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William Zinsser and good writing as art

14 March 2013

From George Will at The Washington Post:

When asked to explain the brisk pace of his novels, Elmore Leonard said, “I leave out the parts that people skip.” You will not want to skip anything in William Zinsser’s short essays written for the American Scholar magazine’s Web site and now collected in “The Writer Who Stayed,” a book that begins with him wondering why “every year student writing is a little more disheveled.”

One answer is that too few have read Zinsser’s earlier book “On Writing Well.” His answer is: “People now get their information mainly from random images on a screen and from random messages in their ears, and it no longer occurs to them that writing is linear and sequential, sentence B must follow sentence A.”

. . . .

Style reflects sensibility, and Zinsser’s style of clarity and economy derives from a sensibility that recoils from blurry words that carry deplorable thinking the way mosquitoes carry malaria. When his broker tells him a new person will be the “assistant assigned to your relationship,” Zinsser wonders whether he has relationships with his barber and with Maria at the coffee shop. “Cole Porter,” he notes, “didn’t write, ‘let’s do it, let’s have a relationship.’ ” And nobody, nowadays, is too young to have issues:

“Toddlers have sandbox issues. Issues are what used to be called the routine hills and bumps of getting from morning to night. They have been around a long time; Job had issues. By calling them issues we wrap ourselves in the palliative language of therapy. We no longer phone or visit friends who are in trouble; we reach out to them. That way we can find closure.”

Then there is sharing, “the word I most loathe in the feel-good lexicon.” Beginning in the 1970s, “share” crept on little lizard feet into conversations, a signal that the speaker is about to tell you some personal matter about which he should remain reticent. Now, Zinsser says, “share” is a synonym for “tell”: “ ‘Did Rick share with you that we’re coming for dinner tonight?’ He did. He told me.”

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

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5 Comments to “William Zinsser and good writing as art”

  1. “we wrap ourselves in the palliative language of therapy.”


    When it is as clear as a pikestaff that what most of you lot out there really want is a good thrashing.

    I refer the Hon Gentleman to E.L.James.

    The prosecution rests.


  2. For me, “opens up about” is as annoying as “sharing”. Example: (celebrity’s name goes here) “opens up about” (subject goes here).

  3. George Will likes to hear himself talk. He enjoys talking at length in order to show you just how learned he is.

    William Zinsser doesn’t, but Will used him as an excuse to talk some more so he can hear himself talk. Will needed an excuse — any excuse would do for him — to show you just how learned he is. And to squeeze in an irrelevant slam at modern society just because he doesn’t like modern society because it is full of people who don’t appreciate how learned he is.

    But those of us who could be considered learned know how little we do know, & we struggle to avoid the Dunning–Kruger effect. I expect George Will fails at that, but he annoys me too much to read him with enough care to prove my supposition.

  4. Some people like to hear their own words.
    Others prefer to read their own.
    Same thing.


  5. TL;DR: Get off my lawn.

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