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Writing to Learn: How to Write--And Think--Clearly about Any Subject at All

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This is an essential book for everyone who wants to write clearly about any subject and use writing as a means of learning.

272 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1988

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About the author

William Zinsser

51 books383 followers
William Knowlton Zinsser is an American writer, editor, literary critic, and teacher. He began his career as a journalist for the New York Herald Tribune, where he worked as a feature writer, drama editor, film critic, and editorial writer. He has been a longtime contributor to leading magazines.

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Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,180 followers
October 10, 2016
Humor is the most perilous of writing forms, full of risk; to make a vocation of brightening the reader’s day is an act of continuing gallantry.

Specialization inspires in me a certain existential dread. This is of two sorts. The first is the despairing thought that, by specializing, I will come to know only a certain, restricted corner of the vast universe. The second, more puerile fear is that, by becoming a specialist, I will commit myself on a path I won’t like very much.

Generalization is often, I suspect, motivated as much by fear of commitment as by humanistic curiosity. In Spanish there’s a word for a man who likes to sleep around—a picaflor—which conjures up the suggestive image of a bee going from flower to flower. Well, picaflores and Don Juans and Lotharios are generalists. Devoted husbands are specialists.

Promiscuity aside, we continue to do homage to generalists with our notion of the “Renaissance Man,” and the quintessential Renaissance Man was of course Leonardo da Vinci. His notebooks are filled not only with “art,” but studies of anatomy, light, physics, engineering, music, and so much else.

Last year I read a selection of Leonardo's notebooks, hoping to find out how one man could tackle so many disparate subjects. My conclusion was that his versatility was due to the application of his medium: drawing. By making careful, detailed sketches of things—bees, bodies, bridges—he came to understand them. His pencil thus acted as antennae, with which he probed and investigated his world.

I thought: Could I do something similar? Certainly I have little talent as regards visual art. But I do have a verbal addiction. Perhaps I could use writing in a way similar to how Leonardo used sketching? Such an idea was hardly original. Soon I found out that Zinsser, the writing guru, already had a book about it.

The idea of reading another Zinsser book was not especially appealing. I had already read his popular book On Writing Well, and came away with a sour taste in my mouth. But if I was going to be the next Leonardo, I had to swallow some pickles. Dutifully I bought this book; and, after equally dutiful procrastination, I am here to tell you about it.

My first reaction was, again, distaste. This is not entirely rational. Every good writer has what I call a “literary personality”—related to, but not identical with, their real personality—and I simply do not like Zinsser’s. I do not wish to spend time with him or to invite him to supper. I cannot really articulate why I dislike him, in the same way I can’t say exactly why I don’t like the sound of people eating apples. He’s a strong writer and I agree with much of what he says. He is thoughtful, curious, broadly educated, sensitive to art, music, and literature, and generally benign in his means and ends. When I think about it, I really ought to like him quite a bit. Yet I don’t.

Maybe this is because I object to the way he romanticizes his craft. Zinsser would have you believe that clear writing is one of the most difficult, dangerous, and distasteful activities in the world. It is so hard and so strenuous that it requires continual, backbreaking effort. Good writers are saints, many of them martyrs, including Zinsser himself: “I don’t like to write, but I take great pleasure in having written.” Zinsser makes very clear that his vocation is a heroic one, especially considering that he not only writes himself, but teaches it too:
Why, then, would anyone in his right mind want to be a writing teacher? The answer is that writing teachers aren’t altogether in their right mind. They are in one of the caring professions, no more sane in the allotment of their time and energy than the social worker or the day care worker or the nurse.

It takes serious audacity (to use a polite word) for a writing teacher to compare himself to a nurse. I also gag at this self-pity about the how hard it is to write well. Yes, it can be hard. Lots of things are hard. The only thing that sets writers apart is that they tend to whine the most eloquently.

Even when I put my personal dislike aside, however, I still must conclude that this book is disappointing. It begins with an unnecessary autobiographical section on Zinsser’s childhood education. (Considering how much Zinsser likes to talk about omitting unnecessary material, I found this especially ironic.) The rest of the book consists of long excerpts of what Zinsser considers to be successful examples of writing in different subjects, from anthropology to chemistry, from geology to mathematics. The book could easily have been an anthology, and probably should have been.

Most of what I wanted from this book is lacking. Yes, any subject can be written about engagingly—Zinsser didn’t need to prove this to me—but how do you go about doing that? Zinsser avoids the problem of methodology by insisting that good writing is learned by imitation. This is no doubt largely true; still I found it to be an abdication of this book’s promise: to give the would-be autodidact a strategy, or at least a few tips, for writing to learn.

Another serious omission is that Zinsser does not provide any concrete advice for teachers looking to apply this philosophy to their classes. There are a few reported examples of teachers who have done so, and a lot of hortatory passages about the benefits of “writing across the curriculum,” but very little in the way of concrete strategies for implementing this idea. As both a student and a teacher, I found this irksome.

