Thursday, February 14, 2008

On Writing Well The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction-- William Zinsser-- Review

On Writing Well The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, Sixth Edition, Revised and Updated, c1998 by William Zinsser is a guide to writing nonfiction. I found this book to be quite interesting. It is one of the first books that I have ever read that specifically focuses just on nonfiction writing. Almost every previous work I read on writing was focused on creative writing or poetry.

Much of the book is how to find your unique voice and not write like other people. He encourages people to develop an individual style different from other writers. The book reminds the reader that writing is more than about making money. It is about personal satisfaction. Zinsser describes how his mother would clip articles from newspapers for him to read that were examples of good writing.

For Zinsser that are two main focuses for the nonfiction writer. These are person and place. Every activity involves people and the best way to write about activities is to find out about the people who do them according to Zinsser. The other corresponding things which goes with people is place. All activities occur in a particular space. Zinsser describes his trip to see a camel caravan in Timbuktu as one example of an interesting place to visit.

The many different types of writing he covers: sports, memoir, travel, science and technology, humor, business, and the arts and criticism seem incidental to his focus on creating consistent craftshmanship. Zinsser comes back to a set of principles; write clearly and concisely, avoid jargon, use words people understand, and write about what you are interested in.

Writing is a process for him, never completely done, and always with room for improvement. He admonishes the novice writer to stick to their principles and insist that editors not change things without looking at the work first.

Nonfiction is as much literature in this book as fiction is. There is more nonfiction written than fiction being written every day. Journalism is just as valuable in Zinsser's creed as novels.

There was quite a bit of biographical information sketched into the book on writing. We learn that the author enjoys traveling, is a native of New York, is a city person, and loved writing for newspapers.

The one section I have some trepidation about was on how to interview people. I have been quite nervous about the idea of interviewing people for this blog. I have trouble rewriting what people have said. I often find myself being quite meticulous about quoting what people have said. I like to go back to ask people for clarification most of the time when I quote people.

If you are looking for a clear guide on how to develop a unique style, voice, and write clearly for nonfiction, this book is worth reading. The book, however does not cover a huge amount of material on grammar or usage. I think the book would make an excellent companion read to The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. E.B. White is quoted several times in On Writing Well.

This book could be used to improve a lot of the blogs which I have been reading on the internet. Too many are focused on selling a product or service and do not have a personal voice, or a unique style.


Stella said...

Can you use a recorder during the interviews? The sound is pretty good on most and it would save you a lot of trouble.

Cowgirl Betty said...

. . . only with the interviewee's permission. Sometimes, even when they say "yes", the pressure of knowing their every word (and grunt) is being recorded sometimes puts a stress on the interviewee, making the interview less flowing and more work. Although many times, interviewees will forget about the recorder and think they are having a normal conversation.

Ann Leibovitz, famous celebrity photographer, says she gets many of her best shots after she says "that's a wrap". Her subjects are more relaxed believing no one is watching them.

Book Calendar said...

I am not sure if and when I would get a chance to interview someone. I remember when I was in college, I interviewed and transcribed an hour long interview on tape. It was tremendously hard to do. Lots of work. Then I had to clarify and rewrite everything because people do not speak the way they write. A lot of what is being said is really unintelligible and you fill it in with your own mind.

Stella said...

Cowgirl Betty (hey there!) does make an excellent point about it making people tense.

Still, you can use these little MP3recorders. I've seen students use them to tape lectures and the sound is pretty good. You can even hear students asking questions despite the fact that they're far away from the recorder.

But I think maybe you're too stressed about the whole thing. The very worst thing that could happen is that you could misquote someone and then have to publish a correction. It happens all the time - no one would think the less of you. As for speaking the way they write - I think it's easier to quote people than paraphrase them, especially since it's an interview. It's meant to feel closer to a conversation than an essay. (Well, that's how I feel anyway. I'm sure there are people who disagree.)

My point is: less stress. You're an articulate person.