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Author Archive: "William Zinsser"

You Mean I Have to Think?

Hello again. One rule that my students find unusually helpful is: One thought per sentence. It's hard enough for today's manic multi-taskers to grasp even one idea. Give them time to process thought #1. Then stop. Then give them the next fact that they need to know. That fact should develop or amplify sentence #1.

Be grateful for the period. The writer's natural impulse — such is the flood of information we are eager to impart — is to use a comma, followed by "and" or "but," followed by a phrase that slowly drifts down some bayou from which there is no easy escape. Be content to build a logical arrangement, one short sentence at a time; there's no sentence too short to be acceptable in the eyes of God.

I mention this because the national epidemic that's most on my mind right now isn't swine flu. It's the slow death of sequential thinking. My students, especially younger ones, go out on a story and come back with a million notes and a million quotes and absolutely no idea what the story is. Where ...

Good Words and Bad Words

I love short words and short sentences. I go to work every day grateful for the strong and simple verbs and nouns bequeathed to the wonderful English language by its Anglo-Saxon heritage, just as I hate the long and pompous words derived from Latin, its other principal source — words like "implemenation," which have no movement or life. I always choose short words over long words that mean the same thing. "Assistance" means "help." "Numerous" means "many." "Currently" means "now." An "individual" is a man or a woman or a child. Some of my sentences have so many one-syllable words that I could be arrested for sending them out into the world. When I read aloud to students a sentence that I love for its simple strength — perhaps by Mr. Lincoln or Mr. Thoreau — they think I'm kidding. They can't believe that simple is good. "If I write like that, people will think I'm stupid," they say. Stupid — I tell them — like E. B. White and the King James Bible.

But I also love to ...

Flunking Description

I don't enjoy descriptive writing — I was fed too much George Eliot and Thomas Hardy back in boarding school. A little heath and bracken can go a long way. I don't like to write what I don't like to read, so I reduce my writing to the bare minimum of facts that a reader needs to know. Readers curious to learn what my people look like, or what they are wearing, or what they are eating ("'I always wanted to be an actress,' she told me over a lunch of arugula vinaigrette with Portobello cheese and a glass of Chardonnay") will remain curious.

But when I started writing my new book, Writing Places, two years ago, I figured that a book grounded in the working habits of a lifelong journalist should make an effort — it wouldn't kill me — to recall how those places looked and sounded and felt. So I dutifully described the newsroom of the New York Herald Tribune, where I got my first job after coming home from World War II, ...

Simple Needs

Hello again, Powellites. Yesterday's blog was the first one I've ever attempted, written at the age of 86. I've never even seen a blog. The vast blogosphere is a universe as unexplored by me as the far side of the moon. My needs as a writer are simple, little changed over the years: a computer, a Webster's dictionary, a telephone that's plugged into a jack and stays on my desk. No cellphone. No e-mail; I don't need it for my work and I don't want to spend my life checking for messages. I get people to call me on the phone and actually talk to me. Those calls have brought me many friendships and much to think about. Readers who feel that they know me from my book On Writing Well often call with a question about writing, and I find myself drawn into lives I wouldn't otherwise know about. Last winter a woman named Fatima Al-Rasheed called from Kuwait with a writing problem that had her stymied. Could she come and see me? I told her it ...

My Writing Places

Powell's Books has invited me to write five blogs in the next five days in connection with my new book, Writing Places, which is a memoir about all the places where I've done my writing and my teaching, many of them highly peculiar. Like the office in mid-Manhattan that had a firepole. I rented it from the legendary publisher Bernard Geis, who made pop icons of Jacqueline Susann and Helen Gurley Brown, with Valley of the Dolls and Sex and the Single Girl. Geis had the pole installed and went down it whenever he left the office, though he was then in his late 70s. The office being offered to me was ideal, but when Geis interviewed me as a possible tenant, I got the uneasy feeling that he wouldn't rent to me unless I went down the pole myself; it seemed to be some sort of test of renter suitability. "What you do is use your knees — that slows you down," Geis told me. I had never thought of myself as a man with strong knees, and I still don't. I ...

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