28 July 2015

William Zinsser on Writing: Harnessing the World We Live In


William Zinsser, the esteemed writing teacher, died in Manhattan on 12 May.  I never met Zinsser, but he nevertheless had a profound influence on me and my life.  I knew him only through his book On Writing Well (first published in 1976 and now in its seventh edition), which was an assigned text for one of my graduate classes at NYU back in the mid-1980s, and other pieces on writing that he published.  (I later bought Writing with a Word Processor when I got my first home computer, but the 1983 publication soon was outdated by the march of computer and word-processor technology.)  In a blog post called simply “Writing” (9 April 2010), I acknowledged that when I started to pay attention to my writing because of the emphasis my department put on it in grad school, “I began to read ‘words on words’—writers who wrote about writing: William Zinsser, Peter Elbow, and William Safire—who wrote not so much about writing as language—and the old standbys Fowler and Strunk and White.”  That brief statement belies the importance Zinsser’s principal work had on my own writing and the subsequent course of my life.

Zinsser was born in New York City on 7 October 1922 and grew up on Long Island.  He began his writing career at the New York Herald Tribune in 1946 as a feature writer, drama editor, film critic, and editorial writer.  He left the Trib in 1959 and spent the next 11 years as a freelance author, writing for magazines such as Look, Life, and the Saturday Evening Post.  Zinsser left journalism in 1970, however, to teach at Yale University, where his course, Nonfiction Workshop, was immensely popular.  (On Writing Well, which at Zinsser’s death had sold over 1½ million copies, grew out of that class.)  In 1979, Zinsser left Yale to become general editor at Book-of-the-Month Club but returned to academia in 1987 to teach writing at the New School for Social Research (now officially known simply as The New School), where his course was called People and Places, and the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.  Despite his unquestionable success as an editor and a publishing author—he’s also written 19 books on many topics varying from jazz (Willie and Dwike: An American Profile, 1984; later retitled Mitchell & Ruff: An American Profile in Jazz) to baseball (Spring Training, 1992)—the job he said he treasured most was that of teacher.  Zinsser explained that he “wanted . . . to begin to give back some of the things I had learned” from his years in the business.  He called teaching his “ministry.”

Zinsser may have been one of the first people in the world of words to say outright that academic writing was terrible and that our colleges and universities were training their students to be bad writers.  He said that “much of what academics write and read is fuzzy and verbose.”  In Writing with a Word Processor, the writing teacher warned that “very few people realize how badly they write and how badly this hurts them and their career and their company.  People are judged on the basis of who they appear to be in their writing, and if what they write is pompous or fuzzy or disorganized they will be perceived as all those things.  Bad writing makes bright people look dumb.”

Zinsser’s first fundamental good-writing principle was clarity.  “If it isn’t clear, you may as well not write it,” he declared.  “You may as well stay in bed.”  His second principle was simplicity: “There’s so much verbosity in the air that people assume that’s the way to talk, but it’s not.  Simple is good.”  The third good-writing principle was brevity or economy: “Saying things as briefly as possible with the fewest extra adjectives and words required” in the writing guru’s definition.  “Clutter,” the writer-editor instructed, “is the disease of American writing,” so he admonished writers to eschew pompous words and wordy phrases like at this point in time, quotidian, and venue instead of common, simple ones like now, daily, and place. 

His fourth fundamental principle of good writing was what he called “humanity—underlying all the others.”  Zinsser explained: “If you’re not coming across as who you are (writing is talking to someone else on paper), I think you almost might as well not write, at least if you’re writing for the general public”—as opposed to, say, academics who write for other academics.  In their cases, and by implication, anyone who writes solely for others in the same field as they are, “who am I to say that they couldn’t write in the murkiest possible way,” granted Zinsser, “but they shouldn’t inflict it on the rest of us, nor should they think it’s good writing.”  Or, I imagine he’d have added, pass it along to others (like students, for instance) as such.  (When I was doing some extensive research on some writers, I tried to read an essay called “The Crisis of Narrative in the Postnarratological Era: Paul Goodman’s The Empire City as (Post)Modern Intervention,” which was so thickly written that even once I got past that title—a classic of academese, in my opinion—I got very little out of it that was comprehensible.  I also bought a book called Toward a Theater of the Oppressed: The Dramaturgy of John Arden—I believe it was a published dissertation—that was so impenetrable that I returned it to the publisher.)

