Thursday, March 27, 2008

On Writing Well

I haven't made many blog entries lately, partly because of a book I ran across at The Strand two weeks ago: William Zinsser's On Writing Well. I picked it up and read the blurbs, and it seemed to call out to me. I bought a copy, and by the time I'd read a few pages its voice had risen to a nearly deafening - yet curiously benign - scream. I recognized that I desperately needed to hear what Zinsser was saying: cut out useless words; cut out pretentious words; use a short word if it does the job of a longer one; simplify, simplify, simplify.

One of Zinsser's best suggestions - to read what I write out loud - was so obvious and simple that it hadn't occurred to me. Trying it, I felt like a longtime whittler who'd just seen his first lathe. I found pretentious and tangled constructions that I'd never use in conversation, and when I gutted and reworked the sentences the result not only sounded better - it sounded more like me. It was all exactly as Zinsser said. Until I read his book I didn't understand what it means to "find my voice". It's not about finding a single voice, but about whatever voice I speak with being authentic to me.

I said I haven't made many blog entries lately. Notice I didn't say I hadn't been blogging. If you look at my entry on Ptolemy and Peutinger, you'll see that I've been putting the book's ideas into practice. At least I hope you'll see that, because I spent a lot of time rewriting that entry again and again. I'm keen to know if it helped. If you could tell me if I'm clearly conveying my ideas, and whether my writing is changing for the better, I'd take it as a kindness.


Ranta said...

That Zinsser book is great. The one that changed my writing life is the Strunk & White. The same basic advice (i.e., less is more) in an appropriately compact volume. I do love the idea of reading what you write aloud. It's the true test of whether or not something reads well.

I constantly edit old posts. Invariably, there's clunky prose that missed my initial edits. (I'm editing this answer down as I write!)

I'll go check out your new-and-improved Ptolemy post now.

Ranta said...

P.S. I frickin' love that graphic. I believe it made me cackle.

Hugh Yeman said...

Strunk & White is next on my list of books on writing. And yeah, reading aloud is one of those so-simple-I-never-thought-of-it ideas that has made a world of difference for me.

I would appreciate brutal honesty about the Ptolemy/Peutinger entry, because I suspect it's still murky. Actually, the brutal honesty thing goes for the entire blog.

Yay cackling!