Book Reviews

On Writing Well by William Zinsser -Book Notes, Summary, and Review

20. On Writing Well - William Zinsser

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Rating: 9/10

Date of reading: 8th – 17th of June, 2018

Description: Along On Writing by Stephen King, Zinsser’s On Writing Well is the second piece of the puzzle. The book shows you how to think about writing, how to edit, how to properly practice your writing, when to end a piece, how to start your article, what your sentence structure should be (and why), how to write in different kinds of voices and styles. If you’re a writer and haven’t read this, you’re sabotaging yourself.

 

My notes:

 

INTRODUCTION

 

“E-mail writers are like people who stop a friend on the sidewalk and say, “Did you see the game last night?” WHAP!” ( :12)

“Writing is talking to someone else on paper.” ( :12)

“The word processor made good writers better and bad writers worse.” ( :13)

 

PART I Principles

 

“The words just flowed. It was easy. I then said that writing wasn’t easy and wasn’t fun . It was hard and lonely, and the words seldom just flowed.” ( :17)

“Absolutely not, he said. “Let it all hang out,” he told us, and whatever form the sentences take will reflect the writer at his most natural. I then said that rewriting is the essence of writing. I pointed out that professional writers rewrite their sentences over and over and then rewrite what they have rewritten.” ( :18)

“I then said that the professional writer must establish a daily schedule and stick to it. I said that writing is a craft, not an art, and that the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself. He is also going broke.” ( :18)

“I said that professional writers are solitary drudges who seldom see other writers.” ( :18)

“writing could be easy. Maybe I should take up surgery on the side.” ( :19)

“It’ s not necessary to want to spend a year alone at Walden Pond to become involved with a writer who did.” ( :19)

“Can such principles be taught? Maybe not. But most of them can be learned.” ( :20)

“But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what— these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank” ( :22)

“Franklin D. Roosevelt when he tried to convert into English his own governments memos, such as this blackout order of 1942: Such preparation s shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination . “Tell them,” Roosevel t said, “that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put somethin g across the windows.”” ( :22)

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” ( :22)

“Perhaps the writer has switched pronouns in midsentence, or has switched tenses, so the reader loses track of who is talking or when the action took place.” ( :23)

“The clear writer is a person whe to clear-headed enough to see this stuff for what it is: fuzz.” ( :25)

“Then I go over it once more, reading it aloud, and am always amazed at how much clutter can still be cut. (In later editions I eliminated the sexist pronoun “he” denoting “the writer ” and “the reader.”)” ( :25)

“Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.” ( :26)

“Clutter is the laborious phrase that has pushed out the short word that means the same thing. Even before John Dean, people and businesses had stopped saying “now.” They were saying “currently” (“all our operators are currently busy”), or “at the present time,” or “presently” (which means “soon”). Yet the idea can always be expressed by “now” to mean the immediate momen t (“Now I can see him”), or by “today” to mean the historical present (“Today prices are high”), or simply by the verb “to be” (“It is raining”). There’s no need to say, “At the present time we are experiencing precipitation. “” ( :28)

“Clutter is the ponderous euphemism that turns a slum into a depressed socioeconomic area, garbage collectors into waste disposal personnel and the town dump into the volume reduction unit.” ( :29)

“”political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible . …” ( :29)

“The point of raising it now is to serve notice that clutter is the enemy. Beware, then, of the long word that’s no better than the short word: “assistance” (help), “numerous” (many), “facilitate” (ease), “individual” (man or woman), “remainder ” (rest), “initial” (first), “implement” (do), “sufficient” (enough), “attempt ” (try), “referred to as” (called) and hundreds more.” ( :30)

“Don’t inflate what needs no inflating: “with the possible exception of” (except), “due to the fact that” (because), “he totally lacked the ability to” (he couldn’t), “until such time as” (until), “for the purpose of” (for).” ( :30)

“Often just one word got bracketed: the unnecessary preposition appended to a verb (“order up”), or the adverb that carries the same meaning as the verb (“smile happily”), or the adjective that states a known fact (“tall skyscraper”) .” ( :30)

