The Canon: On Writing Well. By William Zinsser

April 1, 2010

Verbiage, cliche and clutter are the enemies of good writing. And in this age of social networking sites, instant messaging and email, a book published in 1976 about the art and craft of writing remains as vital as ever. On Writing Well by US academic and journalist William Zinsser is not a tract against the grammatical strangulations of the average undergraduate, but a love letter to the English language and a call for all those who use it to treat it with respect and honesty.

For this former New Yorker journalist and Yale University professor, writing is an act of ego and good writers are happy to acknowledge this and bring the self to the fore. Bad writers "who bob and weave like ageing boxers don't inspire confidence", he says. Zinsser is a champion of "that remarkably tenacious bird", the reader. "If the reader is lost," he observes, "it is generally because the writer has not been careful enough to keep him on the path."

The use of the first person is one of the major difficulties with teaching writing. How do we teach budding writers to use their own voices without defaulting to the dreaded "I"? The relationship between the writer and reader should be uncomplicated and the former must strive to communicate with the latter with clarity.

Novices tend to reach for a stock phrase when words fail them. I often refer journalism students to Zinsser as they sit in front of a computer screen, frustrated and confused by the imperative of being at once an egoist and a scribe whose first duty is to the reader. What are you trying to say? Are these the right words? Find your own words to articulate the ideas you wish to convey.

Then there is our attitude to the craft of writing. Many experienced reporters find it hard to write even after years in the business. They are good news hounds, but words fail them. Writing is hard, says Zinsser, and you should remember that even in your darkest hours.

If euphemism is the enemy of the truth, then clutter is its handmaiden. As George Orwell pointed out in his 1946 essay "Politics and the English language", official language is littered with words aimed at deflecting from reality. Newspeak has been elevated in a world of collateral damage, stakeholders and joined-up thinking.

I could have chosen Orwell for this Canon review, or Harold Evans' brilliant Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers, but it is Zinsser's ability to unpack the intangible nature of writing that sets him apart. By simplifying our writing, we are freed from the shackles of Orwellian language and thereby find our humanity.

The best works on journalism tend not to be about journalism, but about writing. Zinsser does not just care about good writing; he is passionate about it as if each non sequitur or preposition draped on to a verb is a sword to his heart.

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