On Writing Well, by William Zinsser – 30th Anniversary Edition
I had one “go-by” book to help me when I started writing: Techniques of Fiction Writing: Measure and Madness, by Leon Surmelian. I gleaned what I could from it, took copious notes, performed various exercises with the information and insights I gained. Surmelian, judging by his photo on the back cover, was a proper fellow, formal in appearance as well as in his text.
Roughly a decade after I received the Surmelian book as a Christmas present (“Go forth and read,” said pals Bill and Barb Scoggins. “Much success in writing.”), Zinsser wrote his first edition of On Writing Well, a primer for those compelled to non-fiction writing. During my first few tries at writing so many years ago, an editor advised me to take on non-fiction. Had I had Zinsser’s book in hand then, I probably would have.
This book hardly needs me to tout it – perhaps millions of reader/writers have done that already. It’s been edited constantly to adapt to writing trends (see my previous post). But upon a recent reading of this book – in toto, for the first time – one thing comes through loud and clear: personality.
Zinsser proclaims early in the book (and harps on the point thereafter) that what we writers are selling is not really a story (although that certainly helps), nor writing ability (agents and editors will take that for granted, or send you one of those photocopied, generic rejection slips). You’re selling YOU. Personality. And Zinsser isn’t afraid to put his out there, even with such an edifying how-to book.
What of Zinsser’s personality bleeds through the advice? He’s a detail type. He clearly believes in dotting and crossing the “i” and “t” of one’s writing. He’s prideful of what he writes, to the point of crankiness. He has a refined sense of humor: wry, witty, sophisticated, but he also seems to enjoy humor of the ribald persuasion, although perhaps in small doses. He has an inquisitive nature, and his intellect is founded in the commonality of life's basics.
But why am I going to the trouble to depict his personality here? To amplify on the point he makes in his book: Personality sells. It’s at the basis of his voice, and its rhythms, in the way he turns phrases, even in the way he punctuates. Once published, an editor might read his work and know a lot about the person – how difficult – or how fair – Zinsser would be in a professional encounter. The same editor might be able to assess his interests, how Zinsser might approach them once given a writing assignment.
And readers: they would know his voice immediately, feel comfortable in reading it over and over, despite stylistic or subject changes.
You get the idea.
He goes on about personality, not because manifesting it in his writing has succeeded in gaining him writing prominence, but because:
· A beginning writer feels vulnerable in exercising his/her personality in writing. We're all flawed, and personality showcases our flaws along with our assets. But he sees even flaws as an asset, something readers will be able to identify with, be at ease with. Go on, he says, be vulnerable.
· It’s your writerly signature. Do you know Hemingway when you read one of his pieces? Steinbeck? Mailer? Oates? Nabokov? Vonnegut? McEwan? Of course. Grisham? Grafton? Crichton? Cornwell? Well, yes. But less so. Do you want to be remembered? Do you have a personality – albeit vulnerable, cranky, morose, sly, witty, angry, or slightly insane – that can stand up to massive public scrutiny?
Then I’m sure William Zinsser would tell you: Get with it. Develop it. Put it out there.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars