ON WRITING WELL – AND NOT SO WELL[Posted May 13, 2015] Bill Zinsser died yesterday.
I believe he would have approved of my phrasing that sentence as I did – a stark, simple, declarative sentence without adjectives or clutter. William Zinsser was a writer and a teacher, but is most famous in writing circles as the author of On Writing Well (1976), from which I purloined the title of this essay. His book enlightened two generations or more of writers on how to write clearly.
“Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.” Ernest Hemingway would approve; his tight, clean prose may have served as a model for Zinsser’s approach.
I write nonfiction. Because of that, I adhere to Ayn Rand’s observation, “the three most important elements in fiction are plot, plot, and plot. The equivalent in nonfiction is: clarity, clarity, and clarity.” I don’t win every appeal I handle, and I might not write the better brief all of the time; but I will dispense with modesty just long enough to say that my briefs are clearer than my opponents’. Usually shorter, too. That’s the best way to grab and hold on to the scarcest resource in any judicial chambers: attention.
Zinsser’s advice will help anyone who struggles with fuzzy, ponderous writing, or who uses jargon with a trowel instead of tweezers. Writing well isn’t a luxury for attorneys. This is the most fundamental skill of our practices. There is no excuse for writing at an amateur level; you’re a professional. Buy the book, read it twice, and follow the advice that’s contained in the title to the final chapter: Write as Well as You Can.