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William Zinsser on Simplicity

Here are some excerpts from Zinsser’s ‘On Writing Well’, which I mentioned in yesterday’s post:

… the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what – these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.

He’s right, of course… or mostly right (Zinsser concedes that there’s a place for well ornamented writing, as long as it’s well constructed)…

He goes on to ask how we can free our writing from clutter:

The answer is to clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for the muddy thinker to write good English. He may get away with it for a paragraph or two, but soon the reader will be lost, and there’s no sin so grave, for the reader will not easily be lured back.

Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say. Surprisingly often they don’t know. Then they must look at what they have written and ask: have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time? If it’s not, some fuzz has worked its way into the machinery. The clear writer is someone clearheaded enough to see this stuff for what it is: fuzz.

Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.

This is brilliant advice for writing, and as I read Zinssler I find myself applying what he says about words to my work as a whole. Where are the adulterants and the clutter? Where am I unclear about what I’m trying to do? How can I spot and remove the fuzz in the machinery?

Few pieces of important work come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that changing things for the better is hard, it’s because it is hard.

And like good writing, it’s worth it.


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