These are the tenets of the religion of writing that I learned from On Writing Well, my graduate class in Resources and Methods for the Study of Performance (1983-84), and the urgings of my other professors at NYU (who disparaged the habitual academic writing in terms stronger even than Zinsser criticized it).  It’s the kind of writing I try to produce myself (readers of Rick On Theater may notice that I haven’t entirely mastered all of the journalist-teacher’s principles all the time yet) and what I’ve tried to teach to my writing students, first in NYU’s Expository Writing Program, in English (and, believe it or not, theater) courses I’ve taught since, and to students I’ve tutored and coached.  (I used to make little signs on my computer to serve as reminders for my classes: for Principle 1 – Clarity: “What you talkin’ ’bout, writer?” borrowed from Different Strokes, the ‘70s/’80s sitcom; Principle 2 – Simplicity: “KISS – Keep It Simple, Students,” adapted from an army slogan; Principle 3 – Brevity: “You may identify me by the nomenclature of Ishmael,” the title of an article about academese and jargon; Principle 4 – Humanity: “I don’t think there’s anybody back there,” a line from a popular 1980s TV commercial for Wendy’s fast-food restaurant.) 

When he started at Yale in 1970, Zinsser found a burning need for his expertise.  Nonfiction Workshop was intended for 20 students but 175 signed up for it, prompting the Yale English department to wonder if perhaps the school hadn’t been teaching writing at all.  “There was nothing else like it at Yale in those days,” said one-time student Mark Singer, later a staff writer at the New Yorker.  Zinsser felt that his course was so necessary because that generation of students had come from “the very permissive let-it-all-hang-out 60s and hadn’t really been taught to write in high school.”  I found that when I first taught writing and I can only attest that it’s what had happened to me (high school class of 1965; college, 1969).  In that same post on “Writing” I mentioned earlier, I observed:

I don’t remember ever having been taught anything about writing when I was in school.  We learned grammar in elementary and middle school in those days, of course, but composition courses weren’t part of the curriculum.  In high school and college lit classes we studied writers, but not writing

In that same article, I noted that I was influenced by writers I was reading and admired when I first set about training myself to write better.  Zinsser insisted on several occasions, “We all need models . . . .  Writing is learned by imitation.”  Even before I heard of William Zinsser—On Writing Well was barely released at this time—I was emulating him.  “I learned to write,” he admitted, “mainly by reading writers who were doing the kind writing I wanted to do and by trying to figure out how they did it.”  That’s precisely what I was doing.  Zinsser mentioned writers like Ring Lardner, S. J. Perelman, H. L. Mencken, and even Woody Allen (about whom the journalist wrote “Woody Allen: Comic on the Way Up” for the Saturday Evening Post in 1963); my paradigms back then—ca. 1976—were Russell Baker, Anna Quindlen, E. B. White, and James Thurber.  (Notice how many of these writers on both our lists were humorists.  I’m just sayin’.)   In the end, as Zinsser explained, I transmuted my models’ writing styles into my own, having absorbed from them what was useful.  The writer-teacher observed that “we eventually move beyond our models; we take what we need and then we shed those skins and become who we are supposed to become.”

In “Writing,” I described my own earlier writing style, the one I was trying to shed, as “pedantic,” my version of what Zinsser derided as “florid” academic writing, “a ‘literary’ style” of writing that students think is what English teachers want “and that they assume is ‘good English.’”  (“Don’t assume that bad English can still be good journalism,” admonished the writing guru.  “It can’t.”)  I fell victim to what I called The William F. Buckley Syndrome—deliberately using a $50 (usually Latinate) word such as utilize when a $5 (Anglo-Saxon) one like use was available.  “I think there was a hunger in that generation,” suggested Zinsser; he heard his students imploring, “Please help me to harness the world I live in.”  (I’ve learned from my few years of writing that putting words on paper or a computer screen can be a way to sort out what I think about something—a phenomenon I discussed in another ROT post, “Why Write,” 4 March 2013.  This rationale for writing generated another of my little signs, a paraphrase of a line comedienne Gracie Allen used to use in her vaudeville and TV performances: “How do I know what I think until I see what I write?”) 

An important thing to understand about Zinsser’s teaching is that it wasn’t intended just for incipient professional writers.  Some of his students did become pros, among them Mark Singer and Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, The Atlantic’s Corby Kummer, and Christopher Buckley, the political satirist (Thank You for Smoking, 1994).  "The rest of the citizens are in some other line of work, and vast numbers of them write something during the day that gets foisted on other people,” wrote the author of Writing with a Word Processor.   His instruction and advice was really intended for the student—in high school, college, or grad school—who writes essays and term papers, the office worker or executive who writes memos and business letters, the teacher who writes student evaluations and assignment sheets, the lawyer who writes letters and briefs and the judge who writes opinions, and everyone who writes letters and e-mails.  Among his students and correspondents who weren’t famous writers were a family doctor in Quebec, a consumer advocate in Pennsylvania, and the night manager of an Orlando, Florida, resort campground.  In 2012, when glaucoma forced his retirement from writing, he announced that he’d offer “help with writing problems and stalled editorial projects and memoirs and family history” to anyone who needed it.  In his invitation, he added: “I’m eager to hear from you.  No project too weird.”