Still, I suppose this book does have its value as a piece of propaganda. Zinsser is enthusiastic about writing, and his enthusiasm is contagious. For anyone skeptical that any subject—even chemistry, physics, or math—can be written well, or if you’re unsure whether writing can help you think and learn, you’ll find these doubts addressed here. For all its faults, this book does provide a glimpse of a compelling educational ideal: one that allows all of us to be picaflores in good conscience.
1 review2 followers
August 8, 2013
If you’ve read On Writing Well, you should read this book too. If you haven’t, you should read them both. Writing to Learn does a great job of summarizing the idea of “Writing Across the Curriculum.” It gives examples, justifications, and inspiration. I would sum up the book like this:
1. Writing helps us think.
2. Clear writing is clear thinking.
3. You can (and should to truly learn) about any subject.
4. Everyone (not just “writers”) writes.
5. We learn by imitation.
6. Every subject is accessible through clear writing.
7. Every field, subject, domain... has a literature.
8. There are two kinds of writing: explanatory and exploratory.
9. We can learn from anywhere, anyone.
10. We should look at the best examples in any field to learn.

Zinsser gives examples from the worlds of science, math, art, music, physics, chemistry, psychology. As a teacher, this book inspires me to find good examples from the worlds of technology, comedy, video games, cooking, sports, movies, and other fields that my students are really into.

“Therefore, for the purposes of this book, I’ll generalize outrageously that there are two kinds of writing. One is explanatory writing: writing that transmits existing information or ideas. The other is exploratory writing: writing that enables us to discover what we want to say. Call it Type B. They are equally valid and useful.” (Loc 832 via Kindle)

Often exploratory writing is neglected in schools because it seems to “not have a point” or “not be graded” in the same way as final writing assignments might be. The irony, of course, is that the final writing assignment won’t be any good if the writer hasn’t explored the topic beforehand. This book helps explain how to to do that.

Other quotes too good not to share:

“...writing is a form of thinking, whatever the subject.” (Loc 36)

“But every discipline has a literature - a body of good writing that students and teachers can use as a model; writing is learned mainly by imitation.” (Loc 36)

“Clear writing is the logical arrangement of thought; a scientist who thinks clearly can write as well as the best writer.” (Loc 46)

“I thought of how often the act of writing even the simplest document - a letter, for instance - had clarified my half-formed ideas. Writing and thinking and learning were the same process.” (Loc 55)

“Learning, he seemed to be saying, takes a multitude of forms; expect to find them in places where you least expect them to be.” (Loc 180)

“Contrary to general belief, writing isn’t something that only “writers” do; writing is a basic skill for getting through life.” (Loc 188)

“Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly should be able to write clearly - about any subject at all.” (Loc 188)

“Students should be learning a strong and unpretentious prose that will carry their thoughts about the world they live in.” (Loc 228)

“...there’s no subject that can’t be made accessible in good English with careful writing and editing.” (Loc 429)

“...a piece of writing is a piece of thinking.” (Loc 761)

“If clear writing is one of the foundations of a democratic society, don’t count on getting it from men and women with a college degree.” (Loc 1033)

“Writers and learners will write better and learn more if they understand the “why” of what they are studying.” (Loc 1267)

“Nonfiction writing should always have a point: It should leave the reader with a set of facts, or an idea, or a point of view, that he didn’t have before he started reading.” (Loc 1959)

“Writer’s who think they are being criticized when only their writing is being criticized are beyond a teacher’s reach.” (Loc 3035)

“If writing is learned by imitation, I want every learner to imitate the best.” (Loc 3156)

“Moral: think flexibly about the field you’re writing about. Its frontiers may no longer be where they were the last time you looked.” (Loc 3243)
Profile Image for Anne White.
Author 31 books201 followers
October 2, 2016
For anyone interested in the definition and use of "living books" in education, this is full of good examples and ponderings. It might be useful to accompany the topical chapters (such as "how to read social science") in Adler's How to Read a Book.
Profile Image for Emma Sea.
2,184 reviews1,064 followers
March 16, 2022
Excellent examples of creative and gripping non-fiction writing, but didn't cover the process of writing - specifically drafting and editing and thinking through writing- as much as I hoped.
Profile Image for Jay.
174 reviews14 followers
May 26, 2022
Really 3.5 stars. The first part of the book is interesting. The second half, while a pleasure to read, was like looking at the author’s scrap book of other author’s writing excerpts. I’m grateful to have finally discovered Primo Levi, but I struggled to glean much from some of his “examples”. I found it difficult to discern who was “learning”, or was supposed to be learning, by the writing examples he offered. They were very good examples, but I found their value more in the substantive information an example so cleanly and elegantly (sometimes passionately) presented, than any “tips” on how “writing to learn” is realized except by hard work (editing, rewriting and more rewriting) and a hunger for the subject about which you’re writing. And I think much of his approach is dated: Requiring students to write about what they are studying (science, math, music, or any subject really) appears to inspire many students to take a “deeper dive” (I hate that expression) into their subject(s), but I don’t believe it’s a method that “works” for many students or teachers, given the degree of functional illiteracy evident in our public schools.

