Three decades years ago, when I was an English major who had talked his way into a newsroom internship in Longview, Wash., a reporter came up and handed me a book.
It was “On Writing Well,” William Zinsser’s classic guide for writers. No doubt the reporter detected verbosity in my prose, the approach of a student padding a paper to reach the professor’s five-page minimum.
“Read it,” he said. “You’ll love it. Zinsser writes like a hot knife cutting through butter.”
Well, hot knives and butter are clichés, something Zinsser, who died this week at 92, warns against. But I drew important lessons from “On Writing Well,” whose influence compares with E. B. White and William Strunk Jr.’s “The Elements of Style.”
It was not just Zinsser’s admonitions to cut unnecessary words, though this is a fine place to start. After all, I was an admirer of the gorgeous, layered sentences of Vladimir Nabokov. What I learned was respect for the reader. The writer shouldn’t be a showoff, a unicycle-riding word juggler; good writing tells a story or presents information in a compelling way.
Yes, I could list a thousand exceptions or areas where I disagree with Zinsser. But his demand for clarity and simplicity helped clean up my prose and focus me on the reader. Here are a few tips from “On Writing Well” and other Zinsser works:
1. Ask ‘Who am I writing for?’
“Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience,” Zinsser states.
I find it easier to write with a specific reader in mind (not myself, as Zinsser suggests), but the point is, jettison intimidating thoughts about your vast readership. When I write essays or fiction, I envision a certain insightful editor (or my wife, also a demanding reader). In communications, imagine a particular employee or customer opening your story on a busy day.
2. Capture your sources’ voices.
In interviews (and writing itself), capture the voice of your subjects. “Learn to ask questions that will elicit answers about what is most interesting or vivid in their lives,” Zinsser writes. “Nothing so animates writing as someone telling what he thinks or what he does—in his own words.”
3. Keep sentences short.
If you’re mired in a long sentence, the quickest way out of a jam is to drop in a period, Zinsser says. “There is no minimum length for a sentence that’s acceptable in the eyes of God,” he writes.
And while you’re at it, break that paragraph in two.
4. Cut needless adjectives and adverbs.
Most adjectives are unnecessary, Zinsser says. “Like adverbs, they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don’t stop to think that the concept is already in the noun.”
Sure, we all know that. And yes, there are many exceptions. But as I have had to tell even graduate fiction students, look for places where the noun contains the adjective, the verb the adverb. Not every oak has to be gnarled, Zinsser says. Trust readers to draw that image from the noun.
5. Prune the ‘little qualifiers.’
Word such as “very,” “rather,” “quite,” “a bit,” “too,” “in a sense” and dozens more clutter our prose and add very little.
6. Prefer Anglo-Saxon words.
Native English words that predate the Norman Conquest tend to carry more punch than the Latinate alternatives. Zinsser writes, “Here’s a typical sentence: ‘Prior to the implementation of the financial enhancement.’ That means ‘Before we fixed our money problems.'”
The lesson is essential for communicators, even if Zinsser makes it with such ferocity, he opens himself to ridicule. He writes, “The words derived from Latin are the enemy—they will strangle and suffocate everything you write. The Anglo-Saxon words will set you free.”
Trevor Butterworth amusingly notes in Forbes that Zinsser uses 13 Latinisms in the paragraph that argues his point. “In fact, the more Zinsser fulminates against the ‘vague concepts’ and ‘abstract ideas’ of Latin, the more Latin and other foreign-borne words he uses,” Butterworth says.
But still. One of the easiest ways out of corporate cant is to prefer the concrete vocabulary of Old English.