William Zinsser’s Mad Wisdom

“Few people realize how bad they write. Nobody has shown them how much excess or murkiness has crept into their style and how it obstructs what they are trying to say. If you give me an eight-page article and I tell you to cut it to four pages, you’ll howl and say it can’t be done. Then you’ll go home and do it, and it will be much better. After that comes the hard part: cutting it to three.”   —  William Zinsser, “On Writing Well”

I don’t know this gentleman personally, but I sure wish I did. As a die-hard lover and endorser of all things E.B. White, especially the “The Elements of Style,” by Strunk & White, I now find myself besotted with Zinsser’s impeccable, sarcastic and wry wit, and glowingly enamored with his tips “on writing well.” I may have a mad crush on this man’s mad wisdom.

I urge writers to read this book. It is one for all. It will help you understand what makes a competent—and readable—writer.

As a professor and, I like to think, fairly decent storyteller, I’ve said these very same words to my writing students at the university. Clutter has got to go. Elminate words, paragraphs. Slash all that is not needed.

Do you think I write without clutter? I ask them. Of course not, I say. I have to go back in and edit. Being able to edit yourself is a skill. It’s a valuable skill and one that needs everyday fostering.

You’ve got to be able to remove yourself, put yourself in the shoes of a reader—not as a creator of the work—and see what it sounds like and feels like to see the words on the page.

If it’s not working, delete it.

Ridding your writing of clutter—and in fact, ridding yourself of clutter in all aspects of your life—is cleansing.

Zinsser is absolutely right: Your writing will be all the better for it.


Leave a Reply