Good writing, for Zinsser, was a product of an orderly mind.  His argument was: “Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.  It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English.”  (His 1988 book, Writing to Learn, Harper & Row, was originally subtitled How to Write – and Think – Clearly about Any Subject at All.  The second part of the book covers writing for different fields.)  I’ve already admitted that I use writing to help me sort out ideas and thoughts, even feelings; and though often those writings go into the desk drawer (or, nowadays, remain on my hard drive), occasionally they turn up on my blog (see my posts “On Reviewing,” 22 March 2009; “Sobaka: A Memoir,” 31 July 2009; and “Dad,” 20 June 2010, all of which were originally private ruminations I later published).  “Writing,” Zinsser determined, “organizes and clarifies our thoughts.  Writing is how we think our way into a subject and make it our own.”

Zinsser, in fact, declared that even when the work remains unpublished, “writing is a tremendous search mechanism.  The physical act of writing enables us to find out what we know and what we still would like to find out.”  In many of my play reports both on ROT and before I launched the blog, for example, I used the writing as a way to figure out exactly how I felt about a performance and why I felt that way, starting only with an unarticulated impression.  I was thinking on paper—an expression Zinsser used in Writing to Learn, his book on “writing across the curriculum.”  The writer-teacher believed “that an act of writing is an act of thinking—an organic compound, as the chemists would say.”  (People who keep journals, especially writers, often use them for this very purpose, along with recording impressions, thoughts, ideas, and events for potential later use.  I often find that I do this with e-mails I send to a friend before I write something more formal.)  In his 1988 book, Zinsser wrote that

we write to find out what we know and what we want to say.  I thought of how often as a writer I had made clear to myself some subject I had previously known nothing about by just putting one sentence after another—by reasoning my way in sequential steps to its meaning.  I thought of how often the act of writing even the simplest document—a letter, for instance—had clarified my half-formed ideas.  Writing and thinking and learning were the same process.

In Zinsser’s view, good writing and clear thinking are boons in any subject or field, from the humanities to the arts to the social sciences to mathematics and the hard sciences.  The writing teacher liked the idea of “Writing across the curriculum” because it “establishes . . . that writing is a form of thinking, whatever the subject.”  Zinsser found,

Whoever the writer and whatever the subject . . . the common thread is a sense of high enjoyment, zest and wonder.  Perhaps, both in learning to write and in writing to learn, they are the only ingredients that really matter.

On Writing Well has had such an impact on my own writing—and to a large extent impelled me to a life on paper and computer screen—because, aside from being a terrific guide, it came along for me at just the moment I was obliged to pay close attention to what and how I wrote.  I started at NYU’s Department of Performance Studies in the fall of 1983 and a required class was Resources and Methods, a course taught then by Kate Davy (now provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Michigan-Dearborn) which essentially covered just what the title indicates; it was partly also a writing class for grad students in the department.  One of the texts was On Writing Well, which I have characterized as the equivalent for writers of Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting: fundamental, practical, commonsensical, and excellent.  

The Department of Performance Studies insisted on “publishable-quality” writing for all work in its classes.  The fourth note I have from the first day of Resources is: “Consider all writing as for publication.”  The underlining was in my original class notes, indicating the emphasis Davy put on the statement.  All of my professors made this admonition at the start of their courses, and I managed to get several class papers published in various journals, including my very first, “The Group Theatre’s Johnny Johnson,” written for Michael Kirby’s 20th-Century Mise-en-Scene course in May 1984 and published in the Winter 1984 issue of The Drama Review (of which Kirby, who had solicited me to write for the journal, was then editor).  The requirement for our Qualifying Exams was that the three 10-page essays we turned in had to be of publishable quality, too; I got two of the three I wrote in December 1985 published later: “Dramaturgy: The Conscience of the Theatre,” TheatreInsight  Spring 1989, and “Konstantin Stanislavsky and Michael Chekhov: Realism and Un-Realism,” Players’ Journal 2008.  (My essay “The Washington Square Players: Art for Art’s Sake,” written for Brooks McNamara’s American Performance class in May 1984, was awarded the first prize in the National Amy & Eric Burger Theatre Essay Competition, administered by the University of Wyoming, in May 2004 and was published in Theatre History Studies in 2005.)  The department’s writing standards, based largely on Zinsser’s precepts, became very important to me, as you can guess.

