William Zinsser on Writing

Randall Stephens

A couple weeks ago, I posted selections from a Historically Speaking roundtable on "How to Teach the Writing of History." The roundtable included insightful essays by Stephen Pyne, Jill Lepore, Michael Kammen, and John Demos.

I was reminded of the roundtable as I read William Zinsser’s wonderful American Scholar essay, “Writing English as a Second Language.” (The piece was originally a talk he gave at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.) It might seem unrelated, based on the title. But, Zinsser offers up a wealth of wisdom on how to write clearly and effectively. History majors and even well-established historians should heed it.

An editor, writer, and teacher Zinsser has much experience teaching foreign students the craft of writing. “What is good writing?” he asks. What counts as good writing in one language may be bad writing in another. So what is good English? he wonders. “It’s not as musical as Spanish, or Italian, or French, or as ornamental as Arabic, or as vibrant as some of your native languages. But I’m hopelessly in love with English because it’s plain and it’s strong.”

Zinsser cautions readers against “pompous” Latin “nouns that end in -ion—like implementation and maximization and communication (five syllables long!)—or that end in -ent—like development and fulfillment.” Instead, he advises, use plain, direct “infinitely old Anglo-Saxon nouns that express the fundamentals of everyday life: house, home, child, chair, bread, milk, sea, sky, earth, field, grass, road . . .” Simplicity is his motto.

He also warns against the pitfalls of passive voice. This is a real problem for history majors, who, I suppose, assume that passive voice and complex, tangled sentences lend their writing an air of authority or intelligence. Zinsser produces a great example to make his case. He highlights the clear specific prose of Thoreau’s Walden Pond. He then revises the passage with passive voice. “A decision was made to go to the woods because of a desire for a deliberate existence . . .” Ugh. Most will get the point.

Finally, and I think this is a terrific observation, Zinsser notes that good writers need good examples. It’s unlikely that a student will learn much if he or she doesn’t read much. “We all need models,” Zinsser writes. “Bach needed a model; Picasso needed a model. Make a point of reading writers who are doing the kind of writing you want to do. (Many of them write for The New Yorker.) Study their articles clinically. Try to figure out how they put their words and sentences together. That’s how I learned to write, not from a writing course.”

History majors who want to learn how to write well should read those historians whose writing they admire. (Michael Kammen made this point in his contribution to the roundtable in Historically Speaking.) Read those historians whose work has stood the test of time. Why do so many still read the work of Francis Parkman, Arthur Schlesinger, Richard Hofstadter, or Barbara Tuchman? I also tell students to take cues from essays in the TLS, Harpers, the Atlantic, or the New York Review of Books. Observe how a reviewer or essayist sets up a piece. How does a writer vary his or her sentences? How does the writer craft an argument? Come to think of it, a set of questions for students to mull over would be useful.