‘If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard’

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By Amy Dunkle | Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR

A recent Brainpickings column by Maria Popova singled out what is possibly the most important book on writing; the one where if you were told to bring a single book on writing to a desert island, this would be it:

On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser.

This book is the one where if you don’t have it already, buy it. Now. It is available online. Select the digital version and get it delivered immediately to your inbox.

(While you’re at it, consider purchasing Elements of Styleoriginally written in 1918 by William Strunk, Jr, and then expanded in 1959 with E.B. White. The original is available in a Kindle edition; the expanded version in paperback. Be forewarned, the writing of the early version is dated.)

Do not expect Zinsser to tell you how to write a best-selling novel or a brilliant treatise destined for publication. Instead, look to him for the basics, how to strip down the clutter and dispense with terminology, how to convey complex ideas in clear language.

Pair Zinsser with The Elements of Style, which reinforces basic concepts of construction and grammar — everything you learned in high school English class, but forgot or never really understood — and you will have the foundation you need to write. Anything.

All you must bring is your writing voice, which can’t be instructed, but rather developed from the solitary exercise of self-discovery. This is the riskiest part of writing, the point where you put yourself out there for people to like or not, and maybe even criticize.

So, whereas some critics complain about how Zinsser weaves in his personal story or detracts from the subject by writing too broadly, consider his journey so that it may inform yours and allow the written version of your personality to emerge.

Purpose and function

In the (2006) 30th anniversary edition, Zinsser says he originally set out to write only for those who wanted to learn how to write; an intention still valuable despite the passage of time and advances of technology:

“On Writing Well is a craft book, and its principles haven’t changed since it was written 30 years ago. I don’t know what still newer marvels will make writing twice as easy in the next 30 years. But I do know they won’t make writing twice as good. That will still require plain old hard thinking — what E. B. White was doing in his boathouse — and the plain old tools of the English language.”

Early in the book, Zinsser extolls the virtues of simplicity. Clutter, he says, is a disease: Get rid of unneeded words; cut jargon and pretension. Instead, deal only with the basic components, use those words that serve a function, and dismiss long words where short will suffice.

The only reason writers lose their audience is because they did not craft their writing with care and concern. No subject is so important, no research so compelling, that people will read beyond the point where their interest holds.

Writing is work. Readers owe the writer nothing; writers, however, owe the reader — a reason or a lesson, an explanation, understanding.

Keeping an audience involved and interested to the end is a challenge. Conversely, reading should be easy. Write so that people don’t want to/can’t stop reading.

Key rules to follow

  • Find and know your tense, and stick with it. Do not shift or mix.
  • Follow grammar rules — for example, commas go inside quote marks and apostrophes denote possession not plurality.
  • Use readily known terms. Go with the human impact on climate change instead of the jargon-inclined anthropogenic.
  • If a term is critical to the point you are making, tack on a simple phrase to explain it. Don’t assume readers know or understand.
  • Ask yourself what are you trying to say, the point you want to make. Ask yourself again. And again. Ask yourself throughout the writing process and then again when editing.
  • Keep writing, revising and reading. Write, set your writing aside, go back to it and reconsider what you have written. Read others’ writing and take note of what appeals to you, what works and what does not.

Communicating science

If writing about science is your single goal, you may be tempted to skip over Zinsser’s discussion of interviews, travel writing and biographies in the section on forms of writing. But, do so at your own loss. Exploring other avenues of writing, where there is little or no risk involved, actually may help you find your voice.

Or, skip ahead to Chapter 15 — Science and Technology. Zinsser’s discussion of fear and failure in science gives the science communicator a better understanding of the non-science audience. To better tell the science story, Zinsser advises:

“Imagine science writing as an upside-down pyramid. Start at the bottom with the one fact a reader must know before he can learn any more. The second sentence broadens what was stated first, making the pyramid wider, and the third sentence broadens the second, so that you can gradually move beyond fact into significance and speculation — how a new discovery alters what was known, what new avenues of research it might open, where the research might be applied. There’s no limit to how wide the pyramid can become, but your readers will understand the broad implications only if they start with one narrow fact.”

Read this, know this, and then ask yourself again, “What point am I trying to make?” Once you settle that, ask, “Why should people care?” Clearly answering these two questions will enable good, solid writing.

And yet, there still will be those tortured moments, when words fail to materialize and the writing is labored and forced. Return, then, to Zinsser’s (p. 11) observation:

“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.”

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