I’m grateful for being introduced to Jeremy Campbell’s *Grammatical Man*, Primo Levi’s *The Periodic Table*, and Charles Darwin’s *The Voyage of the Beagle*. Bought all three of them.

Addendum: Reading “Grammatical Man” now (5/26). Wowser! Thank you, Dr. Zinsser. It’s even better than you praised it.
Profile Image for Megan.
184 reviews8 followers
November 9, 2009
About six years ago I spent such a happy afternoon in the Melbourne library, reading Zinsser's On Writing Well (similar in style and content to Strunk and White's Elements of Style), I was happy to pick up another of his books when it came my way. The opening chapters were exciting: Zinsser wrote well about the pains and rewards of writing, and made an eloquent case that society (especially the educated, business class) has gone to the dogs by way of 'office-speak' and 'bureaucratese.' He even convinced me that writing should be taught 'across the curriculum;' in other words, math students should write about math. Economics students should write about economics. Not only does our culture need good, clear writing about all subjects, but people learn best from their subject if they write about it. Writing, he pleaded, is organized thought. Of course, he was preaching to the choir.

But, the book fell flat. The remaining chapters were devoted to samples of other people's writing, organized by category (the arts, sciences, etc.). Thing is, except for only an exception or two (you know Rachel Carson, the envronmentalist? The woman can write!), none of his examples wrote as well as Zinsser himself does. Toward the end, I found myself skipping the samples in favor of Zinsser's clever, albeit brief, commentaries.

Here is one passage in which I took great heart:

"Only when the job was over did I enjoy it. I don't like to write, but I take great pleasure in having written-- in having finally made an arrangement that has a certain inevitability, like the solution to a mathematical problem. Perhaps in no other line of work is delayed gratification so delayed."
Profile Image for Neil R. Coulter.
1,064 reviews104 followers
February 9, 2020
I’ve read On Writing Well several times (and am having my writing students read it this semester), but I hadn’t read anything else by William Zinsser. I picked up Writing to Learn, planning to read a chapter or two a day—but I just couldn’t put it down. I find Zinsser to be one of the most addictive writers, so easy to read. Even when I don’t quite agree with him, he’s a lot of fun.

Some of this book overlaps with On Writing Well (and they complement each other perfectly), but Zinsser’s main point here is to affirm the value of “writing across the curriculum,” arguing that even the subjects you might not think would benefit from writing (math and chemistry, for example) are still greatly enhanced by interacting through writing. He draws examples from two extremes: on the one hand, students just learning the subjects, and on the other hand, some of the most refined writers and renowned thinkers in history. For me, this was enjoyable to read, though perhaps not proving his point very effectively. I agree that it’s wonderful to read examples of some of the most engaging nonfiction prose; but that doesn’t mean that I’m likely to become a Charles Darwin or a John Muir. Clear writing was part of their intellectual persona and development, sure, but there were so many other factors involved, too.

My other criticism of Zinsser, here as in On Writing Well, is that even across a wide range of disciplines and topics, he still prefers a very particular kind of writing. He likes a conversational, informal, friendly tone that draws the reader in. That’s fine, and of course I love that style of voice too, but I don’t know if it’s appropriate for every context, or that every piece of writing would benefit from that style. My area is academic writing (which Zinsser doesn’t touch at all, really), and the witty, engaging style that Zinsser likes just won’t fly in everyone’s PhD dissertation, or in all ethnographies. I wish Zinsser could have give some perspective on this side of writing, too. When is it okay not to be so clever and informal in your prose?

However, these are relatively minor criticisms of a book and author that I generally love, understanding what to expect from him. It’s never bad to read a panorama of really good nonfiction prose. The example that I remember most from Writing to Learn is Lewis Thomas’s New York Public Library lecture (pp. 168–173; later published as “A Long Line of Cells” (1986)), in which Zinnser had asked Thomas to talk about memoir and autobiography, and Thomas proceeded to give a history of himself from the beginning of human evolution through the development of his own first cell in the womb.

In addition to all the examples Zinsser presents, he also has a number of very memorable passages of his own about the craft of writing. Here are some that I shared with my students:
I never stopped to ask, “Who is the typical Yale alumnus? Who am I editing for?” One of my principles is that there is no typical anybody; every reader is different. I edit for myself and I write for myself. I assume that if I consider something interesting or funny, a certain number of other people will too. . . . Meanwhile I draw on two sources of energy that I commend to anyone trying to survive in this vulnerable craft: confidence and ego. If you don’t have confidence in what you’re doing you might as well not do it. (25)

