DBW Review: On Writing Well by William Zinsser

I’m always on the lookout for great writing resources. After seeing On Writing Well praised by several authors I respect, I knew I had to take a read through it.

On Writing WellOn Writing Well was first published in 1976, and it continues to be a popular guide for writing non-fiction. This book has been updated and republished several times. I reviewed the 30th anniversary edition, which includes an additional chapter on writing family history and memoir.

Author William Zinsser is a journalist and non-fiction writer who has taught writing for many years. He brings his teaching experience to life in this book, which is divided into four sections: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes.

Under Principles, he discusses how to make your writing clear and simple and connect effectively with your audience.

The Methods section contains short segments dealing with specific concerns, such as creating a good lead and making your writing more active.

The largest section of the book is Forms, where he provides advice on how to write different types of non-fiction: interviews, travel articles, memoirs, science and technology articles, business documents, sports reports, arts criticism, and humour.

The final section, Attitudes, takes a look at how writers should approach the writing process.

What I Liked

What I liked most about this book is Zinsser’s writing style. His voice is warm, knowledgeable, and witty. There were several places in the book where he made me laugh out loud. This is a smooth read that welcomes the reader in and provides useful advice. Zinsser states that his “four articles of faith” in writing are clarity, simplicity, brevity, and humanity (p. 171). He certainly practices what he preaches within the pages of this book.

Here’s one of his passages that made me laugh:

Today as many as four or five concept nouns will attach themselves to each other, like a molecule chain. Here’s a brilliant specimen I recently found: “Communication facilitation skills development intervention.” Not a person in sight, or a working verb. I think it’s a program to help students write better. (p. 76)

I found Zinsser’s emphasis on the human element in non-fiction writing persuasive and refreshing. A lot of other how-to books describe the technical details of writing but don’t connect these with the personal interests of both the writer and the audience. He tells stories from his years of writing and teaching to explain his principles, and provides substantial text samples from different writers to illustrate his points. All of these things helped me absorb the advice that he provides.

The section about the different forms of non-fiction writing was enlightening. I found myself intrigued by all the content, even on topics that I would never write about, like sports. Zinsser walks you through each type of writing and provides helpful examples that show how his writing principles apply.

One quote in particular sticks with me: “Writing is not a special language owned by the English teacher. Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all.” (p. 147)

What Could Be Better

If you’re looking for a book that goes into detail on writing technique, this is not the resource for you. Zinsser states in his introduction that he sees this book as a complement to a work like The Elements of Style, and not something to replace it. He does include short segments of writing advice in a chapter called “Bits & Pieces,” but these segments feel scattered because he does do not go into enough depth. I felt that this chapter should have been either expanded or removed.

As you might expect from a book that is over 35 years old, some of the samples and related observations are a bit dated. It would have been interesting to see his principles being applied to more current writers. This is a small quibble, however, and is counterbalanced by the fascinating historical detail that permeates his writing.

In modern resource books, it’s common to have checklists or pages that summarize the key points. These are missing here. I would have loved to have these kinds of takeaways included in the book.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Connection

Since this book is focused on non-fiction, I wasn’t expecting to find much in the way of sci-fi/fantasy content. I do feel that his advice on writing is general enough that it can be applied to any genre.

There were a couple of sci-fi references in this book that I found amusing, especially because they are used to illustrate negative writing habits. One example is when Zinsser talks about writing bad leads:

Speaking of everybody else’s lead, there are many categories I’ll be glad never to see again. One is the future archaeologist: “When some future archaeologist stumbles on the remains of our civilization, what will he make of the jukebox?” I’m tired of him already and he’s not even here. (p. 59)

Zinsser also talks about corporate jargon being “language out of Star Trek” (p.175). I found this point surprising because I don’t tend to think of sci-fi references as jargon. That’s because it’s my jargon. (It’s amazing how blind we can be to our own biases.)

Verdict

I can see why this book has retained its popularity. This was an absorbing read that provided encouragement, entertainment, and helpful information. Any writer, whether they specialize in fiction or non-fiction, will find this a useful read. I was impressed enough by this work that I am planning on reading another of Zinsser’s books, Writing About Your Life. We’ll see how it measures up!

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If you’ve read this book, what did you think of it? Do you have any other book recommendations for writers of non-fiction? Which non-fiction forms do you write, and what do you find the most challenging about them?

Seek Out Your Writing Intention…and Engage!

Have you ever read through to the end of a book and still couldn’t figure out what it was about?

Chances are you probably gave up long before that happened.

When assessing any kind of manuscript, the first thing that an editor looks for is the author’s intention. What is the author trying to accomplish with this text? It’s a simple question, but it can be a challenging one to answer.

As an editor, I have found myself lost in the deep space of a manuscript with no apparent way home. I’ve completed first reads on manuscripts that were trying to pack everything into 250 pages. I understand the writer’s need to include all of their favourite shiny bits. But this makes the editor’s job more difficult. Before I can provide any meaningful advice on what to change, move, remove, or add, I need to understand the intent of the work.

