“Only through clear writing can we affect our future and make educated choices in areas where we have little or no education” (Zinsser 1985, 143).
William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (third edition) was a last minute addition to my summer reading list—and I’m very glad I added it. In fact, I wish someone would have recommended this book to me when I was an undergraduate student struggling with introductory writing courses.
Zinsser encourages writers to seek clarity and simplicity in their work. If writers want to convey ideas without confusion or misunderstanding they must write clearly, avoiding long sentences full of jargon and unnecessary words.
Throughout the text the reader is shown examples from a variety of forms: interviews, science and technical writing, professional and business writing, sports columns, etc. Regardless of your form of writing, Zinsser has words of encouragement and advice. The chapters generally stand on their own which makes the book a great resource for writers focusing on one form or simply exploring options. And the examples provided are often humorous, witty, and insightful.
The book is equally valuable to editors—especially the last three chapters. In chapter 22, for example, Zinsser lays out how writers should interact with editors, suggesting that authors always defend their work and never allow an editor to tamper with their opinions. “That’s the cardinal sin—tampering with a writer’s opinion. But editors will do what writers let them do, especially if time is short” (1985, 237). This section is a strong reminder of the sense of attachment an author develops to their work, and of the role of the editor to copy edit and proofread—but to avoid direct changes to the author’s content unless engaged in developmental editing.
I would recommend this book to anyone working to improve their own writing or editing abilities. But be forewarned. There is a glaring lack of diversity and sensitivity in this text. Many of the examples are written by white men; some of the examples are degrading to women (see “Haircurl” written by Zinsser in chapter 19); and the brief section on sexism in writing (119-121, added to the third edition) truly feels as though it was plopped in the middle of a book that was originally written with a male audience in mind. Nonetheless the book does offer some useful insights and can still serve as a valuable reference tool (chapter 14, for example, offers great grammar and punctuation tips).
I am now moving on to reading The Subversive Copy Editor and taking my third course in the University of Chicago Certificate Editing Program. Fall 2016 is going to be busy!