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A Few Thoughts

A few thoughts now and again about whatever occurs to me while going through whatever books I end up reading

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction - William Knowlton Zinsser Why Zinsser Still Matters

Second only to The Elements of Style, this is the best book ever written for writers. In many ways, it's better than Strunk and White, which tends to focus on grammar and the actual mechanics of writing as opposed to how a writer should think and approach things. The book focuses on nonfiction, but many (if not most) of the principles apply equally to any style of writing. Even chapters on things like how to do an interview offer valuable insights into what you're looking for when creating good characters or how to recognize and shape a characters voice.

The real victory of this book though comes in rescuing writing from the pomposity of the writing world. It approaches writing from it's long abhorred but more important angle of craftsmanship. Writing is not just an art. Sure, there is art involved, but it's also a craft, a skill that can be learned and honed and developed. Writers who think of what they do as a form of magic would do well to read this book. This error in understanding is even more pervasive in the category of aspiring writers than it is in publishing.

I recall hearing Neil Gaiman talk about how writers will write something, send it out, and wait for a response. If the responses come back negatively, then the writer decides that she is simply too far ahead of her time, or that the publishers simply don't understand what she was doing. "They don't get it," is the common writer's reply. Gaiman contended that the more likely truth is that what you've written simply isn't any good. Maybe it could be good if you fixed it, but it isn't now.

Craft is the bridge that allows you to fix it. It can't really be fixed with art. This is a book about the craft of writing and every writer would do well to read it periodically. I try to read it every couple of years just to refresh myself. I never fail to find new insights or discover new ways to approach the problems of writing.

It seems to me that writers who don't read and study this book along with a few others (The Elements of Style, On Writing, among others) are really just playing at being a writer. They are, as Alan Alda would say, "stuffing the dog".