According to my class notes for Resources, Davy’s criteria for publishable writing were that it:

·   has momentum to propel the reader along – not a “string-of-pearls”
·   should have a theme
·   should make a point (has focus)
·   should drive toward a conclusion
·   needs a discernable beginning, middle, and end (by the time it’s finished)
·   should lift the reader up, carry her/him along, and set her/him down with a satisfying “clunk”
·   makes the reader feel she/he has “been somewhere” by the time it’s finished
·   should set out to prove something.

These characteristics are all part of Zinsser’s basic outline for good non-fiction writing as laid out (or implied) in On Writing Well and his other books.  In fact, when I taught in the undergrad Expository Writing Program at NYU, which I did for two years, the mandated curriculum was clearly derived, whether intentionally or not, from Zinsser’s principles.  So were my own adjustments, which I made continually (much as Zinsser said he did) as I learned more about the craft—and the teaching of the craft—on its practical level.  In other words, I couldn’t have done what I did or taught what I taught had it not been for my introduction to On Writing Well in my first semester at NYU.  (Like Respect for Acting, Zinsser’s guide showed me that some of what I’d been doing instinctively turned out to be the correct impulses.) 

Though he called writing his “calling,” Zinsser insisted that it isn’t an art, but a craft—“an honorable craft.”  (I maintain that, like acting, it’s both an art and a craft, but I’m not prepared to argue with Zinsser here.)  An art is something you’re born good at, a talent or a gift.  You can’t learn it—or teach it.  But the principles of a craft (including the craft aspects of writing and acting)—can they be taught?    “Maybe not,” said Zinsser.  “But most of them can be learned.”  When you practice an art, you wait for the muse to strike, the inspiration to hit, then you get to work; if the muse doesn’t appear, you don’t work or you just go through the motions.  But if you practice a craft, in Zinsser’s view, you go to work regularly, the same way that a salesman goes to his store, a business executive goes to her office, or a teacher goes to his classroom.  Zinsser even kept an office about a mile from his home, explaining, “I come into my office.  I do my work.”  He thought that “a writer is someone who has to work every day with his tools—like the plumber, like the air-conditioning repairman.  The tools are words.”  Zinsser, advising writers to “establish a daily schedule and stick to it,” even essentially punched a clock, keeping regular hours: “I have never worked on a weekend.  I’ve never worked at night.  I think you do what can do within the time of a normal working day, and go home. . . .  I think of it as a job . . . .”  Zinsser acknowledged, however, that “writing wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fun.  It was hard and lonely, and the words seldom just flowed.”  He once estimated that in an hour of working, he’d “write maybe two sentences.”

On top of that, even as he kept regular working hours in his office, Zinsser said, “I think a writer’s always working.  You’re always thinking when you’re walking or whatever.”  Writers, whom he called “solitary drudges,” are “always going to be vulnerable and tense,” he warned.  He advised, though, “You have to keep yourself cheered up. . . .  You have to find ways to keep yourself cranked up and keep yourself going,” even on days when the tools don’t work as well as on other days.  (One of my acting teachers gave this same advice to us: find something that makes you want to do this role.)  But Zinsser also asserted that he wasn’t “trying to have a career.  I’m trying to have an interesting life.”  For him, writing was a way to expose himself to the world and the people around him, his application of those students’ plea “to harness the world I live in.”  For his book American Places (HarperCollins, 1992), a survey of famous sightseeing destinations, the author spoke not to the visitors, whose responses he thought he could predict, but to the “people who work there”; he interviewed “the curators of all these places, the custodians, the park service rangers, the daughters of the Alamo, the ladies of Mt. Vernon” because their stories would be interesting to him.  He wrote about subjects in which he himself was interested—baseball, jazz, pop music—or was curious about, like the historic sites. 

Of course, Zinsser acknowledged that “there isn’t any ‘right’ way to do such intensely personal work”; it all depends on the individual writer and the reasons she or he has for writing.  There are all kinds of writers, he recognized, and each has to find the atmosphere that’s productive for him or her to work—days, nights, in silence, with music, by hand, on a word processor, in long bursts, laboring over each paragraph and each phrase, and so on.  There are lots of people “with a compulsion to put some part of themselves on paper,” the writing teacher observed, and, in a statement that is nearly identical to one about acting made in class by my first theater teacher, declared, “any method that helps somebody to say what he wants to say is the right method for him.” 

The important result, Zinsser insisted, is that the persona of the writer be as natural and warmly human on paper as the person doing the writing.  “For ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not his subject, but who he is,” admonished Zinsser.  He explained:

This is the personal transaction that is at the heart of good nonfiction writing.  Out of it come the two most important qualities that this book will go in search of: humanity and warmth.  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 strength and the least clutter.

