On Writing Well Enough
William Zinsser died in May of this year. I learned this only last week while nearing the end of his seminal “On Writing Well”. Originally published in 1976 and revised three times each decade after, “On Writing Well” is one of the vital texts of the young writer, journalist and English language student. It’s also of great interest to the enthusiastic amateur. And for all of its valuable teaching and instruction around the process of writing, it’s also an unveiled work of passion for non-fiction writing as a form, laced with rallying enthusiasm for the merit of non-fiction in a culture that sentimentally romanticises novels.
That I hadn’t read of Mr Zinsser’s passing is a fact of egregious ignorance on my part, since it was John Gruber’s link to his obituary that prompted me to buy the book at all.
I’ve mentioned Zinsser and On Writing Well a few times over the years. I could not recommend that book any more highly. Everyone could benefit from reading it — and, every few years, re-reading it. A classic for the ages.
I’m grateful to have read a book that might inspire me to take greater care over writing than I did reading about it.
Of course I’m an amateur; a far from prolific one at that. I write on this blog with an infrequency more reasonably observed in celestial objects. I enjoyed my stint in 2012 of writing monthly for Alex and Katy and The Pastry Box, but when I think back to it I can’t possibly believe that it was 3 years ago that I wrote regularly. I kept a small diary of sorts when I was exiled—an excellent aid for my sanity—but upon return the writing dried up as soon as my free time was waterlogged by the old routine.
So it is that I’m a man who rather enjoys the idea of writing and the art of the field more than I act on it. A typical snake person, a sponge for the mere idea of the arts without much time for the art itself. Impatient to consume it all.
An early, frustrating (but obvious) lesson in Zinsser’s book is that any piece of writing will need to be rewritten many times over. Articles will be entirely reworked, paragraphs refactored, individual sentences excruciatingly laboured over. I wonder what Zinsser would have written of blogging if he’d revised “On Writing Well” one last time. The way I came to enjoy writing is tightly coupled with the urge to expel it quickly into the world. There’s an urgency to share ideas, to join in a conversation. I’ve developed some comfort with the inevitable imperfections of rapid self-publishing. I let thoughts take shape over a course of Tweets. They’re revised in public. Our online communities produce a great deal of detritus, but the ephemerality of modern mediums mostly forgives us doing so. Bad ideas are pushed down the page. Mediums like Twitter may encourage words closer to speech in style, but in aggregate the structure of our thoughts there still mimics longer prose. Amusingly, in contrast to their disruptive origin, blogs are now the slowest of our personal platforms, and even then the mutable nature gives us the freedom to publish errors.
What do I think I’m doing? When I rebuilt this blog a few years ago I started including links to the underlying Markdown source for each post on Github. I embraced the idea that everything I wrote could be corrected and tweaked later, even by others. Is this just a less patient way to write, or is it that the blog is not so much “published” as it is a perpetual, public drafts folder? I wonder if I make a mistake organising it this way.
I’m not writing to be recognised as a writer, nor to pursue it as my profession. But as I get better at it, as I learn more, and as I absorb others’ passion for writing, it feels more and more like rushing words is disrespectful to the art. I want to take greater pride in my hobby, but I don’t want to paralyse myself from publishing in the process. This is the space I have, so the least I can do is make something of it. For a renewed start, it’s enough.