Wednesday, November 19, 2014

On Writing Well

I like doing things that have a body of theory behind them. For example, I prefer taijiquan to kickboxing, as a martial art, as it has deeper theory. So when I started blogging, I went looking for its theoretical foundations. I found them in the principles of good nonfiction writing. I bought two books: The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, and On Writing Well, by William Zinsser.

The book is unusual for a writing guide. Firstly, it is a good read. It is actually hard to put down. Advice on writing is given clearly and simply. That is part of it. However, Mr. Zinsser illustrates his points with personal anecdotes, and this is what makes the book so interesting. In the chapter entitled A Writer's Decisions, for example, he uses an account of a trip he took to Timbuktu. He walks us through the article he wrote, paragraph by paragraph, explaining what he wrote and what he was thinking at the time. Between the travel piece and its explanation, you get an idea of the author's personality. He's interesting. It makes his book interesting.

He is passionate about the craft of writing, and that comes through in a few humorous digs at bad writing. For example:

He or she may think "sanguine" and "sanguinary" mean the same thing, but the difference is a bloody big one.

Humour livens up the advice too:

Don't get caught holding a bag full of abstract nouns. You'll sink to the bottom of the lake and never be seen again.

Secondly, the book covers more than just grammar and rules for composition. It covers the whole craft of writing nonfiction. There is a section on forms of nonfiction writing, such as travel writing, sports writing, biographies, and business writing. There are a few paragraphs on the relationship between an author and an editor. This is useful information for a professional, and interesting for an amateur blogger like myself. There is a chapter on interviewing people too. It explains how to conduct an interview, how to quote people, and the ethical responsibility that a writer has to be faithful when using a quotation. The author also explains why you would want to quote someone in the first place. He uses quotations effectively himself, and these make his point very clear. The author includes a story about an article he wrote about Mount Rushmore. Instead of describing the place himself, he interviewed the people that worked there. I cannot think of a more evocative way of describing Mount Rushmore than one of the quotations he got:

"In the afternoon when the sunlight throws shadows into that socket," one of the rangers, Fred Banks, said, "you feel that the eyes of those four men are looking right at you, no matter where you move. They're peering right into your mind, wondering what you're thinking, making you feel guilty: 'Are you doing your part?'"

In short, On Writing Well is an informative book. It covers the whole craft of non fiction writing in about 300 pages and it is written well.