My Love-Hate Relationship with Books on Writing

Last spring, I became obsessed with the writing of William Zinsser, who wrote the book On Writing Well. The music of his lean, lucid sentences dazzled me.

I loved his muscular verbs and his original figures of speech. The quality of his writing seemed to prove that his advice worked.

Not that his rules were new to me. In principle, I already agreed with most of them, particularly his belief that clarity is the cardinal goal of writing. I agreed, too, that the best prose is direct, vivid, and clutter-free, and that the short and direct word communicates more effectively than a ponderous abstract one.

I read many of the chapters of On Writing Well multiple times not so much for his content as his style, trying to absorb his brilliance.

Only deeper into the book did I discover a surprising revelation: William Zinsser did not enjoy writing. His book is peppered with cleverly worded complaints about the agonies of author-dom. He insists that there is nothing a writer hates more than writing. A writer, Zinsser insists, will go to any length to avoid doing his job.

This was true of me at one time, but not anymore. I love to write. But unlike Zinsser, who refused to progress to the second sentence without perfecting the first, I allow myself to write terrible rough drafts and revise later.

How could such a good writer view writing as drudgery? I can guess. In the past, whenever I became obsessed with following rules, my pleasure in the process would decrease exponentially.

This was particularly true if I tried to follow them while also creating new content. For that reason, I stopped reading how-to-write books for over five years. They made me too self-conscious.

Only recently did I end my “how-to” hiatus. But after I read On Writing Well, my old problem came creeping back to me. Whenever I took Zinsser’s rules too seriously, my forehead muscles would tense and my writing would feel forced. The words I was trying to wrangle into submission were bucking me and leaving me emotionally tattered.

Frustration arose as I tried to tighten every sentence until it crackled. I agonized over rhythm. I fretted about finding exactly the right word, rather than the almost-right word. I suffered from decision fatigue as I compared different versions of each sentence.

When I finally did find a word that had exactly the right meaning, I worried that it had too many syllables. Maybe my word was not pithy enough. Or maybe it was too abstract. Or maybe my verbs were too weak.

But my biggest frustration came not so much with choosing the right word but with trimming verbiage. While I was already in the habit of cutting text, I was pursuing a new level of Zinsser-style succinctness. Zinsser urged chiseling away at text until all that remained was a kind of pristine thought sculpture, a fat-free model of efficiency, a laconic conveyer of clarity.

Following the leaner-is-always-better principle, I became rabidly obsessed with cutting text —more so, even, than usual. The faintest sign of verbosity had to be swatted into oblivion. I curtailed my essays with mercenary efficiency—always careful to save my sprawling first draft in case I wanted to restore some of my deleted writing later.

After all of my cutting was done, I would return to my original draft to compare, hoping to see dramatic before-and-after improvements, a suitable reward for all of my efforts.

But usually, I liked my previous version better than I expected. In fact, I often preferred it to my torturously revised drafts.

One day when returning to look over a rough draft, I made a startling discovery: I had changed almost all of my original content, leaving me with two distinct essays about different topics that were only loosely related.

I was not only trimming verbosity; I was pushing out my own original thoughts. Instead of saying what I wanted to say, I was losing my voice. I was becoming buried by my own rules.

The “rules” had stopped serving me; instead, I was serving them. I was allowing them to jettison me from my own prose. Now I clearly remembered why, at one time, I had stopped reading writing advice.

It was not just that I tended to take it too far. It was that no blanket rule of writing—no matter how wise it sounds—will work for every situation. No rule can take into account all of the factors that might affect an essay, story, or novel.

When I came to my senses, I remembered that shorter is not always better; in fiction it takes more words to show a character throwing a tantrum that to merely tell what he did. But showing characters in action is generally more vivid and engaging than dropping a line of exposition. Even within individual sentences, my pursuit of brevity can destroy rhythm, voice, and tone. And while short clear words may be the easiest to read, so-called “big” words have flavors, textures, and nuances that simpler words can never emulate.

Somehow, I had forgotten a the most important tenet of writing: the rules must serve my purpose. If the rules are upstaging my message, I have to let them go.

While advice from other writers may be useful, I always have to take it with a grain of salt. I do still love the way William Zinsser writes. And as rules of thumb go, his make good sense. But they are only guidelines, not oracular pronouncements from a celestial mountaintop. Obedience should never be the guiding principle of any art—not if I want to master writing instead of it mastering me.

On Writing Well now rests snugly on a bookshelf behind a glass door. Maybe five years from now, I will go back and look at it again. For now, I will simply write what comes to me, preferring to revise with a lighter touch. Unlike Zinsser, I love to write. And I want to keep it that way.