Whenever I embark on a story so overloaded with good material I despair of ever getting to the end—of covering the ground I know I’ll need to cover to tell the story right. In my gloom it helps me to remember two things. One is that writing is linear and sequential. If sentence B logically follows sentence A, and if sentence C logically follows sentence B, I’ll eventually get to sentence Z. I also try to remember that the reader should be given only as much information as he needs and not one word more. Anything else is a self-indulgence. (33–34)

Achieving a decent piece of writing is such a difficult task that it often strikes the reader as having been just that: a task. It accomplishes its purpose, and perhaps we shouldn’t ask for anything more. But we do. We wish the writer had had a better time—or at least had given us that impression. . . . Writing is a craft, and a writer is someone who goes to work every day with his tools, like the carpenter or the television repairman, no matter how he feels, and if one of the things he wants to produce by 6 p.m. is a sense of enjoyment in his writing, he must generate it by an act of will. Nobody else is going to do it for him. (73, 75)

Little bits of wisdom like this, based on Zinsser’s many years of experience as a writer, editor, and teacher (and spending time with other people who have all kinds of interesting experience), are helpful bursts of motivation for any writer.

He also writes some very funny lines, of course, and here’s my favorite—remembering his struggles in an elementary school math class with his teacher, Mr. Spicer:
Such self-pity would have been despised by Mr. Spicer; emotions have no place in mathematics. He was one of those people who have “a head for figures,” instantly certain that twelve times nine is—well, whatever it is. Confronted with a student who was unable to produce the right answer, he would begin to turn red, a man betrayed by his vascular system, until his round face and bald head were crimson with disbelief that such dim-wittedness was at large in the next generation. (150)
On Writing Well remains the number-one Zinsser for every writer to read; but Writing to Learn is also excellent to read at some point afterward, when you need a quick shot of encouragement to keep writing. As with On Writing Well, this is a book that pushes me toward other good books, and that's a wonderful thing.
Profile Image for Brian Eshleman.
831 reviews103 followers
March 16, 2014
I expected instruction on how to enjoy what we learned by writing reflectively about it. What I got was a warm and engaging memoir that also conveyed the former. This author provides a kindred spirit to those who are curious about more than their essential daily function, and he will encourage this, and he will encourage it in any reader in whom curiosity has become just a flicker. He makes every field he touches accessible, and he encourages us to share his zest for life.
Profile Image for Poiema.
455 reviews68 followers
October 15, 2008
In one of my recent reads, Writing to Learn, William Zinsser makes the challenge to write about something that is intangible rather than concrete. For example, a music lesson. It is one thing to write descriptively about a work of art or a photograph~~~the reader can LOOK at what is being discussed. But to describe a musical technique requires the ability to conjure up sensory information of a different sort. In the author's own words:

"Writing about music also made me a better musician. The need to write clearly about an art form that the reader can never see or hear; one that evaporates with the playing of each note, forced me to think harder about the structure of music--about what I was trying to learn."

Zinsser's approach here is related, I think, to the concept of narration. Homeschoolers, especially of the Charlotte Mason variety, are well familiar with this technique of "telling back" what has been learned. In a homeschool setting, this most often involves telling back an episode in a book. But I'm finding that this deceivingly simple exercise is valuable in other settings, too.

The music lesson is just one "non book" example. How about narrating the way in which a math problem is solved? Or describing how to do a flip on the trampoline? Have you ever tried to describe in detail an elegant meal that you enjoyed?

Oral "tellings" are perfect for young children, but writing the narrations adds a new level of learning. Even adults find it challenging! I know this because I've tried tackling some of the writing assignments I've given to my children.

Zinsser tells us that writing forces the brain to reason in a linear, sequential way and thus is ideally suited to help us tackle subjects that we might view as difficult. When we write, we must break it down into bite-sized morsels and that is far less intimidating than sorting through a huge mass of information.

I have two very excellent writers in the family. But I have noticed that when I choose the "Achilles Heel" subject as a writing assignment, the result is less-than-excellent. So I am taking Zinsser's advice which includes:
*Providing excellent models of good writing across the curriculum
*Taking the time to write across-the-board, even where symbols are commonly preferred (math, music, physics, etc.)

J. Henri Fabre, the famous French writer and entomologist, honed his incredible writing ability over a period of 20+ years by writing textbooks. His care in writing enabled him to later pen books that have been described as the "Insects' Homer". His words sing, even after being translated into different languages.

The lesson I learn from Fabre is that writing is a lifetime pursuit! I'm excited that my own learning continues to unfold as I oversee the education of my children.

Life is rich!
Profile Image for Mystie Winckler.
Author 7 books412 followers
August 11, 2022
This was another book I finished this month after having it on my reading stack for 3-4 months. It was a good one to take in chunks, because less a how-to manual and more a book of examples. I can see why AO assigns it in high school and I will recommend it to my teens, although I don’t think it is sufficient for helping a teen learn the art of writing. However, solid, clear nonfiction prose that is more than merely descriptive is a hard skill to learn, so the book of examples from a variety of fields and numerous people - each with their own clear style - then commented upon (but not picked apart or really analyzed) by Zinsser is a good place to start so students get a sense for what’s being asked of them in a paper.

