William Zinsser has spent a lifetime teaching people how to become better writers. Now at 88, the author of “On Writing Well ” is just as much a student of the craft as he is a teacher.
He’s finding ways to remain relevant as a writer in a digital world because, as he says, he “doesn’t want to get stuck in the 20th century.” About a year ago, he decided to set up a personal website and start a weekly blog for the American Scholar. He still teaches at The New School and Columbia University ‘s graduate school of journalism and spends much of his free time reading and writing in his New York City apartment.
In a recent phone interview, Zinsser talked with me about the craft and shared these five tips for journalists who want to grow as writers.
Learn to take readers on a journey
Some of Zinsser’s favorite journalists are The New Yorker’s Mark Singer. Lawrence Wright and Jane Mayer. who he taught years ago at Yale University. He’s drawn to their work, he said, because they approach writing as an act of discovery.
“All writing to me is a journey. It’s saying to the reader, ‘Come along with me; I’ll take you on a voyage,’ ” Zinsser said. “These writers do that by never losing sight of the fact that they are telling a story.”
Too often, Zinsser said, people become so preoccupied with writing well that they clutter their stories with unnecessary words that lead readers astray. Good writers make every word count, and they avoid abstractions.
“Nobody wants abstractions,” Zinsser said. “They want specific details that help them discover something new.”
Think of writing as a process, not a product
Zinsser, whose number is listed in the phone book, gets a lot of calls from writers who want to know how to get published.
“They know what they want to write, but instead of writing they say ‘Well, my main problem is figuring out how to find an agent and get it published,’ ” said Zinsser, who has written more than a dozen books. “I tell them, ‘The main problem is that you need to write the damn thing.’ “
When writers focus on the end product, they can lose sight of what the story is and why they’re telling it. Zinsser advises writers to instead focus on the process of writing — organizing the parts of a story, crafting a lead, making revisions. If you view writing as a process, Zinsser said, the product will take care of itself.
“I think we are totally obsessed with the successful finished product — the winning Little League team, the high SAT score, the perfect article,” Zinsser said. “If you’re thinking, ‘Gee, I don’t know if I can write something good enough to be published,’ you’re writing it for the wrong purpose. The finished product is the last thing you should be thinking of.”
Write for yourself, not others
It’s natural for writers to worry about how their editors and publishers will respond to their work. But this preoccupation can be crippling. When we focus on what our editors want, we tend to tell the story we think they want to hear rather than the story we want to tell.
“The only way to write something good is to write what you want to write and believe in the validity of its subject and don’t give a damn about anybody else,” Zinsser said.
When writers ask him how to be “successful,” Zinsser tells them to write the story they want to tell and tell it well. A successful writer, he said, “is not going to be derailed by the agenda of an agent or publisher or magazine editor. Editors and publishers will come and go, but you’re stuck with your values forever.”
Of course, take into account how your editor and readers will respond, Zinsser said, but you never want to let an editor prevent you from telling what you know is the right story.
Have confidence in yourself as a writer
A lack of confidence is one of the biggest obstacles to good writing, Zinsser said. As a teacher, he has been surprised to see how many of his students lack confidence — especially his female students.
“I think this society, for all its famous freedoms, still squashes women into believing their story isn’t worthy enough to tell,” said Zinsser. “I sit in a class and ask what they want to do and they talk so quietly I can’t hear them. I finally say, ‘Speak up. You’re not going to be a journalist if no one can hear you.’ “
Confidence, Zinsser said, comes with trusting your instincts as a writer and learning to advocate for the stories you want to write. This is especially true for writers working on memoirs. said Zinsser, who has found that many of the students in his nonfiction writing classes think they need permission to tell their life stories. Students, he said, need to gain enough confidence to give themselves permission and believe in the worthiness of the stories they want to tell.
“I go around giving my students permission to be who they are, and there aren’t enough people doing that, ” Zinsser said. “You learn to write by believing in who you are.”
Don’t take yourself too seriously
Over the years, Zinsser has found ways to make himself and his readers laugh.
While writing columns for Life magazine from 1968 to 1972, Zinsser often used humor to address serious subjects, such as the excess of military power. He wrote one column, for instance, about repeated arguments over the shape of the table at the Vietnam peace conference in Paris. He explains this story in his book, “On Writing Well”:
“The situation had become so outrageous after nine weeks that it could be approached only through ridicule, and I described various efforts to get peace at my own dinner table by changing its shape every night, or by lowering the chairs of different people to give them less ‘status,’ or by turning their chairs around so the rest of us wouldn’t have to ‘recognize’ them. It was exactly what was happening in Paris.”
If you can find the right comic frame for your story without being insensitive, Zinsser told me, you can learn to have more fun while writing. In turn, people are more likely to enjoy reading what you write.
“I think people take writing much too seriously,” Zinsser said. “They just need to relax a little and have a good time.” The key, he believes, is to take your work seriously, but not to take yourself too seriously.
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