“Entire paragraphs were bracketed. But soon the students learned to put mental brackets around their own clutter, and by the end of the term their papers were almost clean. Today many of those students are professional writers, and they tell me, “I still see your brackets—they’re following me through life.”” ( :31)

“If you give me an eight-page article and I tell you to cut it to four pages, you’ll howl and say it can’t be done. Then you’ll go home and do it, and it will be much better. After that comes the hard part: cutting it to three.” ( :32)

“The reader will notice if you are putting on airs. Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself.” ( :34)

“have a somewhat human quality, and by Paragraph 4 you begin to sound like yourself. You’ve started to relax. It s amazing how often an editor can throw away the first three or four paragraphs of an article, or even the first few pages, and start with the paragraph where the writer begins to sound like himself or herself.” ( :35)

“”I’ll never forget the day when I…” I think, “Aha! A person!”” ( :35)

“I also sympathize with teachers who don’t want to give students an easy escape into opinion—” I think Hamlet was stupid”—before they have grappled with the discipline of assessing a work on its merits and on external sources. “I” can be a self-indulgence and a cop-out.” ( :36)

“And yet, on balance, affirmative action has, I think, been a qualified success.” A 13-word sentence with five hedging words.” ( :37)

“Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.” ( :38)

“You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for. If you lose the dullards back in the dust, you don’t want them anyway.” ( :39)

“I’m talking about two different issues. One is craft, the other is attitude . The first is a question of mastering a precise skill. The second is a question of how you use that skill to express your personality.” ( :40)

“This seemingly artless style, so full of art, is ideal for Herndon’s purpose .” ( :45)

“Obviously I enjoyed making a certain arrangement of my ruffians and riffraff, my hooligans and hoodlums, and my readers enjoyed it too—far more than if I had provided a mere list. They enjoyed not only the arrangement but the effort to entertain them. They weren’ t enjoying it, however, with their eyes. They were hearing the words in their inner ear.” ( :50)

“We voted heavily against “cohort” as a synonym for “colleague,” except where the tone was jocular. Thus a professor would not be among his cohorts at a faculty meeting, but they would abound at his college reunion, wearing funny hats. We rejected “too” as a synonym for “very,” as in “His health is not too good.” Whose health is? But we approved it in sardonic or humorous use, as in “He was not too happy when she ignored him.”” ( :56)

 

PART II Methods

 

“You learn to write by writing. It’s a truism, but what makes it a truism is that it’s true. The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.” ( :63)

“If you went to work for a newspape r that required you to write two or three articles every day, you would be a better writer after six months.” ( :63)

“One choice is unity of pronoun. Are you going to write in the first person, as a participant, or in the third person, as an observer?” ( :64)

“Unity of tense is another choice. Most people write mainly in the past tense” ( :64)

“What is not agreeable is to switch back and forth.” ( :64)

“But you must choose the tense in which you are principally going to address the reader, no matter how many glances you may take backward or forward along the way.” ( :64)

“Both tones are acceptable. In fact, any tone is acceptable. But don’t mix two or three.” ( :64)

“Instead of controlling his material, his material is controlling him. That wouldn’t happen if he took time to establish certain unities.” ( :66)

“For example: “In what capacity am I going to address the reader?” (Reporter? Provider of information? Average man or woman?) “What pronoun and tense am I going to use?” “What style?” (Impersonal reportorial? Personal but formal? Personal and casual?) “What attitude am I going to take toward the material?” (Involved? Detached? Judgmental? Ironic? Amused?) “How much do I want to cover?” “What one point do I want to make?”” ( :66)

“writing—to make their article the last word. It’s a commendable impulse, but there is no last word. What you think is definitive today will turn undefinitive by tonight, and writers who doggedly pursue every last fact will find themselves pursuing the rainbow and never settling down to write.” ( :66)

“every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before.” ( :67)

“Don’t ever become the prisoner of a preconceived plan. Writing is no respecter of blueprints .” ( :67)

“The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead.” ( :69)

“Therefore your lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading. It must cajole him with freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humor, or surprise, or with an unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question. Anything will do, as long as it nudges his curiosity and tugs at his sleeve.” ( :70)

“I’ve often wondered what goes into a hot dog. Now I know and I wish I didn’t.” ( :71)

