On the Bookshelf: Zinsser’s On Writing Well and Revision

I’ve been thinking a lot about outlining and the writing process this week, since I re-read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, a fantastic guide to non-fiction writing. Zinsser is a proponent of editing and revising for clarity. He actually provides examples of un-edited and edited text, making the book a great choice for visual learners. One of my favorite Zinsser techniques is Socratic:

“The writer must therefore constantly ask himself: What am I trying to say? Surprisingly often, he doesn’t know. Then he must look at what he has written and ask: Have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time? If it’s not, it is because some fuzz has worked its way into the machinery. The clear writer is a person clear-headed enough to see this stuff for what it is: fuzz.

I don’t mean that some people are born clear-headed and are therefore natural writers, whereas others are naturally fuzzy and will never write well. Thinking clearly is a conscious act that the writer must force upon himself, just as if he were embarking on any other project that requires logic: adding up a laundry list or doing an algebra problem. Good writing doesn’t come naturally, though most people obviously think it does… Good writing takes self-discipline and, very often, self-knowledge…”

 In my everyday life as a writing tutor, I ask students these kinds of questions constantly. When I begin a one-on-one tutoring session, I ask my tutee what they are most concerned about. Often, they’re worried about grammar, conclusion-writing, and “flow.” In the tutoring universe, “flow” is usually organization by another name. Students–like many aspiring authors, I’d imagine–are freaked out by organization. It’s big and scary and complicated. They don’t even want to go there. Flowbecomes the easier way to talk about organization.After talking about big concerns, I’ll ask the student to read their essay aloud or alternate reading paragraphs aloud with me. That helps identify little things–typos and shifting verb tenses–that the writer will have missed while writing. It’s really easy to miss many things, especially if you don’t use outlines to give yourself structure as you work. Usually, then I have a discussion with the writer about their goals for the essay and how to respond to the prompt, their ideas, and the current draft. Sometimes that means addressing something in the prompt they haven’t covered, or  it means switching paragraphs around. Every session is as unique as the work. My goal is to look at the work with new eyes–or beginner’s mind, for the yogis. That way, I help the students see their writing with new eyes.
More and more, I think revision ought to be praised, not treated as drudgery. Like Zinsser, I think those who write sans planning will need to go over their work closely for clarity. Especially asking themselves if all the paragraphs and sections make sense and are coherently organized–possibly even if the sentences transition well from one to another. Often, lack of a plan means that the writing has big holes in it, where the writer hasn’t conveyed all the information inside their heads. Maybe I could call that the “Swiss Chesese Syndrome”? Sound good?
Many people resist revision and end up with fuzzy machinery–I’m just as guilty as anyone else. A few years ago, I wrote something for workshop and failed to edit it clearly before turning it in. To my horror, I realized at the end of the workshop that I’d committed  a Freudian slip that ruined the  piece.I was telling a personal story about discovering that my grandmother had once misled me about something in the Bible. I was in elementary school and she was then opposed, as the Baptists say, to ‘the beverage use of alcohol,’ and told me that it was because “Jesus turned the wine into water at a wedding.” Only years later did I discover the Bible was the other way ’round–by seeing a ‘water-into-wine’ fountain in a circular!  Great story, right? Except, in writing this story down for workshop, I’d transcribed it correctly–Biblically, anyway– as “water-into-wine,” said Grandma. Whoops!
It would have been no big deal if I’d been a better editor of my work at the time and have caught it before workshop—but I wasn’t. So, let my mistake be a lesson to you: practice revision. Some useful steps:

  1. Read your work aloud. Adjust your word choices for voice & aim for a natural, pleasing sound. Eliminate repetitiveness.
  2. Check for typos and ‘water into wine’ moments.
  3. Outline your own essay. Does it include what you want it to include, per Zinsser?
  4. Can you explain the thesis or story in one sentence? I used to hate it when people asked me this question, but in retrospect, those were my fuzzy-thinking-writing moments.

One thought on “On the Bookshelf: Zinsser’s On Writing Well and Revision

  1. ceris57 says:

    Great post. I am a lecturer in Creative Writing in England, and these points – and others I’ve seen on your blog about CW tutoring are well observed. The part about revision particularly rings a bell, as it’s coming up to assessment time for my students. I find that students are often unwilling – or afraid – to revise, and it’s a huge part of my job to encourage and coach them through it. I always say: try not to see editing as a chore, but as another form of writing, and often just as enjoyable and creative as the original drafting.

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