While reading through a chaotic manuscript, I was reminded of the classic Star Trek: TNG episode “Darmok.” In this episode, the crew of the Enterprise are trying to establish relations with the Tamarians, who communicate using metaphors. One of the Tamarians, Dathon, tosses a dagger to Captain Picard while saying, “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra.” Picard interprets this as a request for the two of them to duel, and refuses. Dathon was actually referring to a story of two warriors who met and became friends by fighting a beast together on the island of Tenagra. He wanted to forge a relationship with the Federation by fighting an enemy together. Picard had completely misunderstood Dathon’s intention.

Dathon and Picard intend to confront the beast together...

Dathon and Picard intend to confront the beast together…

An author’s intention can be as mysterious to an editor (or to a reader) as a Tamarian metaphor. Please don’t force your reader into a tragic experience. You need to get to the heart of your story and find the core that your audience can recognize and engage with. To help you on this journey, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned about various elements of intention. Just think of yourself as the Captain of the Starship Enterprise, where you need to find out your mission before the story can begin.

Overall Purpose

A good starting point for defining intention is to identify your overall purpose in writing the work. There are four main reasons for writing: to inform, to instruct, to entertain, or to persuade. You need to think about your primary purpose. There may be a secondary one, but your primary one helps you determine the best structure and appropriate content for your work.

Most fiction stories (like those on Star Trek) are there primarily to entertain the audience. But they can also serve as moral instruction, or as a method of persuading people to accept a point of view. The trick is to make sure your secondary purpose does not overwhelm the first.

Audience

Who is your ideal reader for the book? What experience are you trying to provide for that reader? You need to construct your work according to your target audience’s expectations so they can understand your intention. Thinking about the age, gender, interests, reading habits, and knowledge of your readers will help you refine your approach.

From a practical perspective, the broader your work’s appeal, the more likely you are to have success in selling your manuscript. So think about your secondary readers as well as your ideal ones. Star Trek has had multi-generational success because it appeals to a large audience (and not just to sci-fi geeks like me).

Logline

A logline is the one-liner description of your work. Blake Snyder discusses how to create a marketable logline in his excellent book Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. He stresses the need to be able to answer the question “What is it?” in one line. According to Snyder, a good logline is emotionally compelling, creates an intriguing mental picture, and attracts the target audience.

Think about the logline for your work. It’s difficult, I know. But if you can’t explain your story in one line, you may need to look at all the threads and think about how to focus your intent.

Here’s an example of a logline from the Star Trek universe to help get you started:

War breaks out across the stars as the Klingon and Romulan Empires fight for supremacy… with the Enterprise caught in the middle.

(Can you imagine having to write a logline for every single episode of the television show? The mind boggles.)

Personal Intent

I’ve saved the most important piece for last. There was a reason why you chose to spend hours of your life writing or typing rather than surfing the internet or chilling out on the couch. Why did you write? Was your intent to write a famous story that would sell millions of copies? Did you want to tell everyone about a cause that matters to you? Or did you simply want to put your thoughts on the page, and say you have written a book?

Everyone’s intention in writing is ultimately a personal one. Knowing this will help you determine your direction. Maybe you don’t care about marketability, and only want help in writing clear prose. Maybe you want to make sure that your theme is coming across to a wide audience. Know what you want, and tell your editor. Then you’ll be able to collaborate together and create a work that both you and your readers will love.

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, stated that “Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms.”

Even the fictional crew of the Starship Enterprise had a clear intention: “To explore new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

So what’s your intention? Seek it out, and you’ll be ready to engage.

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How do you deal with intention? Do you find you have a clear idea of what you would like to accomplish before you begin, or do you figure it out as you write? What helps you to focus your writing?

DBW Review: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

I’m taking a course in substantive editing, so I’ve been immersing myself in books on storytelling. Today’s DBW Review is about a helpful book called Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing by Larry Brooks.

Story Engineering by Larry BrooksI’ve read several books describing how to write great stories, and many of them fail to deliver. They focus on providing lists of what not to do. This is all well and good, but not positive or useful for someone who is trying to learn what they should do. Larry Brooks has written a comprehensive book on what he calls the six core competencies to build a successful story. Four of them are the basic elements of a story: concept, character, theme, and story structure (plot).  The remaining two are narrative skills: scene execution and writing voice. For each competency, Brooks goes into detail to describe why it is important, how to execute it, and where it fits in with the other competencies. For those who want to learn more about Larry Brooks, you can visit his website Storyfix.

What I Liked

One of the things I liked was how Brooks works hard at relating all of the parts together, rather than providing separate laundry lists of items to consider. Each section builds on the next, until you feel like you have a full grasp of the entire process.

The sections themselves are covered in a great level of depth. The section on character, for example, describes the three dimensions of character, how to create backstory, interior vs. exterior conflict, crafting a character arc, and many other topics. I honed in on this section because I enjoy character-driven stories. I had to laugh when he called me out for this in a part called “Character Is Not Story”:

More than one writing guru and established writer has described the essence of storytelling as character-focused […] But that’s like saying the essence of baseball is pitching, the essence of music is singing, the essence of medicine is diagnosis, and the essence of cooking is salt and pepper. It’s not wrong, it’s just not right enough. Because there is so much more to consider. (p. 58)

He then goes on to relate character to all of the other elements in a deft fashion that is both convincing and helpful. Brooks has an engaging writing style that helps to carry his messages forward.

