"Some people write by day, others by night. Some people need silence, others turn on the radio. Some write by hand, some by typewriter or word processor, some by talking into a tape recorder. Some people write their first draft in one long burst and then revise others can't write the second paragraph until they have fiddled endlessly with the first.
But all of them are vulnerable and all of them are tense. They are driven by a compulsion to put some part of themselves on paper, and yet they don't just write what comes naturally. They sit down to commit an act of literature, and the self who emerges on paper is far stiffer than the person who sat down to write. The problem is to the the real man or woman behind all the tension."
That's from the third page of William Zinsser's "On Writing Well." Zinnser died today at the age of 92. My copy of the book, pictured above, is the Fifth Edition, published in 1995, when I was a freshman in college. The original edition was published in 1976, also a very good year (ahem).
It's still an an important book, and not just for professional writers. Zinsser believed everyone could -- and should -- learn how to write, and to write well. Writing, Zinsser said, was not some far-removed task, given to only the select. It is an act within reach, for the father who wants to write his life story, and for the businesswoman who must pen an effective memo.
Nearly 40 years after the book's publication, with more words and images and distractions to divert us from good writing, Zinsser's principles still hold true. Be clear. Avoid jargon. Know your audience but also know if you focus too much on pleasing the reader or the editor, you will please no one. Inform and entertain. Practice.
The book's final chapter is called "Write As Well As You Can," which is a fine motto. From that chapter:
"If you would like to write bette than everybody else, you have to want to write better than everybody else. You must take an obsessive pride in the smallest details of your craft. And you must be willing to defend what you've written against the various middlemen -- editors, agents, and publishers -- whose sights may be different from yours, or whose standards to as high. Too many writers are browbeaten into settling for less than their best."
I was going to add something along the lines of, "perhaps more writers than ever are settling." But I think that's always been a writer problem. And I believe Mr. Zinsser would encourage me to simply, end clean, and go for warmth and humanity which he embodied in his words. So, thank you for your instruction, sir. You will teach many more generations how to write well.