On “On Writing Well”



We’ve just started reading an old book together at Vendo. It’s called, “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser. The Kindle version is the “30th Anniversary” edition and it’s already ten years old. It was first published in 1976, the year I was born.

When I was a senior in high school I took a typing class during my final semester. I had pushed it off until the end. I couldn’t avoid it any longer, the class was a requirement to graduate. All but one of the other seniors had taken the class earlier in high school. Most had learned to type four years earlier as freshmen. They proudly handed in typed papers to history and english teachers who surely appreciated their Helvetica font to my handwritten scrawl.

Despite that advantage I had no plans to learn how to type. Bill Clinton was president at the time. I heard that he couldn’t type. I planned to follow his lead and have a secretary type for me while I dictated. I thought he had done pretty well for himself as a non-typist.

That was the early nineties. It was before the internet. Back then everyone was worried about the death of reading and writing. TV was the dominant media.

The internet killed that fear. Today no one is concerned that writing will fade away. We produce and consume more writing today than ever in the history of our species. According to Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google, “we create as much information in two days now as we did from the dawn of man through 2003.”  It’s an explosion. Today we type into computers at a rate that would delight my high school typing teacher. And, of course, I’ve never had a secretary type for me. That would make typing teacher happy, too.

Unfortunately, however, most of the writing we do is bad. Why? Because it’s hard. Writing is mainly re-writing (this blog post has been through five revisions and could use a few more).

Zinsser gives us several reasons for why writing is hard. He says that, “Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next.” This comes from a sense of the writer’s humanity and warmth. The best way for the writer to communicate this is with clear, strong writing.

Most corporate writing (the kind that we do at Vendo) lacks a personality. It’s unclear and it’s weak. Examples are everywhere. Zinsser cites several in his opening chapters. Try this one of President Roosevelt trying to convert into English a memo about a blackout order from 1942:

Here is the memo:

“Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal and external illumination.”

“Tell them,” Roosevelt said, “that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something across the windows.”

We recently got a compliment about our writing in a trade magazine. “Your column is the only one I read,” she said. It felt great to hear. We’re hoping that with Zinsser’s help she’ll enjoy more of our writing on our blog, our website, our social media posts, etc.

Writing is everywhere. We’re working hard to make ours better with more personality, clarity and strength. As Zinsser says, “Hard writing makes easy reading. Easy writing makes hard reading.”

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