“One reason for citing this lead is to note that salvation often lies not in the writer’s style but in some odd fact he or she was able to discover.” ( :73)

“But narrative is the oldest and most compelling method of holding someone’s attention; everybody wants to be told a story.” ( :76)

“Sometimes you can tell your whole story in the first sentence .” ( :77)

“You know more than you think you do.” ( :78)

“Like the minister’s sermon that builds to a series of perfect conclusions that never conclude, an article that doesn’t stop where it should stop becomes a drag and therefore a failure.” ( :78)

“arrive at III when you see emerging on your screen a sentence that begins, “In sum, it can be noted that… ” Or a question that asks, “What insights, then, have we been able to glean from. .. ?”” ( :79)

“The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right. They didn’t expect the article to end so soon, or so abruptly, or to say what it said. But they know it when they see it.” ( :80)

“Something I often do in my own work is to bring the story full circle—to strike at the end an echo of a note that was sounded at the beginning .” ( :81)

“”Joe saw him” is strong. “He was seen by Joe” is weak. The first is short and precise; it leaves no doubt about who did what.” ( :82)

“Of the 701 words in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, a marvel of economy in itself, 505 are words of one syllable and 122 are words of two syllables.” ( :83)

“Make active verbs activate your sentences, and try to avoid the kind that need an appended preposition to complete their work.” ( :83)

“Don’ t say that the president of the company stepped down. Did he resign? Did he retire? Did he get fired? Be precise. Use precise verbs.” ( :83)

“don’ t just go back to Hemingway or Thurber or Thoreau. I commend the King James Bible and William Shakespeare .” ( :83)

“choose a verb that has a specific meaning and then add an adverb that carries the same meaning.” ( :83)

“Don’ t write that someone clenched his teeth tightly; there’s no other way to clench teeth .” ( :83)

“Or is he perhaps—the opinion is open to argument—the best pitcher?” ( :84)

“Most adjectives are also unnecessary. Like adverbs, they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don’t stop to think that the concept is already in the noun.” ( :84)

“”He looked at the gray sky and the black clouds and decided to sail back to the harbor.” The darkness of the sky and the clouds is the reason for the decision. If it’s important to tell the reader that a house was drab or a girl was beautiful, by all means use “drab” and “beautiful. ” They will have their proper power because you have learned to use adjectives sparsely.” ( :85)

“Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw: “a bit,” “a little,” “sort of,” “kind of,” “rather,” “quite,” “very,” “too,” “pretty much,” “in a sense” and dozens more. They dilute your style and your persuasiveness.” ( :85)

“Don’ t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.” ( :85)

“Don’ t tell us you were quite fortunate. How fortunate is that?” ( :85)

“writer who believes in himself and in what he is saying. Don’t diminish that belief. Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.” ( :86)

“that predominates, and don’t tell me about Norman Mailer—he’s a genius. If you want to write long sentences, be a genius.” ( :86)

“Humor is best achieved by understatement, and there’s nothing subtle about an exclamation point.” ( :87)

“So use it with discretion, remembering that it will slow to a Victorian pace the late-20th-centur y momentum you’re striving for, and rely instead on the period and the dash.” ( :87)

“The other use involves two dashes, which set apart a parenthetical thought within a longer sentence. “She told me to get in the car—she had been after me all summer to have a haircut—and we drove silently into town.”” ( :87)

“MOOD CHANGERS. Learn to alert the reader as soon as possible to any change in mood from the previous sentence. At least a dozen words will do this job for you: “but, ” “yet,” “however,” “nevertheless, ” “still,” “instead,” “thus,” “therefore, ” “meanwhile, ” “now,” “later,” “today,” “subsequently ” and several more.” ( :88)

“Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with “but.” If that’s what you learned, unlearn it—there’ s no stronger word at the start.” ( :88)

“beginning with “but,” switch to “however.”” ( :88)

“”Instead I took the train.” “Still I had to admire him.” “Thus I learned how to smoke.” “It was therefore easy to meet him.” “Meanwhile I had talked to John.”” ( :89)

“I only suggest avoiding one form—”I’d, ” “he’d,” “we’d,” etc.—becaus e “I’d” can mean both “I had” and “I would,”” ( :89)

