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.