Writing to Learn
- William Zinsser
- My last highlight
- Number of highlights
Then I thought: Probably every subject is interesting if an avenue into it can be found that has humanity and that an ordinary person can follow. Writing was such an avenue—perhaps, in fact, the main route.
It’s by writing about a subject we’re trying to learn that we reason our way to what it means.
They are words that make the insider feel important when he uses them but that don’t really mean anything.
I never stopped to ask, “Who is the typical Yale alumnus? Who am I editing for?” One of my principles is that there is no typical anybody; every reader is different. I edit for myself and I write for myself. I assume that if I consider something interesting or funny, a certain number of other people will too. If they don’t, they have two inalienable rights—they can fire the editor and they can stop reading the writer. Meanwhile I draw on two sources of energy that I commend to anyone trying to survive in this vulnerable craft: confidence and ego. If you don’t have confidence in what you’re doing you might as well not do it.
Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, a book every writer should read once a year.
the passages I like best usually depend on the preparation of the reader in earlier passages that give resonance to things said later. Indeed the quality I call resonance is what hits me hardest in all writing. And what resounds is not merely things said earlier but common knowledge and experience that everyone can relate to.
The first two books I assigned last term were The Art of Thinking, by Vincent Ruggiero, and Reasoning, by Michael Scriven.
Like the parent who tells the spanked child that “this hurts me more than it hurts you,” the writing teacher wants nothing so much as a paper that’s well written—one that won’t mire him in endless repairs and emotional debris. I sometimes find myself emitting small moans as I start to read a paper and realize the magnitude of the problems ahead.
Therefore, for the purposes of this book, I’ll generalize outrageously and state that there are two kinds of writing. One is explanatory writing: writing that transmits existing information or ideas. Call it Type A writing. The other is exploratory writing: writing that enables us to discover what we want to say. Call it Type B. They are equally valid and useful.[Nadav’s note: Windows and mirrors]
My advice to Type A writers begins with one word: Think! Ask yourself, “What do I want to say?” Then try to say it. Then ask yourself, “Have I said it?” Put yourself in the reader’s mind: Is your sentence absolutely clear to someone who knows nothing about the subject? If not, think about how to make it clear. Then rewrite it.
I’m not into density; I’d make a lousy editor for Henry James—I’d cut out all the elements that make him Henry James.
“In nearly all forms of communication, more messages are sent than are strictly necessary to convey the information intended by the sender.”
Jargon is the lingo of people in specialized fields who have infected each other with their private terminology and don’t think there’s any other way to say what they mean.
No wonder so many Americans hate their jobs. Who wants to work for bosses who deal with the help in such dehumanizing language? The people writing and talking most pompously in America today are people in authority.[Nadav’s note: Jargon is dehumanizing]
Recently I sighted this brilliant cluster: “communication facilitation skills development intervention.” Five nouns, but no human activity that I could visualize. I went at the problem like a code breaker. “Intervention” = “help” or “teach”; “development” + “facilitation” = “improve”; “communication skills” = “writing.” Solution: a program to help kids write better.
But any specialist who doesn’t clean up his jargon when he’s writing for the general population deserves to be, if not tarred, at least feathered by the mob.
What makes the words so ponderous is that they don’t have any people in them; they only have concepts—“consideration,” “conclusion,” “capacity,” “tendency.” Nouns that denote concepts are the death of vigorous writing. Good writing is specific and concrete.
One way to take the mush out of concept nouns is to turn them into active verbs.
Trefil has written a book called Meditations at 10,000 Feet: A Scientist in the Mountains,
It is always interesting to see people in dead earnest, from whatever cause, and earthquakes make everybody earnest….
How to See:[Nadav’s note: George nelson]
A broadly educated man, he wears his erudition lightly.
The following passage is the introduction to his book Meanings of Modern Art. It starts with deceptive simplicity—in fact, with sixteen consecutive one-syllable words, perhaps the world record for an art historian.
Good art writing should above all help us to see, just as good music writing should help us to hear, and its domain can be as wide as the world we live in. Often, in fact, we need to be shown what is right before our eyes.
the same expedient sentence containing every letter of the alphabet, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy sleeping dog,” or its far more interesting little brother, “Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs.”
Nonfiction writing should always have a point: It should leave the reader with a set of facts, or an idea, or a point of view, that he didn’t have before he started reading. Writers may write for any number of good personal reasons—ego, therapy, recollection, validation of their lives. But what they produce will have a validity of its own to the extent that it’s useful to somebody else.
My interest in insects has been always minimal and often adversarial