“Always use “that” unless it makes your meaning ambiguous. Notice that in carefully edited magazines, such as The New Yorker, “that” is by far the predominant usage. I mention this because it is still widely believed—a residue from school and college—that “which” is more correct, more acceptable, more literary. It’s not. In most situations, “that” is what you would naturally say and therefore what you should write.” ( :90)

“”which. ” “Which ” serves a particular identifying function, different from “that. ” (A) “Take the shoes that are in the closet.” This means: take the shoes that are in the closet, not the ones under the bed. (B) “Take the shoes, which are in the closet.” Only one pair of shoes is under discussion; the “which” usage tells you where they are. Note that the comma is necessary in B, but not in A.” ( :90)

“The reader can’t visualize anybody performing some activity; all the meaning lies in impersonal nouns that embody a vague concept: “reaction, ” “cynicism, ” “response, ” “hostility.” Turn these cold sentences around. Get people doing things:” ( :91)

“Don’t overstate. You didn’t really consider jumping out the window. Life has more than enough truly horrible funny situations. Let the humor sneak up so we hardly hear it coming.” ( :92)

“The same fear hobbles freelance writers, who see the work of other writers appearing in magazines while their own keeps returning in the mail. Forget the competition and go at your own pace. Your only contest is with yourself.” ( :93)

“But don’t go berserk. A succession of tiny paragraphs is as annoying as a paragraph that’s too long.” ( :94)

“a road map constantly telling your reader how you have organized your ideas.” ( :95)

“You’ll find that almost all of them think in paragraph units, not in sentence units. Each paragraph has its own integrity of content and structure .” ( :95)

“”We ” is a handy replacement for “he.” “Our” and “the” can often replace “his.”” ( :98)

“One other pronoun that helped me in my repairs was “you.” Instead of talking about what “the writer” does and the trouble he gets into, I found more places where I could address the writer directly (“You’ll often find… “).” ( :98)

“godsend to anyone writing an instructional book or a self-help book.” ( :98)

“Many people assume that professional writers don’t need to rewrite; the words just fall into place. On the contrary, careful writers can’t stop fiddling.” ( :99)

“Please—if you’re such a student—think of it as a gift. You won’t write well until you understand that writing is an evolving process, not a product. Nobody expects you to get it right the first time, or even the second time.” ( :99)

“I don’t mean writing one draft and then writing a different second version, and then a third. Most rewriting consists of reshaping and tightening and refining the raw material you wrote on your first try.” ( :99)

“There used to be a time when neighbors took care of one another, he remembered. [Put “he remembered” first to establish reflective tone. ] It no longer seemed to happen that way, however. [The contrast supplied by “however” must come first. Start with “But.” Also establish America locale.] He wondered if it was because everyone in the modern world was so busy. [All these sentences are the same length and have the same soporific rhythm; turn this one into a question?]” ( :100)

“He remembered that neighbors used to take care of one another. But that no longer seemed to happen in America. Was it because everyone was so busy? Were people really so preoccupied with their television sets and their cars and their fitness programs that they had no time for friendship? In previous eras that was never true. Nor was it how families lived in other parts of the world. Even in the poorest villages of Spain and Italy, he recalled, people would drop in with a loaf of bread. An ironic idea struck him: as people got richer they cut themselves off from the richness of life. But what really troubled him was an even more shocking fact. The time when his friends deserted him was the time when he needed them most. By getting sick he almost seemed to have done something shameful. He knew that other societies had a custom of “shunning” people who were very ill. But that ritual only existed in primitive cultures. Or did it?” ( :101)

“I don’t like to write (I like to have written). But I love to rewrite. I especially like to cut: to press the DELETE key and see an unnecessary word or phrase or sentence vanish into the electricity.” ( :102)

“TRUST YOUR MATERIAL. The longer I work at the craft of writing, the more I realize that there’s nothing more interesting than the truth. What people do—and what people say—continues to take me by surprise with its wonderfulness, or its quirkiness, or its drama, or its humor, or its pain” ( :103)

“People of every age will write better and with more enjoyment if they write about what they care about.” ( :104)

“No area of life is stupid to someone who takes it seriously. If you follow your affections you will write well and will engage your readers.” ( :106)