I’d highly recommend it to anyone who wants to write to be understood and to synthesize their own knowledge, not because it will teach you how but because it will demonstrate that it’s possible and desirable.
Profile Image for Brandon.
156 reviews10 followers
March 21, 2023
William Zinsser demonstrates convincingly how writing about any subject should be clear, understandable, succinct and interesting. He believes good writing is a product of clear thinking. He also argues that the former can lead to the latter. In this book, he gives various examples of good writing from a range of disciplines: biology, chemistry, music, anthropology and more.
Profile Image for Sabeena.
73 reviews5 followers
July 18, 2019
This book is a treat for 'generalists' that are curious about all subject matters and want to write about them, be it Mathematics, Sciences or Humanities! And you CAN successfully write about mathematics, chemistry and music in clear and plain English because Zissner will show you that you can. Chock full of examples exploring how the knowledgeable Greats of their subjects/fields have managed to do this with aplomb. This book is a handbook for people of any academic background who have ever felt that writing seemed to have belonged to the Humanities but that harboured a love for prose and wanted to incorporate it into their learning without the worry of being treated as non-serious. Prose writing about mathematics has integrity! Read this to find out the how's and whys. The book is full of highly quotable ideas that are a useful learning tool for all of us who don't want to fall into any one particular subject category and want to write across the curriculum. And demonstrates that 'the same principles of good writing would apply to them all'.

Some highlights

'it's not necessary to be a "writer" to write well. Clear writing is the logical arrangement of thought'

'writing and thinking and learning were the same process'

P. 10
'I've become a clarity nut. I've also become a logic nut. I'm far less preoccupied than I once was with individual words and their picturesque roots and origins'

P. 11
'writing is thinking on paper'

P. 14
'writing is primarily an exercise in logic and that words are just tools designed to do a specific job'

P. 21
'Generalists, as interested in astronomy and mathematics and evolution as they are in physics and the genetic code and the processes of life'

P. 23
'we must say to students in every area of knowledge: "This is how other people have written about this subject. Read it, study it, think about it."'
Profile Image for Lora.
358 reviews
December 19, 2017
I read this and _On Writing Well_ back when the books were only a few years old and I was teaching my first ever classes -- freshman composition. Zinsser is such an easy (apparently) writer and thinker that I don't know why I haven't come back to these again and again.

Easily remedied.
Profile Image for Tom McCleary.
29 reviews
March 2, 2018
Beyond being instructional on what makes for good writing, this book introduced me to some books that I have added to my ever-growing "want to read" list.
Profile Image for Ruth.
79 reviews31 followers
May 9, 2022
Absolutely brilliant. It was a bit slow going at the start but after that I just couldn't put it down. It makes you look at the world with fresh eyes. Some of the example paragraphs are simply luminous.
Amongst the examples of great writing are Einstein and Freud and many others. The section about art was my favourite but they are all great. As a result of reading this my bookshelves gained a few more older books (I just couldn't resist after reading some of the extracts, I particularly cannot wait to read the Grammatical Man) and I bought a few more of Zinssers books as well. I am his starry-eyed fan.
Profile Image for Soundarya Balasubramani.
Author 1 book70 followers
December 10, 2019
As the title states, William dives deep into all subjects you can imagine and shows they can be written in a manner that appeals to everyone. I would read any book from William Zinsser simply because of his command over the language.
Profile Image for Diogo Freire.
54 reviews1 follower
April 14, 2022
I very much enjoyed this book and felt enriched by it. As a ESOL person, having someone comment on what great writing looks like (and how it help us learn more) was a nice treat.
Profile Image for Kerry.
1,448 reviews60 followers
July 29, 2014
This book was an interesting read, especially if you deal with writers in a professional sense as an editor or as a writer. That said, it is not a how-to guide. What it does is get the reader thinking about how writing can complement and supplement a person's understanding of any subject. As a writer, I'm not sure this book did much for me. As an editor, I found it enlightening, interesting, and enjoyable. It's easy to suggest to someone that thoughts need to be put down in an orderly fashion and convey personality, humanity, and enthusiasm for the subject--and in an editing capacity, the editor can objectively help the writer gain her footing when the foundation shifts; as a writer, though, well . . . doing what Zinsser suggests is the difficult part. This book doesn't tell the reader how to do anything, but it does give examples of others who have done it brilliantly in case examples are needed.
Profile Image for Book O Latte.
100 reviews
September 28, 2022
Pertama kali saya membaca buku karya William Zinsser, adalah buku klasiknya tentang penulisan nonfiksi, On Writing Well (pertama terbit tahun 1976, masih dicetak ulang sampai tahun 2016). Saya suka sekali dengan gaya penulisannya, dan terutama prinsipnya tentang menulis (nonfiksi) yang baik. Katanya, "The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components". Membaca ini saya langsung teringat kalimat-kalimat berbelit-belit dengan istilah-istilah mentereng nggak jelas dari para pejabat instansi pemerintah.

