’s a question that’s haunted me for ages. I still feel like I’m learning the ropes. Most of my grammar knowledge is broken into pieces throughout my time in school and all the books I’ve read over the years. The problem with learning grammar through reading is every book has a different style and a different set of rules they live by. It’s fairly easy to be confused.
Fortunately, Zinsser lays some of this out and teaches some of the basics of grammar.
Once you know what to do, of course, you better hack and slash with precision and have a keen sense of style. Otherwise, you’re just spinning your wheels. You can fix a few things, but you likely aren’t doing it like a pro. Once you practice looking at your work with an obsessive drive to fix everything, you’ll likely achieve a well-written piece.
Part of the process is hating your writing by the end. I know that sounds miserable, but no one said being a good writer would be lollipops and gumdrops, right? If you get to the point where you’ve slaved over every period and comma, and you don’t want to read another word for fear of burning the whole thing down, then you probably did your job.
For Type-A writers, this is common sense. This is life. This is reality. But, for Type-B writers, like myself, this doesn’t come easy. It’s tough. It makes writing feel like a grind. It’s easy to get turned off. It’s also necessary. It sets your writing apart from thousands of other would-be writers.
While reading his book, Zinsser comes across as a stalwart protector and sage of the craft. For some, this might be a turn-off; it might sound like he’s a grammar snob. However, for myself, I felt inspired by his desire to stand true to core truths about English and language; truths that haven’t really changed for hundreds of years. It set up a quality example to follow. Though, I must admit, many dangers lie in wait on the path Zinsser paves.
Perfectionism is the biggest danger. Being a master of the craft can quickly down spiral into a cage. Many writers throughout the ages have fallen into this trap. Obsession over a perfect draft can lead to frustration and writer’s block. It’s easy to see why; there is no such thing as a perfect draft.
But, to be honest, Type-B writers like myself rarely need to worry about perfectionism. That’s a Type-A’s ball field. Type-B writers need to worry more about focusing on the small, meticulous details rather than the big picture. I love the big picture. It makes me sing. Still, the devil’s in the details and no amount of singing will scare it away.
William Zinsser taught me one important lesson about writing. It’s serious business. Anyone treating it any other way should walk out the door and never come back.