I know I’ll be referring back to this book often.

What Could Be Better

The first twenty-eight pages of this book introduce the six core competencies and Brooks’s approach for his storytelling model. This section contains repetitive sales pitches on why his model works better than other models. It also includes several references to Stephen King’s On Writing and why none of us should follow his advice. (In a nutshell: because we don’t have an instinctive grasp of storytelling principles like he does after his many years of reading and writing.) I liked On Writing, so I felt my hackles rise every time this point came up. Even if I understood his point.

Brooks also spends too much time throughout the book on planners vs. pantsers. He often points out how story pantsers can benefit from his approach, even if they don’t like to spend a lot of time outlining. (For those who are not familiar with the term, a pantser is someone who writes by the seat of their pants. This contrasts with a planner, who likes to plan ahead before writing a story.)

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Connection

I have yet to read a great storytelling guide written by a sci-fi/fantasy writer. (Suggestions, anyone?) As a fan of the genre, this is so disappointing. Brooks writes thrillers, and uses this genre for a lot of his examples. The only sci-fi reference in this book is to the movie Avatar, where Brooks describes James Cameron’s use of backstory to build the main character.

Verdict

This is a solid resource on storytelling that is worth multiple reads. Whether you are a writer/editor of fiction or simply a person who enjoys reading stories, you will find a lot of valuable information here. Highly recommended.

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For those of you who have read up on storytelling, what is your favourite resource, and why? If you’ve read Story Engineering, what did you think? And for you readers out there (which I should hope is all of you), what do you pay attention to the most? Character, theme, or plot?

DBW Review: Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Welcome to my first DBW Review! In this series, I will share some of the resources that have helped me develop my communication skills.

Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better WritingI’ve talked about Grammar Girl in some of my previous posts. Her real name is Mignon Fogarty, and she started out producing short podcasts to help people understand language rules. She has a website called Quick and Dirty Tips, where she posts her podcasts as articles. Her site is one of my go-to sources for grammar information, and so I decided to pick up a book she wrote called Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

What I Liked

Fogarty’s writing style is consistent with her podcast voice: friendly, fun, and knowledgeable. She shares her tips on various grammar and writing challenges in an approachable way and never talks down to her audience.

Pronouns are words that stand in for nouns. They’re pros, like stuntmen. When Aardvark, Squiggly, and Grammar Girl are feeling overworked, they call in a pronoun. Because pronouns don’t get the same recognition as the big stars, they’re a little temperamental. It’s their way of getting even. (139)

She includes a broad range of topics in her book, from common grammar and usage issues to advice on writing style. My favourite section is called “Punch Up Your Punctuation,” where she goes through all of the essential elements of punctuation in detail. (In keeping with Grammar Girl style, the sections are named things like “Comma Comma Comma Comma Comma Chameleon” and “The Question Mark: Huh?”)

Fogarty uses a lot of great examples to illustrate her tips. Two cartoon characters called Aardvark and Squiggly entertain us with their antics while helping us learn. There is also a fantastic appendix called “Quick and Dirty Grammar at a Glance,” which summarizes the most important tips in five pages. (The book has other useful appendices as well, like lists of irregular verbs and subordinating conjunctions.)

What Could Be Better

I attempted to read this book from front to back, and got overwhelmed at the beginning with the large first chapter on usage (called “Dirty Words”). This chapter includes many small sections on word confusions like your vs. you’re and affect vs. effect. The later chapters on topics like capitalization and pronouns are more coherently presented and can be read straight through. I think the usage section is useful to consult when you need it, but it’s not something you are going to want to read like a chapter book.

The book is designed to cover many topics quickly, at a level that works for most audiences. One thing I missed was the in-depth background information that Grammar Girl provides in her podcasts. If you’re looking for a detailed explanation of why a certain rule exists, you won’t find it here. For that level of information, I would encourage you to go to her website. (She is also on Twitter as GrammarGirl.)

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Connection

Since this is Doorway Between Worlds, after all, I kept an eye out for any sci-fi or fantasy fun. Fogarty tells us on page 57 that she is a Star Trek fan. (She uses this show in some of her examples.) For those of you who may be wondering: her favourite series is Star Trek: The Next Generation, followed by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Verdict

Grammar Girl was one of my big inspirations for starting my own blog, and I’m happy to see that her focus on fun in education is alive and well in this book. Whether you are a novice at grammar or an experienced writer who is struggling with a specific usage issue, this book has something for you. It’s a great summary resource of writing tips.

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Disclosure: I am not being compensated in any way for this review. Just in case you were wondering. 🙂

DBW Reviews is a new post series, and I welcome your feedback on whether this review was helpful for you. Please feel free to comment below. And if you have other great writing or grammar resources you’d like to share, please do!