William Zinsser adalah penulis yang berpengalaman puluhan tahun sebagai jurnalis suratkabar besar di New York dan kemudian mengajar kepenulisan nonfiksi di Yale dan Columbia University.

Dalam buku Writing to Learn ini, selain tetap membahas "bagaimana menulis yang baik", Zinsser juga berusaha menekankan pentingnya menulis sebagai alat untuk belajar dan memahami apa yang kita pelajari, topik apapun itu.

Buku ini terbagi ke dalam dua bagian. Yang pertama menceritakan tentang usaha memasukkan kegiatan menulis ke dalam kurikulum berbagai bidang studi perkuliahan di luar jurusan bahasa, termasuk di jurusan-jurusan sains seperti kimia dan geologi.
Ternyata kegiatan menulis ini berhasil membantu para mahasiswa (dan juga para dosen) lebih memahami apa yang dipelajari dalam kuliahnya, membantu dosen memahami jalan pikiran para mahasiswa, dan selanjutnya juga 'memperbaiki' logical reasoning penulisnya. Karena "An act of writing is an act of thinking", katanya. Menulis membantu kita berpikir secara teratur.

Bagian kedua berisi contoh-contoh tulisan dengan topik-topik berbeda, yang menurut Zinsser adalah contoh tulisan yang baik. Bagian ini dibagi-bagi lagi menurut topiknya:
- Earth, Sea and Sky, memberi contoh tulisan-tulisan ilmiah populer di bidang geologi, kelautan, dan astronomi.
- Art and Artists, tentang seni lukis, fotografi, desain grafis, dan sejarah seni.
- The Natural World, tentang biologi. Di antaranya menampilkan tulisan Charles Darwin.
- Writing Mathematics
- Man, Woman and Child, tentang antropologi. Termasuk di dalamnya tulisan Clifford Geertz tentang Bali. Di bab ini juga diceritakan pengalaman Zinsser terpesona musik Bali yang membuatnya mengunjungi Indonesia.
- Writing Physics and Chemistry, menampilkan tulisan Albert Einstein tentang relativitas, dan buku "The Periodic Table" dari Primo Levi.
- Worlds of Music

Dalam bab Writing Mathematics diceritakan dengan cukup detail bagaimana cara seorang guru matematika SMA di Philadelphia menerapkan menulis sebagai alat untuk mempelajari matematika di kelasnya. Dengan menuliskan proses berpikir mereka dalam mengerjakan suatu soal, murid-murid terbantu mengeksplorasi soal tersebut secara kreatif dan menemukan jalannya sendiri. Dan dalam prosesnya, mereka juga belajar berpikir secara logis.


Saya suka sekali tulisan William Zinsser dan prinsip-prinsip penulisannya. Secara umum saya sependapat dengannya, bahwa sebuah karya tulis perlu disampaikan secara jelas, tidak berbelit-belit, tidak menggunakan istilah-istilah rumit yang tidak perlu, dengan logika bahasa yang terang. Tetapi saya tidak sependapat soal gaya penyampaian yang harus tertentu.

Di salah satu bab Zinsser menceritakan pengalamannya membaca buku "Surely You're Joking, Mr.Feynman". Dia sangat tidak suka dengan gaya penulisan buku itu, dan tidak mau membacanya lebih jauh.

Saya menduga, karena Zinsser berasal dari generasi sebelum adanya internet, blog, atau youtube, ia tidak bisa menerima tulisan nonfiksi dengan gaya percakapan santai. Akibatnya, ia menganggap buku Richard Feynman sebagai karya tulis yang buruk.
"Sayang sekali, padahal saya percaya Feynman adalah orang pintar, tapi bukunya bukan karya tulis yang baik. Saya yakin buku-buku seperti Lives of a Cell dari Lewis Thomas dan Godel Escher Bach dari Douglas Hoftstadter akan terus dicetak ulang jauh setelah buku Feynman menghilang."

Ternyata Zinsser salah besar. Buku-buku Feynman masih dicetak ulang sampai sekarang, bahkan eksis lebih lama dan lebih mendunia.
Mengapa? Menurut saya, pertama, karena jaman sudah berubah. Bahasa percakapan yang santai sudah umum diterima melalui media-media informal seperti blog. Kedua, karena keakraban dalam sebuah tulisan ilmiah populer itu perlu, jika ilmuwan ingin merangkul awam agar mau mengetahui tentang ilmunya lebih jauh. Fakta bahwa buku-buku Feynman laris sampai sekarang adalah bukti bahwa awam menemukan akses itu lewat buku-buku Feynman.

Kedua buku lain yang disebut Zinsser memang gaya penulisannya lebih bagus (buku-buku Lewis Thomas bahkan juga puitis), tapi saya pikir hanya pembaca serius (maksud saya, orang yang benar-benar suka membaca literatur) yang akan membacanya. Buku Feynman lebih mudah dibaca awam.

