I’ve been reading a lot about writing and memoir writing. Since I got back from Germany, it’s been hard to rein in my mind. I have many things—from books to documentaries and podcast interviews—to share with you, but it’s probably best to spread things out over the weeks.
Since this week has been crazier than I expected, I’ll share with you a few quotes from the final chapters of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. This week, I’ll stick the subject of writing non-fiction in general. Next week, I’ll dive deeper into memoir writing and share related articles and interviews with you.
As a teacher, I find it difficult to describe what a cliché is in writing and to give good examples. As a writer, I fear it myself but am not sure whether I can recognize it in my own writing. But Zinsser articulates what it is and how to spot it in your writing very well in the chapter “The Sound of Your Voice”:
“They are everywhere in the air around us, familiar friends just waiting to be helpful, ready to express complex ideas for us in the shorthand form of metaphor. That’s how they became clichés in the first place, and even careful writers use quite a few on their first draft. But after that we are given a chance to clean them out. Clichés are one of the things you should keep listening for when you rewrite and read your successive drafts aloud. Notice how incriminating they sound, convicting you of being satisfied to use the same old chestnuts instead of making an effort to replace them with fressh phrases of your own. Clichés are the enemy of taste.”
On how to clean out clichés
“Freshness is crucial. Taste chooses words that have surprise, strength, and precision. Non-taste slips into the breezy vernacular of the alumni magazine’s class notes—a world where people in authority are the top brass or the powers that be. What exactly is rong with “thp brass”? Nothing—and everything. Taste knows that it’s better to call people in authority what they are: officials, executives, chairmen, presidents, directors, managers. Non-taste reach for the corny synonym, which has the further disadvantage of being imprecise.”
“If you master the tools of the trade—the fundamentals of interviewing and of orderly construction—and if you bring to the assignment your general intelligence and your humanity, you can write about any subject. That’s your ticket to an interesting life.”
On writing as well as you can
“Only later did I realize that I took along on my journey another gift from my father: a bone-deep belief that quality is its own reward. I, too, have never gone into a store looking for a bargain.”
Zinsser spends a few pages on the relationship between the writer and the editor in the final chapter, ” Writing as Well as You Can.” Here is his conclusion on the subject of that relationship. The following paragraph resonates with me because readers often assume that art critics or journalists only have a relationship with the artwork or the subject they’re writing about—or at least that’s how they interact with your work, especially artists. The truth is that regardless of what kind of writing you do, if you care enough about it as a craft, then you also have a relationship with your own writing—your own craft. Everyone who writes has a relationship with their own writing.
Here’s Zinsser’s passage:
“The purpose that writers serve must be their own. What you write is yours and nobody else’s. Take your talent as far as you can and guard it with your life. Only you know how far that is; no editor knows. Writing well means believing in your writing and believing in yourself, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel. You will write only as well as you make yourself write.”