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On Writing Well.

Writing is both art and craft, serendipitous visits from the Muse allied with disciplined attention to technique. Few authors grasp that duality as well as William Zinsser, and few write as wisely about it.

So writers, editors and teachers everywhere will appreciate becoming reacquainted with his timeless "On Writing Well," now updated in a fifth edition. As a bonus, Zinsser has assembled a companion volume of advice from 12 outstanding journalists, all his former students.

Reading these two books feels like taking a reverse seminar. Instead of one teacher presiding over a dozen or so students, here 13 collegial teachers serve each reader. It's a bargain and a pleasure.

First, though, a word to the consumer. Changes from earlier editions of "On Writing Well" are relatively small. Careful readers will notice that Zinsser has sharpened some passages, and perhaps they will thereby learn something about rewriting and editing. But overall the book remains what it has always been: gentle, encouraging, incisive advice from a mentor.

Zinsser has taught at Yale and elsewhere but describes himself as "a writer who does some teaching, not...a teacher who does some writing." He draws on his experience with the New York Herald Tribune, as well as his vast freelance portfolio, to make discerning points about clear, stylish writing.

"[T]he secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components," Zinsser writes. "Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent. They are swollen with words and phrases that do no new work."

He shows how to reduce clutter and embolden style. For example, eliminate "little qualifiers" such as "sort of," "very" and "in a sense." Or watch for sentences full of "impersonal nouns that embody a vague concept" (like "reaction" or "hostility") and replace them with sentences that feature "people doing things."

He delivers a wonderful section on "journalese"--a mixture of "cheap words, made-up words and cliches that have become so pervasive that a writer can hardly help using them automatically."

"This is a world," Zinsser writes, "where eminent people are 'famed' and their associates are 'staffers,' where the future is always 'upcoming' and someone is forever 'firing off' a note."

As helpful as Zinsser's mastery of technique may be, I find his wisdom and insight even more inspiring. He recognizes, for instance, that the way words look and sound can be as important as what they mean; a passage "clotted with long words...tells us instantly that a ponderous mind is at work." His section on "the subconscious mind" perceptively explores how the brain keeps on "writing" even when the writer has turned to something else.

In "Speaking of Journalism," Zinsser collects material from 12 writers and editors, all former students that he invites back to his classroom. Jennifer Allen, a freelance writer, discusses "the personal column"; Mark Singer, a staff writer at the New Yorker, "writing about people"; Roger Cohn, senior editor at Audubon magazine, "nature and the environment."

Some are provocative. New York Times reporter John Tierney contends that "in general, I think, the writer is more interesting than the person he or she is writing about."

Others get technical. Money magazine Senior Editor Kevin McKean, covering science, says that "your job is to look for a simple path that will connect what the reader already knows with what the expert has found." Then he offers a fascinating diagram of how to do it.

Over and over, such blends of philosophy and technique leave you nodding your head--and reaching for a notebook to record a tip. For example, sportswriter Lawrie Mifflin of the New York Times hands down a memorable piece of advice from her colleague at the paper, Ira Berkow. Writers who ask just two questions, Berkow told her, can conduct successful interviews. The questions: What are your greatest hopes? What are your greatest fears?

There's plenty to disagree with here, of course (Zinsser encourages writers to be a little hard on editors, for one thing), but nothing is disagreeable. Generosity and good spirit pour from every page.

Here's Zinsser recalling his childhood attraction to the Herald Tribune:

"As a boy...I wanted to be a newspaperman, and the newspaper I wanted to be a man on was the Herald Tribune. Reading it every morning, I loved the tremendous sense of enjoyment it conveyed.... I felt that they were putting out the paper just for me. Articles in the Trib almost always had some extra touch of grace or humanity or humor--some gift of themselves that the writers enjoyed making to their readers."

That same tone and spirit pervades these books, and journalists will enjoy and learn from them both.
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Author:Stepp, Carl Sessions
Publication:American Journalism Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1994
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