Feynman sendiri, seperti seringkali disebutkan dalam buku-bukunya, tidak pernah merasa harus dianggap pintar, meskipun dia fisikawan peraih Nobel. Justru dia berprinsip bahwa dia harus bisa menjelaskan ilmunya dengan bahasa sesederhana mungkin sehingga awam pun mengerti. Cara Feynman, lewat bahasa percakapan yang akrab. Terbukti caranya lebih ampuh merangkul awam dibanding buku-buku lain yang disebut Zinsser.

Jadi menurut saya, sebuah tulisan ilmiah juga tergantung niat ilmuwan yang bersangkutan.
Apa tujuannya menulis?
Siapa targetnya?
Jika targetnya sesama akademisi, atau kalangan dengan tingkat pendidikan tinggi, tentu tidak (terlalu) masalah menggunakan istilah-istilah yang lebih rumit dan struktur tulisan yang lebih formal. Tetapi jika targetnya adalah publik yang awam, atau anak sekolah, yang paling penting adalah isi ilmunya bisa dipahami, gaya penulisan nomor dua.

Saat ini usaha merangkul publik agar mau mengonsumsi topik ilmiah adalah suatu hal yang mendesak, tidak ada salahnya memanfaatkan berbagai cara dan media untuk penyampaian ilmu.

Catatan: buku On Writing Well dan Writing to Learn ini layak dikoleksi, kalau memungkinkan.

Profile Image for Rebecca.
272 reviews
September 7, 2015
Zinsser's book is both an anthology and a narrative about his experience with the concept of "writing across the curriculum." He recounts how good writing in other fields helped break down his misconception that certain subjects were, at best boring, or at worst, unlearnable. He posits that writing is the best way for students to engage with material--any material.

Through carefully selected reading examples and personal examples, William Zinsser engages with the natural world, art, physics, music, chemistry, mathematics, anthropology, etc...the world of learning becomes limitless and accessible. Zinsser defines three "R"s for writing: No matter the subject, good writing will have Resonance, Relevancy and Responsibility (Accountability).
34 reviews
May 2, 2008
Zinsser's premise is that you can learn a subject, any subject, by writing about it. Writing forces you to do research, organize your thoughts, process the subject matter, and put it in your words. He also proposes that any subject (nuclear physics, microbiology) is approachable if the writer takes the time to write clearly, succinctly, and well. I enjoyed the book and I got a long list of to-read books from the many quotations of examples of well-written works.
Author 9 books180 followers
July 27, 2016
Excellent writing book!

The first section was the best! I appreciated Zissner's tone, his practical help and the very idea that writing to learn is essential. I took a lot of notes, not just for me as a professional writer but also as a homeschooling mother & writing tutor. Not only were the examples well-written, they were educational too. I'm going to buy this book for my writing library.
5 reviews11 followers
May 18, 2014
As fun as it is informative

Few books on writing are fun and immersive like this one is. Part one is great for looking at learning through a new lens: writing. Part 2 is a wild ride through writing in various disciplines, from chemistry to anthropology, with entertaining and informative style.
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
226 reviews4 followers
March 5, 2011
I enjoyed the examples of writing from various fields, but I was more interested in the idea of figuring out what you know through the writing process.
Profile Image for Katy.
38 reviews1 follower
May 27, 2012
I could not put this down. It was not as much instructive as thought provoking and delightfully written. HIGHLY recommend to anyone involved in education in any capacity.
Profile Image for Adam Leon.
68 reviews
August 9, 2019
It took me exceptionally longer to get through this book than many others in the style of nonfiction talking about writing than I'd like to admit (roughly a whole week). The book is short, roughly 240 pages realistically (if you take out acknowledgements) and even shorter if you take out the hundreds of paragraphs he quotes from other works of literature across the scientific field (I would argue maybe only 180 pages).

The problem with this book is that there is only a handful of real pieces of new information the writer gives, which are the following:

-Keep it simple
-Writing is rethinking
-To write clearly requires you to think clearly
-Teaching kids to write in their field helps them become better at their field
-Remove any background noise (bad formatting, wonky paragraphs, ramblings etc)

And that's really it. You could honestly sum the lessons of this book in a maybe 15 page essay and still not lose much. The reason for this is that this book is mostly a memoir of information. The writer describes his journey with meeting up with experts, reading through examples of scientific minds who wrote well, his personal feelings on things (he constantly reminds my generation that we watch too many movies and television and so have short attention spans and have lost the ability to write clearly despite showing no reference or evidence for these rather outlandish claims) and him pretty much "flexing" on how amazing his life is that he got to travel and meet with all these people.

The people he met up with were not at all terribly interesting (except for one black professor who can speak more than 8 languages, linked negro spirituals all the way back to ancient hymns and led an interesting life) and those that were interesting, he only brought up as a somewhat brag with very little of it pertaining to the book (He brags that the black professor sang for him personally in a large cathedral they got all to themselves, yes, that's what he adds in a book about WRITING).