 

PART III Forms

 

“But in fact the great preponderance of what writers now write and sell, what book and magazine publishers publish and what readers demand is nonfiction.” ( :111)

“The only important distinction is between good writing and bad writing. Good writing is good writing, whatever form it takes and whatever we call it.” ( :113)

“Most men and women lead lives, if not of quiet desperation, at least of desperate quietness, and they jump at a chance to talk about their work to an outsider who seems eager to listen.” ( :119)

“please—please!—don’t write “he smiled” or “he grinned. ” I’ve never heard anybody smile.” ( :125)

“People and places are the twin pillars on which most nonfiction is built. Every human event happens somewhere, and the reader wants to know what that somewhere was like.” ( :130)

“The article that records everything you did on your trip will fascinate you because it was your trip. Will it fascinate the reader?” ( :131)

“Find details that are significant. They may be important to your narrative; they may be unusual, or colorful, or comic, or entertaining. But make sure they do useful work.” ( :133)

“But whatever place you write about, go there often enough to isolate the qualities that make it distinctive. Usually this will be some combination of the place and the people who” ( :140)

“I like the phrase “his very face sits”—just four short words, but they convey an idea so fanciful that they take us by surprise.” ( :142)

“One of the richest travel books written by an American is Walden, though Thoreau only went a mile out of town.” ( :142)

“Nine of my sites were super-icons : Mount Rushmore, Niagara Falls, the Alamo, Yellowstone Park, Pearl Harbor, Mount Vernon, Concord & Lexington, Disneyland, and Rockefeller Center. Five were places that embody a distinctive idea about America: Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain’s boyhood town, which he used to create twin myths of the Mississippi River and an ideal childhood; Appomattox , where the Civil War ended; Kitty Hawk, where the Wright brothers invented flight, symbolic of America as a nation of genius-tinkerers ; Abilene, Kansas, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s prairie town, symbolic of the values of small-town America; and Chautauqua , the upstate New York village that hatched most of Americas notions of self-improvement and adult education.” ( :144)

“Why do you think two million people a year come to Mount Rushmore? Or three million to the Alamo? Or one million to Concord bridge? Or a quarter million to Hannibal? What kind of quest are all these people on? My purpose was to enter into the intention of each place: to find out what it was trying to be, not what I might have expected or wanted it to be.” ( :144)

“richest veins waiting for any writer who goes looking for America: the routine eloquence of people who work at a place that fills a need for someone else. Here are things that custodians at three sites told me:” ( :144)

“Ego is healthy; no writer can go far without it. Egotism, however, is a drag, and this chapter is not intended as a license to prattle just for therapy.” ( :149)

“Thoreau wrote seven different drafts of Walden in eight years; no American memoir was more painstakingly pieced together. To write a good memoir you must become the editor of your own life, imposing on an untidy sprawl of half-remembered events a narrative shape and an organizing idea. Memoir is the art of inventing the truth .” ( :151)

“(How often we start writing a letter out of obligation and only discover in the third paragraph that we have something we really want to say to the person we’re writing to.)” ( :160)

“Science, demystified, is just another nonfiction subject. Writing, demystified, is just another way for scientists to transmit what they know.” ( :163)

“By the end of his junior year he had written a how-to book that sold better than any book I had written.” ( :164)

“Rouechés secret is as old as the art of storytelling. We are in on a chase and a mystery.” ( :169)

“Some bats are sensitive enough to register a beetle walking on sand, and some can detect the movement of a moth flexing its wings as it sits on a leaf. That’s my idea of sensitive; I couldn’t ask a writer to give me two more wonderful examples. But there’s more to my admiration than gratitude. I also wonder: how many other examples of bat sensitivity did she collect—dozens? hundreds?—to be able to choose those two? Always start with too much material. Then give your reader just enough .” ( :171)

“We think of Rachel Carson as a writer because she launched the environmental movement with a book, Silent Spring. But Carson wasn’t a writer; she was a marine biologist who wrote well.” ( :173)

“Only through clear writing by experts can the rest of us make educated choices as citizens in these areas where we have little or no education.” ( :175)

“If you have to do any writing in your job, this chapter is for you.” ( :180)

