On Writing Well by William Zinsser at first seems a little confronting. How is this author going to really teach me how to write well, and will I believe what he is telling me or not? The initial reaction most readers will have to the cover is that it’s just another self help guide; something that is written far too often, resembling colloquial thought patterns and having no originality. But Zinsser is different. He has a clear style that can be picked up in the first couple paragraphs. And he’s confident, too. So much so that I kept reading and thoroughly enjoyed his various statements that go beyond writing in general.
What is this book about you might ask? It’s actually a ‘Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction’, but you could easily extrapolate his concepts into fiction and other realms of writing.
He starts with a pretty good foundation talking about how the American school system actually fundamentally changes the way we think about writing. And from a very young age. We’re taught these rules about paragraph structure, writing essays with some sort of formula in mind, and constricting a stylistic voice that is so important to most modern writers of our time. In essence, Zinsser hints very early on that this is a problem. It is okay to have rules within the respects of grammar and punctuation of course, but some rules can actually hinder creativity.
From here, Zinsser goes into word choice and style–the bulk of what he’s really trying to say. This is definitely my favorite section of the book. He starts by talking about this concept called journalese. What is it exactly? He defines the concept as “the death of freshness in anybody’s style”. It’s basically the cliche style of writing seen in something like People, for example. Magazines and articles talking about events that are always “upcoming” and someone who is always “firing off a note”. Have you ever noticed that nobody in history has ever just “sent” a note to someone else? They are always firing them off, in anger, and from a sitting position.
It is, after all, okay to be accustomed to this kind of writing. Most of the time we read right through it, not realizing how dull and unoriginal it really is. It’s something that’s highly pervasive in our society; hard to weed out. We see and hear it in our news segments, in online editorials, and now (drum roll) on social media! That’s right, the onslaught has infected Instagram and Twitter with captions and hashtags (with the exception of some) that pretty much have zero intellect.
I just wish we weren’t okay with it.