All in all, this is a memoir surrounding the life of an uninteresting person trying to paint themselves as interesting by surrounding themselves with far more interesting people (of whom are mostly uninteresting as well). I learned very little from this book outside of those basic lessons any random person knows to spout.
Profile Image for Rachel.
14 reviews
July 11, 2019
"...writing isn't something that only 'writers' do; writing is a basic skill for getting through life."

Zinsser first published this work back in 1988, and even now 31 years later, those words still hold true, now probably more than ever in our internet age. We communicate every single day through writing, through social media, instant messaging, texts, blog posts, comments sections, and that's just counting the things we do in our downtime! At work we write memos, emails, reports, and who knows what else, and more often than not, the first and only chance you have to send your message to another is through the writen word.

"Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly should be able to write clearly - about any subject at all."

It's time to put aside the idea that writing only belongs to the English majors, and explore with William Zinsser the idea that the act of writing is a useful addition to both our teaching and our learning. We do not need to fear writing. The only thing writing actually *is* is a form of logic, and the words, sentences, and paragraphs (that our English teachers hammered over our heads as children) are the tools for using that logic.

Zinsser spends Part 1 of his book presenting his case: detailing to us why writing simply and clearly helps not just the reader, but also the author, better understand their subject matter, be it art, mathematics, or science. The very essence of "writing to learn" is that the act of writing solidifies those murky thoughts swimming about our brain. Those fuzzy murky thoughts are crystalized when written down on paper. From there, we can figure out what we know, what we don't know, and what we want to know.

From there, he details what he defines as "good writing", the writing intended for learning, and then he gives multiple examples of good, clear writing that is found across many disciplines.

All in all, I found this to be a pretty darn good read. Anyone who wants to use writing to further their own personal education, or anyone who wants to write nonfiction, would do well to include this in their library.
Profile Image for Gregory Muller.
18 reviews1 follower
March 17, 2021
This piece of writing here has been influenced by this book. From the first chapter on William Zinger begins a new pathway to my writing. Never again will I ever write something that has not been affected by this book. A word that has become my mantra since completing the first fifty pages is "clarity" a hard word to describe in such simple ways but here is my explanation. The clarity in its webster's definition is to be able to see through something. With writing the reader must be able to see through the text to something else. While it may be easy to imagine a daisy or a racecar. What this book shows is that writing is not limited to any field of knowledge.

Canvasing great writing across a dozen disciplines, he creates a masterclass and glass-breaking moment, of the discovery of the fact that clear writing is not limited to a single field. For myself who writes, and will write across many a field, this book is a joyous adventure to see where I might go with my own reading. Can a great writer intrigue me in a field I do not know, or actively hate? William Zinger says yes. Giving himself an example in a field he did not like from an early age with a bad school teacher. To overcoming this, and learning about the field without the hesitation or anxiety the schoolyard put onto him.

Even now as I recall the book in this review, I am treated by his writing because in a word it was clear. My mind's eye can recall things that are not possible in messy writing, due to the fact of the matter that I was able to see them clearly the first time in which I read it.

To illustrate the point. If this writing were unclear, and I fumbled my sentences and made them less honest, would you be able to remember this? Or would you be able to remember that I mentioned a daisy and a racecar? Even if it was some sentences ago. Clear writing is clear thinking, and clear thinking is the noblest of pursuits, no matter which field you are in.

I thank William zinger for his book. Even if it has helped others, it helped me. And I hope the same for you.
Author 3 books1 follower
March 28, 2020
Zinsser's effort in this book about writing veers into various disciplines with specific examples from primary sources representing quality evidence of clear writing appropriate for that specific discipline because each chapter fosters sufficient proof that writing across the curriculum is not only possible, but necessary to validate students' complete education, an education that substantiates full circle of thinking.

There. I tried my best to violate Zinsser's basic fundamentals of clear writing, especially his tenet that short sentences fulfill a writer's purpose(s) much better than convoluted ones. Although some of the chapters lacked my radar focus since they were about subjects for which I have little interest, I still enjoyed the examples. Writings explaining or describing red ants, the mystery of life below the sea, Wagner's composition ability, Fred Astaire's alluring dancing, or Albert Einstein's readability are concise and well-placed.

All in all, here is the author's underlying belief in one sentence: Every discipline should integrate some writing into the instruction. Zinsser even explains that teachers of art, music, science, math (loved that chapter..."the math autobiography"!! Wish I had done that piece in grade school or high school.), etc., need not spend time teaching students how to write (more for the English teachers). They have to energize their lessons with students' written responses to the instruction. The author provides research and examples, as mentioned.

Two final notes:
1. The fundamentals are still needed. WZ spends a few pages outlining those fundamentals. For more specific info on those fundamentals, his book On Writing Well is the one for you.
2. If you are desiring explanations about writing fiction, this book details NONfiction writing.
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