It took him a while to learn the lesson, but eventually, “whatever I write about, I make myself available,” asserted Zinsser.  “No hiding.”  He’s talking about his author’s voice.  A writer’s persona is her or his personality as the reader perceives it; it’s how the writer presents her- or himself, the human being who’s talking.  It is, simply, the author’s presence in the writing, and it can have a profound effect on how the piece of writing is received.  “Good writers,” admonished the writing guru, “are always visible just behind  their words.”  Now, Zinsser presents this concept as essentially immutable: it’s “organic to the person doing the writing, as much a part of him as his hair, or, if he’s bald, his lack of it.”  You are who you are; your only choice is how you reveal yourself in your writing and how much of yourself you allow to be revealed:

Adding style is like adding a toupee.  At first glance the formerly bald man looks young and even handsome.  But at second glance . . . he doesn’t look quite right.  The problem is not that he doesn’t look well groomed; he does . . . .  The point is that he doesn’t look like himself.

He’s right, of course, that revealing the humanity behind the words is an important element in good writing (remember, “I don’t think there’s anybody back there”?).  Think, for instance, of a magnificent argument mounted by a politician, say, in support if of a policy she proposed.  If the pol gives you a positive vibe so that you trust her and like her, you’ll be more inclined to agree with her proposal, or at least to listen to it with an open mind.  But if you don’t like the proponent, if her persona turns you off, then no amount of arguing and persuasion is likely to bring you over to her side of the issue.  That’s exactly how persona works in a piece of writing.  “Sell yourself,” instructed Zinsser, “and your subject will exert its own appeal.”

I don’t think Zinsser’s right, though, to imply that an author’s presence in the writing is always the same and that all writers must do is let their actual personalities shine through the work.  What is someone’s “actual personality”?  We’re all different depending on whom we’re with, what we’re doing, and when and why.  I’m a different man as a driver when a highway patrolman is giving me a ticket, as a teacher in front of my class, as a student in someone else’s class, as an actor at a rehearsal, as a director at a rehearsal, when I was an army officer before troops of whom I was in command, as a soldier before my own commander.  As an actor, I’ve drawn on all of those persona and more—as I have in life as well.  When we write, we can allow one or another of those selves to come to the fore and be our authorial voice—and it’s not gimmickry or subterfuge; it’s not even really acting.  We’re just letting one or another of the personae within us be our voice for one piece of writing or another. 

Before we can do that, of course, we have to know the selves we are and how they work—what the avatars’ feelings are, their prejudices, and how they’re expressed differently than in our most common, everyday persona.  Now, I’m in no way talking about some form of MPD—but these selves are real and they take over when the need arises.  Well, if we learn the variations in our innate selves, we can select the most effective self for each piece of writing we compose, using carefully chosen diction, point of view, and tone.  Yes, there needs to be somebody back there behind the words, but which somebody should be a matter of choice and effort. 

As I said, I believe that writing is both an art and a craft.  Some people are born with a knack for using words—Zinsser himself was clearly one of them—to make even unfamiliar topics interesting to a reader with clarity and simplicity.  As with any talent, no one can teach you to be good at an art—it’s a gift.  But just like acting (which I used to teach also), the artist can learn how to make that talent work for him or her—how to manage the gift, to channel it, to find the skills that make it a servant of the artist and not a master.  Just as actors learn technique, painters learn brushwork and color theory, singers learn vocal technique and musical genres, writers can learn ways that put the author in charge of the process and not inspiration and accident.  That’s what Zinsser championed, taught, and wrote about.  Left to their own devices, most people write in the thick, impenetrable prose of the academic or the fuzzy, imprecise language of the dilettante. 

“Anyone who thinks clearly should be able to write clearly—about any subject at all,” declared the writer-teacher, observing, “I think the urge to put down what we think is an extremely strong human urge . . . .  Everyone has the right to try.”  He added, however, “that a lot of people think writing is easier than it is.”  He asserted that “there are ways of learning to write more interestingly,” and that’s what the bulk of William Zinsser’s life was about.  I myself may not have mastered that yet, but, because of Zinsser and On Writing Well, it’s what I work at.  I’ve compared On Writing Well to Hagen’s Respect for Acting, and like my copies of both that book and Harold Clurman’s On Directing, which are full of marginal notes and highlighting, On Writing Well should be reread periodically.  My own copies of Respect for Acting and On Directing are heavily annotated and falling apart from use; any writer’s copy of On Writing Well should end up in the same condition.  



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