Saturday, June 29, 2013

Book Critique by Lorilyn Roberts On Writing Well by William Zinsser - The Book on Writing All Serious Writers Should Read

Book Critique by Lorilyn Roberts
On Writing Well by William Zinsser



I read On Writing Well by William Zinsser twice. I loved this book. On Writing Well embodies what excellent writing should be. At first I thought the book would be a dull "how to write" book, much like a cookbook, without a lot of creativity. Instead, On Writing Well has depth and soul. It challenges me to ask, what can I achieve for the glory of God if I implement these nuggets of wisdom?

On Writing Well gives me a high standard to emulate and debunks many myths perpetrated by people I consider more knowledgeable than myself. This book is a gift to anyone who takes writing seriously.

I also believe there is a spiritual battle waged in Christian writing. The evil one does not want God's glory to be revealed in human creativity. If he can persuade Christian writers through mediocrity and deception that publishing articles or books is the ultimate goal without a passion for truth, beauty, and redemption, our writing will be compromised. We will sacrifice our best–God’s creativity—for a cheap counterfeit. As Zinsser states so well, we need role models who exhibit good writing that we can copy to help us develop our own style.

I also feel “normal” now knowing I am not "crazy" with my compulsion to rewrite things over and over as I fidget for the right construction. I take comfort in knowing at least Zinsser does the same thing. 

There are too many good points On Writing Well to summarize in a few short paragraphs, so I want to break them down into the four parts of the book as Zinsser presented them.

Part I           Principles

All these principles would apply equally to fiction and nonfiction.

1. Good writing must exhibit humanity and warmth. A writer's product is himself, not the subject that he is writing about.
2. Write clearly and eliminate all clutter.
3. Be yourself on paper as you are in person. 
4. Write the way that is most natural to you.
5. Write to please yourself—I like to think I am writing to please God. To paraphrase from the Bible, whatever I do, do it as if I am doing it unto the Lord, and give Him the glory. That means the reader deserves the best I have to offer.
6. Writing is art through imitation.
7. Avoid journalese and cheap words—the world has enough of them already (I know because I caption them every day). Instead, surprise the reader with the rhythm and cadence of verbs and nouns that express vitality and beauty in unexpected ways.  
8. Respect the English language and write correctly—it will show you care about the reader and respect his intelligence.

Part II                    Methods

All these principles would apply equally to fiction and nonfiction.

2. Unity ensures orderliness in terms of presentation, pronoun, tense, and mood.
3. Enthusiasm will keep the reader engaged.
4. Leave the reader with one new thought or idea to consider after he finishes your story. 
5. Be flexible—let your writing take you where it wants to go. Trust your material.
6. Make your lead so compelling that the reader can't put your book down.
7. Always have more material to draw from than you think you will need.
8. Look for the story in your writing—people love stories.
9. Know when to end (I have read my share of great books that I never finished because I became bored in the waning chapters).
10. Use active and precise verbs and adjectives. Avoid overuse of adverbs. 
My translation is, if it sounds like writing, it's a poor substitute. My favorite books are those where I get lost in the story—I have been transported to another world or another time and forget I am reading until something or somebody disturbs me.
11. Omit the "little qualifiers."
In my book Children of Dreams, I did a word search for qualifiers I tend to overuse like "very" and removed them.  I also did a search for exclamation points—most of those came out also. The change in overall appearance was stunning. 
12. Avoid contractions like "I'd, he'd, and we'd." I don't write these words captioning because I don't like them (they don't exist in my captioning dictionary), so I am glad to know I don't ever need to write them.
13. Don't overstate. I have been turned off by writers who overstated a fact. My translation is, don't insult the reader's intelligence.
14. Don't compare your writing to others. Your only competition is with yourself.
15. If something can't be fixed, take it out. In captioning parlance, when in doubt, take it out.  Better not to caption it than to caption it wrong.
16. Keep paragraphs short.
17. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

 Part III        Forms  (Noted for my own edification)

1. Dramatic nonfiction should have no inferring or fabricating, but a condensing of time and events is acceptable to tell the story, raising the craft of writing nonfiction to art.
2. Seize control of style and substance when writing about people and places; take unusual care with details.
3. A memoir covers a short span of time and is not autobiographical. Use sound, smell, touch and rich remembrance to allow the reader to enjoy the journey alongside you.
4. When writing science, write as an ordinary person, sequentially, and never forget the human element is what will make the story come alive.
5. Strip from business writing all the extra "lingo" and write with what Zinsser calls the four articles of faith: Clarity, simplicity, brevity and humanity.
6.  Sports writing is rich in opportunity for nonfiction writers—a source of material for social change and social history. Strip away the sports jargon and write with active verbs and colorful adjectives. (This chapter spoke to me personally as it takes months of training to become a competent sports captioner. Because I hope to incorporate sports into my creative writing, I'm glad to know that good sports writing eliminates the junkie lingo that I caption every day).
7.  Criticism is a serious intellectual act undertaken by those trained in the area of inquiry. The first qualification should be to love the type of art being critiqued.
8. Humor is the secret ingredient to nonfiction writing that adds zest and joy to truth and life.

Part IV        Attitudes

The following would apply to fiction except for 6 through 10. All would apply to nonfiction.

1. Avoid cheap writing, clich├ęs, and breeziness. Develop a style that the reader with recognize as "your voice."
2. Write with sincerity. Your best credential is yourself.
3. Focus on process, not outcome.  Zinsser calls it, "The Tyranny of the Final Product." 
4. Quest and intention should guide us in our writing. Quest is the search for meaning and intention is what we wish to accomplish—the soul of our writing.
5. Writing is about making decisions, and ultimately, where you wish to take the reader on your journey.
6.  Consider the resonance of the words you choose and its emotional impact on the reader.
7. As a nonfiction writer, "You must get on the plane." (I think about the adoption of my two daughters from Nepal and Vietnam. My book Children of Dreams is about their adoptions. If I never got on the plane, I wouldn't have them. Neither would the reader have my book.
8. When writing memoir, choose one point of view to preserve unity; i.e., writing from the viewpoint of the child versus the adult looking back. They are different kinds of writing.
9. Remember, when writing memoir, it's your story. Memoirs should have a redemptive quality—readers won't connect with whining.
10. Organize your memoir through a series of reductions, focusing on the small stories tucked away in memory. The reader will connect because the stories will resonate with universal truth.
11. Strive to write the best you can.  Give all of yourself.  The reader deserves the best you have to offer.

Get your copy of On Writing Well here:


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