“Ecclesiastes: I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. Orwell’s version goes: Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account .” ( :181)

“my four articles of faith: clarity, simplicity, brevity, and humanity .” ( :186)

“He says: “A computer is like a sophisticated pencil. You don’t care how it works, but if it breaks you want someone there to fix it.”” ( :189)

“The way to warm up any institution is to locate the missing “I.” Remember: “I” is the most interesting element in any story.” ( :190)

“What I realized was that most executives in America don’t write what appears over their signature or what they say in their speeches. They have surrendered the qualities that make them unique.” ( :191)

“John McPhee’s Levels of the Game, George Plimpton’s Paper Lion and George F. Will’s Men at Work—books about tennis, pro football and baseball—take us deeply into the lives of the players.” ( :197)

“If you want to write about sports, remember that the men and women you’re writing about are doing something immensely difficult, and they have their pride. You, too, are doing a job that has its codes of honor. One of them is that you are not the story.” ( :201)

“Breathing quickens as the muscles call for more blood— speed literally takes your breath away—and the whole body goes into emergency stance.” ( :203)

“All of which is why speed is so dangerous for most of us: we simply have neither the physical nor the mental stamina to handle it.” ( :203)

“Those are the values to look for when you write about sport: people and places, time and transition.” ( :207)

“What is crucial for you as the writer is to express your opinion firmly. Don’t cancel its strength with last-minute evasions and escapes. The most boring sentence in the daily newspaper is the last sentence of the editorial, which says “It is too early to tell whether the new policy will work” or “The effectiveness of the decision remains to be seen.” Hit’s too early to tell, don’t bother us with it, and as for what remains to be seen, everything remains to be seen. Take your stand with conviction .” ( :220)

“Humor, to them, is urgent work. It’s an attempt to say important things in a special way that regular writers aren’t getting said in a regular way—or if they are, it’s so regular that nobody is reading it.” ( :223)

“”It’s durable because it’s simple,” he said. “It’s built on four things that everybody does: sleeping, eating, raising a family and making money.”” ( :228)

“humorists from Mark Twain to Russell Baker are, first of all, superb writers.” ( :229)

“Finally, don’t strain for laughs; humor is built on surprise, and you can surprise the reader only so often.” ( :229)

“”Humor can be dissected, as a frog can,” E. B. White once wrote, “but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”” ( :229)

“”You must learn by imitation,” he said. “I could have been arrested for imitating Lardner in my pieces in the late 1920s—no the content, but the manner. These influences gradually fall away.”” ( :233)

“”All humor must be about something—it must touch concretely on life,”” ( :233)

“Trump introduced me to “our resident physician, Dr. Ginger Lee Southall— a recent chiropractic-college graduate. As Dr. Ginger, out of earshot, manipulated the sore back of a grateful member, I asked Trump where she had done her training. “I’m not sure,” he said. “Baywatch Medical School? Does that sound right? I’ll tell you the truth. Once I saw Dr. Gingers photograph, I didn’t really need to look at her résumé or anyone else’s. Are you asking, ‘Did we hire her because she trained at Mount Sinai for fifteen years?’ The answer is no. And I’ll tell you why: because by the time she’s spent fifteen years at Mount Sinai, we don’t want to look at her.”” ( :236)

 

PART IV Attitudes

 

“Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject.” ( :247)

“The common assumption is that the style is effortless. In fact the opposite is true: the effortless style is achieved by strenuous effort and constant refining” ( :248)

“It’s a disciplined act of writing. The grammar is formal, the words are plain and precise, and the cadences are those of a poet” ( :248)

“It’s condescending. (I stop reading writers who say “You see.”)” ( :249)

“But readers will stop reading you if they think you are talking down to them. Nobody wants to be patronized .” ( :249)

“For writers and other creative artists, knowing what not to do is a major component of taste.” ( :250)

“Never hesitate to imitate another writer. Imitation is part of the creative process for anyone learning an art or a craft.” ( :252)

“After verbs, plain nouns are your strongest tools; they resonate with emotion.” ( :255)

“But ultimately eloquence runs on a deeper current. It moves us with what it leaves unsaid, touching off echoes in what we already know from our reading, our religion and our heritage.” ( :255)

