“Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon.”
“People read with their ears, whether they know it or not.”
On the bookshelves of many writers, both aspiring and accomplished, you are likely to find William Zinsser’s classic, On Writing Well. While this brief but pithy book is a guide for nonfiction writers, there’s more than enough advice to spare for those of us in the fiction trade as well: Craft is craft, whether the boat it travels in is built of facts or fancy.
William is a writing coach extraordinaire. For years, he penned film reviews and feature stories for the New York Herald Tribune. He’s written 18 books on a variety of subjects and taught nonfiction writing at Yale. He was a senior editor at the Book-of-the-Month Club and in his late 80s wrote a blog that won a National Magazine Award.
While he’s been writing and teaching for many decades, about 12 months ago, he sent a written invitation to a raft of friends and former students “to attend the next stage” of his life. Though the loss of his eyesight has forced him to close both his office and his 70-year career as a writer, his romance with words is far from over: he has embarked on a new phase as a writing mentor and coach. Now, instead of seeing, he listens. People come to him with writing projects that are stalled and troubled. He strives to release their words by helping them rein in their thoughts — often by condensing, reducing, streamlining — and deciding what to leave out rather than what to leave in.
William is a believer in clean, crisp prose — and the people who come to him for help are not just aspiring writers, but also professionals with jobs at major publications. I think it’s fascinating that he’s realized that he doesn’t really need to see: all he has to do is listen. “People read with their ears” — how true this is! That’s why reading your work aloud can make all the difference, even if just you’re reading them to yourself or into a tape recorder instead of to a master writer and coach. Now when I read aloud, I’m going to imagine that William is in the room with me, listening. Write on!