On Writing Well – I

Within weeks of beginning my doctoral work I happened across these words by Winston Churchill: ‘Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public’. It took some time before it really came home to me that writing a PhD is not like writing a book, but these words have stuck with me all the same, and apply not a little to writing a thesis.

One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about the whole thesis process has been the act of writing itself. I love playing with words, discovering their etymology and thesaurus partners, and how long-neglected words can be re-employed to serve new meanings.

I’ve been making my way through William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. It’s a book which has undergone multiple editions (mine is the fourth); and while it is a little dated in parts (my ed. is 1990), and is geared more for the journalist than the researcher, it has served me well as both an encouragement and as guide of late. Consequently, I want to devote a number of posts to it.

Zinsser has written for Life and for The New Yorker, and for thirteen years with the New York Herald Tribune. He has also published numerous titles on writing. A recurring theme in this book is that writing is hard work: ‘If writing seems hard’, he notes, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things people do’. It reminds me of something Oscar Wilde once said, ‘I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again’. Zinsser repeatedly presses that while there are different kinds of writers and methods, the essence of writing is rewriting.

In the first chapter, Zinsser recalls that at the heart of all nonfiction writing is ‘personal transaction’. Good nonfiction needs both humanity and warmth, not just the facts! He writes: ‘Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to “personalize” the author. It’s a question of using the English language in such a way that it will achieve the greatest strength and the least clutter’.

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