Sebastian Kirsch: Blog

Monday, 17 April 2006

William Zinsser: On Writing Well

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 13:44

[cover]For German, one of the definitive style guides for journalists is Wolf Schneider’s Deutsch für Profis.

Zinsser’s On Writing Well is not its English-language equivalent.

Zinsser’s book is as much about writers as it is about writing. It does not address the minute details of language and composition – rather, it tries to illustrate the power of language as well as the challenges of being a writer. Zinsser makes his points mainly by quoting examples and citing his own experiences. The book is subdivided into four parts: Principles, where he briefly touches upon subjects such as style and audience; Methods, which contains a short introduction to composition; Forms, an overview about different genres of non-fiction writing; Attitudes, which is all about the writer himself and his relation to his work.

I found this last part the most salient one, even if it is one of the shorter parts of the book. There are much better guides to style and composition, but Zinsser is unique in his treatment of the writer and the relation to his work. This is also a subject that I have grappled with during my own stint as a technical journalist, and while writing scientific papers and theses: Where does the writer come in? How does he address his audience, and how does he make his own voice heard without distracting from the subject of his work?

Traditional scientific writing is dreadfully impersonal; it mostly tries to convey the notion that the author is completely inconsequential, and all that matters is the subject. But this purported objectivity is a sham – every piece of science is determined by the personal interests and the modus operandi of its researcher. The same holds true for t echnical writing: When I wrote technical articles, the first and hardest lesson was that the passive voice was banned. You were not allowed to use the passive voice. Every action has a subject and an object, and they need to be named clearly in the article. I once argued with my editor for half an hour about a single sentence in the passive voice, until he grudgingly conceded that in this single special case, it was indeed the best solution.

Zinsser also has other encouraging words for aspiring and seasoned writers – for example about the difficulties of starting from a blank page, and the inevitable writer’s block (he mentions that one will never do as many trips to the water fountain or to the loo than while having to write.) These are the points that make the book worthwhile to me. Zinsser does not tell you in detail what to write and how to write, but he does tell you that writing is hard work, and he makes you feel a little better when you have spent another day in front of a blank page, without writing a single sentence. And it feels even better when you spent a day rewriting and rewriting each sentence in order to make it even more understandable to your readers.

By the way, the English language equivalent of Deutsch für Profis would probably be Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. But I will write about that one another time.

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