I want to suggest a couple of books that are or should be like bibles for writers of any genre. Though the subject matter for these books is primarily non-fiction, there is considerable fodder for the other genres as well. Because they’re both so foundational, you might find they will also serve as a solid base for poetry.
The first book is William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction. I have the third edition (NY: Harper & Row, 1988), but I’m sure there are newer editions out by now.
Zinsser’s style is indeed informal and easy to read. At the same time it’s provocative. He starts off with a comparison between his answers to a group of students and teachers about writing and the writer’s life and vocation and those of a newly-emerged writer-slash-surgeon. Though diametrically opposed to the other, each of their answers broadened the other’s perspective.
“ … [A]t the heart of good nonfiction writing,” Zinsser says as a result, “… come two of the most important qualities this book will go in search of: humanity and warmth. Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to ‘personalize’ the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest strength and the least clutter.
“Can such principles be taught?” he asks. “Maybe not. But most of them can be learned “ (pgs. 5, 6).
Zinsser proceeds, then, to address such things as simplicity, clutter, style, the audience, words and usage. That first part – entitled ‘Principles’ – is followed by ‘Forms’ and ‘Approaches,’ which explore ‘Nonfiction as the New American Literature,’ the techniques of the lead-in and the end, interviews, science, technical and business writing, humor, sports , criticism, and writing about place. His chapter on using a word processor is likely outdated now (though, no doubt, this is taken care of in newer editions), but his concluding chapters on ‘Trust Your Material’ and ‘Write as Well as You Can’ are important.
The chapter on “Bits and Pieces,” what Zinsser calls “scraps and morsels [and] small admonitions” (pg. 110), is strong and necessary for every writer. Some quick highlights: “Verbs are the most important of all your tools.” “Most adverbs are unnecessary.” “Most adjectives are also unnecessary.” “Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel … think and what you saw …” “Don’t overstate.” “Your subconscious mind does more writing than you think.” “Don’t ever hesitate to imitate another writer … But pick only the best models.” (Pgs. 100-132)
James J. Kilpatrick’s Fine Print: Reflections on the Writing Art is just as easy to read as Zinsser’s book, but it’s a lot funnier. While Zinsser was a professor at Yale, Kilpatrick was a syndicated columnist and television commentator with a rapid-fire wit and – like Zinsser – a deep love of language. Kilpatrick’s first chapter, in fact, starts right there: it’s called “How Must We Write? Con Amore!”
Much of Fine Print is taken from people’s responses to his decades’ worth of newspaper reporting and columns around politics, nature, and writing. He also responds to some of his own and others’ writing foibles and accomplishments. There is much to learn in this first half of the book – and he, too, delves into some of the techniques that will help any writer.
The best part, though (at least in this writer-editor’s humble opinion), comes in the second part. Called “My Crotchets and Your Crotchets,” Kilpatrick deals with his own and others’ pet peeves (mostly his own) in what he calls “an unauthorized forum” from which he learned “from the peeves and the irks …” and he “trot[s] out my own little crotchets for inspection.” (pg . 130). Going from A to Z, he looks at spelling, correct and incorrect usages, slang, the differences in popular words and how they are correctly used (such as ‘affect’ and ‘effect,’ ‘blatant’ and ‘flagrant,’ ‘farther’ and ‘further,’ ‘less’ and ‘fewer’) all the way through the alphabet.
Kilpatrick’s sense of humor shines through here, even more so than in the first section. He admits to being something of a snob when it comes to language, but he earned that self-appellation because he was a phenomenal, sensitive and effective writer. His humor just makes his admonitions and declarations easy to take and learn from. His declaration on the usage of ‘irregardless’ is short and pithy: “Take my word for it: There is no such word. Yes, it is in the dictionaries, but there is no such word” (pg. 202). Even the computer’s spell check feature agrees with him.
Here’s his take on a common mistake with the words ‘nauseated’ and ‘nauseous ’ (pg. 221):
“It is more trouble than it’s worth to define and to defend this little troublemaker. Careful writers, writing careful paragraphs, will want to reserve nauseous in the sense of obnoxious, repulsive, or repellent. To say that someone is nauseous is to say something extremely unkind.
“To say that someone is nauseated is to say that the poor person is about to emulate George Bush in Japan. A lady or a gentleman who is nauseated will soon recover, but one who is nauseous may stay that way forever.”
Both books will ‘work’ for any genre, but Fine Print is much broader in scope and will probably help more because Kilpatrick was more of a craftsman and artist than Zinsser. There’s nothing wrong with laughing as one writes, after all!
There is much to learn in each of these gems, so I urge you to run right out to your nearest bookstore or Amazon.com and get yourself a copy of each (even before – gasp! — Strunk’s and White’s or other stylebooks). Not only are they both good resources to consult when needed, they’re just plain fun to read.
If you can get only one now, I suggest Kilpatrick’ book. You’ll probably have to special order it because it’s out of print, but do so. I can guarantee it’s worth the effort. They both are, and these bibles will grace both your desk and your writing.
© ERR/January 2010 (This first appeared in the KeyPub.net ezine)