On Writing



I always wanted to be a writer. I, obviously, loved to read and the natural progression was that I wanted to write.  What I wanted to write varied widely depending on my age and interests at the time.  My dad was a newspaper editor so being a journalist sounded fascinating.  I loved fiction so wouldn't it be wonderful to create my own stories?  For a long time, I wanted to be a travel writer.  Imagine being paid to travel and write about it.  It sounded like the best job on earth.  To be frank, it still does.  If anyone wants to send me around the world in return for a series of mediocre ramblings about my experiences I am available.  I tried my hand at a few children's stories.  The one about the monsters that lived under my bed was my favorite. There were also a few light romances, a few cringe-worthy poems, and an abandoned attempt at a suspense novel.  I eventually decided I did not have the makings of a writer and started ignoring the words that continually floated around in my head.  Doesn't everyone have to mentally narrate their activities and edit and re-edit the running monologue that accompanies their life?  I preferred to believe so.

You know where this is going.  Then I started this blog and it revived my interest in words and the things you can do with them.

I enjoy words.  I like their precision and their ambiguity.  I like playing with them and seeing where it takes me.  I love the feeling when they flow and hate the frustration when I am staring at a blank screen and all the words seem locked in my head.

For some reason, a quote from The Wind in the Willows keeps running through my head.  "Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing-absolutely nothing-half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."  Except I keep hearing it as "messing about with words."

 The thing is, I still want to be a writer but I want to write well, or at least as well as I can. How do you learn to write?  Well, reading obviously.  The best training to be a writer is to be a voracious reader.  It seems I have been training for writing my whole life.  The natural progression is to start reading books on writing.  That is what I have been doing.  The one I am in the middle of right now is On Writing Well by William Zinsser.  It is described as "an informal guide to writing nonfiction" and I think it is so useful that I am now going to quote huge swathes of it at you.  I am only on page 77 and the pages are already littered with sticky notes.  The first sticky note is on page 7 where he says:

Clutter is the disease of American writing.  We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon....But 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 the sentence. And they usually occur, ironically, in proportion to education and rank.

I think maybe this can sum up the whole book.  Simplify and then simplify again.  Excess words muddle your writing.  He says this better than I can just a bit further on.

The point is that you have to strip down your writing before you can build it back up.  You must know what the essential tools are and what job they are designed to do.  If I may labor the metaphor of carpentry, it is first necessary to be able to saw wood neatly and to drive nails.  Later you can bevel the edges or add elegant finials, if that is your taste.  But you can never forget that you are practicing a craft that is based on certain principles.  If the nails are weak, your house will collapse.  If your verbs are weak and your syntax is rickety, your sentences will fall apart.
Zinsser also addresses the question of "Who am I writing for?"

It's a fundamental question and it has a fundamental answer: you are writing for yourself.  Don't try to visualize the great mass audience.  There is no such audience--every reader is a different person.  Don't try to guess what sort of thing editors want to publish or what you think the country is in a mood to read.  Editors and readers don't know what they want to read until they read it.  Besides, they're always looking for something new.

All three of those quotes can be found in the first 26 pages of the book.  I told you, it is littered with sticky notes.  What I appreciate is that he makes writing so accessible, so doable.  It isn't some secret art only practiced by geniuses in the light of the full moon with their muse leaning over their shoulder.  It is ordinary, everyday.  It is work, not flashes of pure inspiration.   This work-a-day approach to writing does not take away the magic.  It just makes the magic possible for anyone who wants it.

I still occasionally dream of being a travel writer, crisscrossing the globe and writing up my articles in atmospheric cafes. Sadly, I don't think that dream is ever going to come true.  However, Zinsser's book has made me realize that it is still possible to play with words. It is still possible to be a writer.


11 comments

  1. I dreamed of being a writer when I was a kid too:) even wrote a story or two:) good luck with your writing! you never know, maybe one day I'll find a book with your name on it in a bookshop:)

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    1. We are writers now, we write on our blogs. Maybe it isn't quite what we imagined as children but it is still writing.

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  2. This is a great post.

    I like your explanation as to why you enjoy words so much.


    Those quotations are so interesting. The type of clutter-less writing that Zinsser talks about has much to recommend it. On the other hand, I think that some great writers do not follow that philosophy.

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    1. Thank you.

      I think that he does advocate a simplified writing style but that is because he believes beginning writers need to build on a solid foundation. Once they are proficient writers they can go on to add the beautifying details. Writing styles and the ways they work or don't work are fascinating.

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  3. Sounds like a good book! I like that third part, about writing primarily for yourself. I very much go with the idea that you should write the book you want to read that no one else has written yet. And that you should write what you love, not what is popular or what you think other people want to read.

    You might also enjoy On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I don't read his horror books, but that memoir is amazing. Part how-to guide, part look at how and why he became a writer. I've read all of it twice, and parts of it many more times than that. In it, he has a similar idea about who you should write for, only he suggests more having an "ideal reader," one person who really gets you and what you write, and that's who you write for. I have an Ideal Reader, who is also my writing mentor and best friend. If no one but she ever reads what I write, it will be enough that I have entertained her.

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    1. Thanks for the book recommendation. I have heard of King's book but since I hate horror books I wasn't sure of it. I was afraid too much of his own style would creep into his advice and I wasn't sure I could handle reading horror excerpts. I am too easily scared. But since you recommend it, I will give it a try.

      You are fortunate to have an ideal reader and a best friend all wrapped up into one person. That is a special combination.

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    2. No, there's no creepy stuff in King's memoir. He's very honest in it about his drug addiction and what it's taken to overcome it, and also about the accident he had when someone ran him over with a truck and he almost died. There are no horror excerpts, aside from him discussing the basics of some of his stories and what gave him his ideas -- but not in a scare-you way.

      I am indeed blessed. She's a remarkable person.

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    3. I have added it to my online cart of books I tell myself I shouldn't buy right now--but probably will.

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    4. Oh, and I read Greenwillow a week or so ago and it was absolutely charming.

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  4. I want to be a writer too and I feel like I share all of your insecurities and fears. I found that blogging has helped me become a better writer, but I still want more, so I started journaling too. It's helped me so much and it's helped me come up with blog post ideas. Right now I'm reading Writing Down the Bones which I think you might enjoy! I still dream of writing a novel one day. What is stopping me?

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    1. I agree about blogging being a great means to improve writing. The more you do anything the better you get at it. Your journaling suggestion is interesting. I obviously edit what I am willing to put online and keeping a journal would allow much more freedom in what I write. I might have to give it a try.

      Thanks for the book recommendation. I will look for it.

      And write the novel! I'll read it.

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