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272 pages, Paperback
First published January 1, 1988
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.
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.
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)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.
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)
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.