Some snippets about On Writing Well

I’m reading through On Writing Well by William Zinssen. It’s for non-fiction writers and journalists really but I think there are parallels and transferences to be made. I’ve probably broken several of his usage versus jargon ‘rules’ just in that one sentence (not sure if transference can be used in that way and as a plural) but anyway.

Here are some goodly quotations:

I choose always the grammatical form unless it sounds affected.
 — Marianne Moore as quoted by Zinssen.

The above comes when he is talking about word selection, and how the old, short words are the ones whose meanings most people know and are the clearest. I always put a lot of thought and effort into my word choice. The words themselves have to be great on their own, and they have to work with the words on either side of them, as well as in the whole sentence. They have to sound good spoken in the head and aloud; they have to contribute to the overall rhythm of the writing. I know it sounds wanky but it’s real for me. The best words I reckon are the short, old ones and then occasionally something unusual, odd and beautiful can be thrown in. Like spice.

These may seem like picayune distinctions. They're not. 
They are signals to the reader that you are sensitive 
to the shadings of usage.

Don’t you love that word picayune? [Picayune — pic·a·yune  /ˌpikiˈyo͞on/ adj petty, worthless; noun: a small coin of little value, esp a 5-cent piece]

There are some questions that Zinssen suggests a writer ask herself (and I do believe that these can apply to novelists as well):

Q: In what capacity am I going to address the reader? What pronoun and 
tense am I going to use? What attitude am I going to take toward 
the material? (Involved/detached/judgmental/ironic/amused). 
How much do I want to cover? What one point do I want to make?

It’s this last one, about the one point, that made me stop. I think this can be true of a novel as well. It might make a point; it might be subtle or even hidden. But the residue of a point being deftly made can linger and the reader can pick up on it. Obviously polemic writing is different to this.

Every successful piece of non-fiction should leave the reader with one 
provocative thought that [s/he] didn't have before. Not two thoughts, 
or five — just one. So decide what single point you want to leave in 
the reader's mind. It will not only give you a better idea of what route 
you should follow and what destination you hope to reach; it will 
affect your decision about tone and attitude.

I know that some readers get frustrated with the more ‘literary fiction’ saying ‘but where’s the story, where’s the momentum. It’s so meandering.’ They don’t like the circular wanderings of the author’s characters and action. This has never bothered me if the characters and action are good enough, but it makes me happy to read this following quotation:

Readers of a literary review expect its writers to start somewhat
discursively, and they will stick with those writers for the pleasure 
of wondering where they will emerge as they move in leisurely 
circles towards the eventual point. But I urge you not to 
count on the reader to stick around. Readers want to 
know — very soon — what's in it for them.

It kind of validates what I’ve felt about literary fiction. It has other things on its mind instead of driving plot and regulated Act I, II & III rise-and-fall action. Some people say the best is work that combines the both worlds: Beautiful prose with a compelling story; as simple as that.

On veering off into directions you didn’t expect or plan:

Don't fight such a current, if it feels right. 
Trust your material if it's taking you into terrain you didn't 
intend to enter but where the vibrations are good...

And the last one, which  we all know to be true. We knew it as children, I know it now as a teacher (the students love stories, the real gritty ones). I know it as a person too. When someone is good at telling anecdotes, especially if they are funny and self-deprecating, people love this. People can’t get enough of these types of people and their stories. You watch; these people are always surrounded by a crowd, clamouring to get close to them. The flip side is that sometimes these people don’t have anything much other than stories, especially if the stories  always seem to happen to someone they know, but they make good resources for people like me. Who was it recently said: steal stories, squirrel them away, don’t be shy, everyone does it.

Narrative is the oldest and most compelling method of holding 
someone's attention; everybody wants to be told a story.

2 thoughts on “Some snippets about On Writing Well

  1. Thanks Dianne, I hope you could understand the quotations properly, I can see they’ve bled into each other, will fix now. I’m still feeling my way around the wordpress features. Not loving it, I’m a blogger gal at heart.

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