“What moves us in writing that has regional or ethnic roots—Southern writing, African-American writing, Jewish American writing—is the sound of voices far older than the narrator’s, talking in cadences that are more than ordinarily rich.” ( :256)

“There are some writers who sweep us along so strongly in the current of their energy—Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Toni Morrison, William F. Buckley, Jr., Hunter Thompson, David Foster Wallace—that we assume that when they go to work the words just flow. Nobody thinks of the effort they make every morning to turn on the switch. You also have to turn on the switch. Nobody is going to do it for you.” ( :259)

“perils of excess and disorder: losing the reader, confusing the reader, boring the reader, not keeping the reader engaged from beginning to end. With every inaccuracy of reporting and every misstep of craft we can say, “That’s wrong.”” ( :260)

“”Dying is no big deal. Living is the trick.”” ( :261)

“”What else have you written about baseball?” But nobody did. They didn’t ask because I had another kind of credential: sincerity. It was obvious to those men that I really wanted to know how they did their work.” ( :261)

“If you want your writing to convey enjoyment, write about people you respect.” ( :262)

“The moral for nonfiction writers is: think broadly about your assignment. Don’t assume that an article for Audubon has to be strictly about nature, or an article for Car & Driver strictly about cars.” ( :263)

“I mention this to give confidence to all nonfiction writers: a point of craft. If you master the tools of the trade—the fundamentals of interviewing and of orderly construction—and if you bring to the assignment your general intelligence and your humanity, you can write about any subject. That’s your ticket to an interesting life.” ( :264)

“You think, “This man knows so much about his field, I’m too dumb to interview him. He’ll think I’m stupid.” The reason he knows so much about his field is because it’s his field; you’re a generalist trying to make his work accessible to the public. That means prodding him to clarify statements that are so obvious to him that he assumes they are obvious to everyone else. Trust your common sense to figure out what you need to know, and don’t be afraid to ask a dumb question. If the expert thinks you’re dumb, that’s his problem.” ( :264)

“is the expert’s first answer sufficient? Usually it’s not.” ( :264)

“They’re deceived into thinking the camera does it all.” He knew what he meant by that, but / needed to know why the camera doesn’t do it all. When I pressed him with my “Why not?” and my “What else?” I got not just one answer but three:” ( :266)

“”How can I sell my writing? ” Its the only question I won’t try to answer, partly because I’m not qualified—I have no idea what editors in today’s market are looking for; I wish I did. But mainly it’s because I have no interest in teaching writers how to sell. I want to teach them how to write. If the process is sound, the product will take care of itself, and sales are likely to follow.” ( :270)

“I would teach a writing course in which no writing is required .” ( :271)

“At the end I said: “Next week I want you to come here prepared to tell us about one place that’s important to you that you’d like to write about. Tell us why you want to write about it and how you want to write about it.”” ( :271)

“But nobody can write an article about the disappearance of small towns in Iowa; it would be all generalization and no humanity. The writer would have to write about one small town in Iowa and thereby tell her larger story, and even within that one town she would have to reduce her story still further: to one store, or one family, or one farmer. We talked about different approaches, and the writer gradually thought her story down to human scale.” ( :273)

“A man would say that he wanted to try a piece about the town where he lived and would venture a possible approach: “I could write about X.” X, however, was uninteresting, even to him, lacking any distinctiveness, and so were Y and Z, and so were P and Ç and R, the writer continuing to dredge up fragments of his life, when, almost accidentally, he stumbled into M, a long-forgotten memory, seemingly unimportant but unassailably true, compressing into one incident everything that had made him want to write about the town in the first place. “There’s your story,” several people in the class would say, and it was. The student had been given time to find it.” ( :274)

“Figure out what you want to do and how you want to do it, and work your way with humanity and integrity to the completed article. Then you’ll have something to sell.” ( :278)

“What struck me most powerfully when I got to Timbuktu was that the streets were of sand. I suddenly realized that sand is very different from dirt. Every town starts with dirt streets that eventually get paved as the inhabitants prosper and subdue their environment. But sand represents defeat. A city with streets of sand is a city at the edge.” ( :280)

“Each sentence contains one thought—and only one. Readers can process only one idea at a time, and they do it in linear sequence .” ( :280)

