A Facebook friend reminded me of a gem of a book from the past. Actually, I glance at it every day. It’s on the shelf, right at eye level above my computer, as I type these words. It’s called “On Writing Well,” and it is William Zinsser’s ode to the practice of writing. My copy was assigned reading when I was in J school in the Reagan years.
It’s a lot like the Strunk and White classic, The Elements of Style. It’s pretty sleek and terrifically readable. It’s preachy in the same way the Declaration of Independence is preachy: We hold these truths about writing to be self-evident.
Zinsser offers advice like this, in a chapter on punctuation:
There is not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough. … There is no minimum length for a sentence that is acceptable in the eyes of man and God. …
Oh, how I wish every newspaper writer would take that advice.
There is a way in which reading about writing is sort of like tossing a baseball in the air to yourself. It may prime you for the game, but it isn’t the game itself. Zinsser says as much:
You learn to write by writing. It’s a truism, but what makes it a truism is that it is true. The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.
I find that advice comforting. That is something I can do.
Oh, if you want to read Zinsser for yourself, the entire book is available at this link. But wouldn’t you much prefer to find a copy at some dusty bookstore? And you can learn about the man himself here.