“That concludes the lead. Those six paragraphs took as long to write as the entire remainder of the piece.” ( :284)

“Altogether, the sentence took almost an hour. But I didn’t begrudge a minute of it. On the contrary, seeing it fall into place gave me great pleasure. No writing decision is too small to be worth a large expenditure of time.” ( :285)

“Desperately poor, Mali was people rich.” ( :286)

“children on beaches have been building in the Sudanese style.” ( :287)

“”What is the piece really about?” (Not just “What is the piece about?”)” ( :287)

“Fondness for material you’ve gone to a lot of trouble to gather isn’t a good enough reason to include it if it’s not central to the story you’ve chosen to tell. Self-discipline bordering on masochism is required .” ( :287)

“Used in moderation, making yourself gullible—or downright stupid—gives the reader the enormous pleasure of feeling superior .” ( :288)

“Mali got its independence in 1960. We were in Timbuktu for an event that hadn’t been held in 27 years.” ( :291)

“The last sentence is a small bomb dropped into the story. But it is allowed to speak for itself—just the facts, please—without comment. I didn’t add an exclamation point to notify readers that it was an amazing moment. That would have spoiled their own pleasure of discovery. Trust your material .” ( :291)

“In the morning my wife—a voice of reason at the edge of infinity—said she wouldn’ t go into the Sahara unless we went in two vehicles .” ( :292)

“But we were very conscious of being intruders, and we probably looked as uncomfortable as we felt.” ( :296)

“In the morning I noticed paw prints in the sand next to my blanket. Mohammed Ali said that a jackal had come by to clean up the leftovers from our dinner—of which, as I recalled the chicken, there must have been quite a few. But I didn’t hear a thing. I was too busy dreaming that I was Lawrence of Arabia.” ( :297)

“But the nearer I got to writing that final section, the more I didn’t want to write it. It loomed as drudgery, no fun for me or for the reader .” ( :297)

“The real climax of my story was not finding the salt caravan; it was finding the timeless hospitality of the people who live in the Sahara.” ( :297)

“Nor could any other moment distill more vividly what I had come to the desert to find and what all those Englishmen had written about—the nobility of living on the edge.” ( :297)

“Decide what you want to do. Then decide to do it. Then doit.” ( :299)

“But inevitably a different day arrived, and not long after I came home from the war I went to work for the New York Herald Tribune and had to tell my father I wasn’t going to carry on the family business. He accepted the news with his usual generosity and wished me well in my chosen field. No boy could receive a finer gift. I was liberated from having to fulfill somebody else’s expectations , which were not the right ones for me. I was free to succeed or fail on my own terms.” ( :302)

“When we say we like a writer’s style, what we mean is that we like his personality as he expresses it on paper.” ( :302)

“We know that verbs have more vigor than nouns, that active verbs are better than passive verbs, that short words and sentences are easier to read than long ones, that concrete details are easier to process than vague abstractions.” ( :303)

“Add a few points for such natural gifts as a good musical ear, a sense of rhythm and a feeling for words.” ( :303)

“If you would like to write better 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, whose standards not as high.” ( :303)

“Yet to defend what you’ve written is a sign that you are alive. I’m a known crank on this issue—I fight over every semicolon. But editors put up with me because they can see that I’m serious.” ( :304)

“Unfortunately, they can also do considerable harm. In general the damage takes two forms: altering style and altering content. Let’s look at style first.” ( :305)

“I’ve even bought articles back from magazines that made changes I wouldn’t accept. If you allow your distinctiveness to be edited out, you will lose one of your main virtues. You will also lose your virtue” ( :306)

“I often hear freelance writers say, “When I got the magazine I looked for my article and I didn’t even recognize it.” ( :307)

“But finally the purposes that writers serve must be their own. What you write is yours and nobody else’s. Take your talent as far as you can and guard it with your life. Only you know how far that is; no editor knows. Writing well means believing in your writing and believing in yourself, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel. You will write only as well as you make yourself write.” ( :307)

“A reporter once asked him how he managed to play so well so consistently, and he said: “I always thought that there was at least one person in the stands who had never seen me play, and I didn’t want to let him down.”” ( :308)


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