Tuesday, March 20, 2012

William Zinsser: My idol, my hero, my guru

In all the time that I have spent scouring the web for articles that will help us Indians improve our English writing skills, I have not come across any ONE piece that does the job satisfactorily. There are many brilliant how-to's covering different aspects of writing (a few of them have been written about on this blog) but ONE article that discusses all the important aspects? Nah, it does not exist.

At least that's what I thought.

Then I stumbled upon "Writing English as a Second Language" by William Zinsser on The American Scholar website.

Both the headline and the byline convinced me I had hit the jackpot. English is, after all, a second language to most (all?) of us and writing in English does not come easy to many (most?) of us. Who better to explain the intricacies of English and smoothen our path to becoming better writers than the Master himself?

William Zinsser has been my idol since I first read On Writing Well, the definitive guide to writing non-fiction that I recommend to all my students. It's a book you cannot afford not to read even if the writing you have to do at work is minimal. If, however, you are a journalist or work in corporate communications or advertising or PR, this is one of the books you should own so that you can grab hold of it to read every now and then, after you have already devoured it whole once.

"Writing English as a Second Language" is a transcript of a talk given by Zinsser to the incoming international students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism some three years ago. He begins with a question: What is good writing? His short answer: It depends on what country you’re from.

Zinsser explains why, for instance, Arabic, which is decorative and ornamental, and Spanish, with its long sentences and melodious long nouns, would be the ruin of any journalist trying to write good English. And he then launches into the most fascinating discourse on writing in English that I have ever "heard".


Zinsser asks: "So what is good English — the language we’re here today to wrestle with?"

And he answers:

It’s not as musical as Spanish, or Italian, or French, or as ornamental as Arabic, or as vibrant as some of your native languages. But I’m hopelessly in love with English because it’s plain and it’s strong. It has a huge vocabulary of words that have precise shades of meaning; there’s no subject, however technical or complex, that can’t be made clear to any reader in good English — if it’s used right. Unfortunately, there are many ways of using it wrong. Those are the damaging habits I want to warn you about today.

Those damaging habits Zinsser is referring to are the habits we have picked up in school and college, habits we may not even be aware of but habits we need to get rid of if we want to become better writers. And the first step in the process involves learning a little bit of the history of English. No, this is not the equivalent of a dull classroom lecture; Zinsser makes it so interesting with modern-day examples and his writing is so fluid that you will read, absorb, and appreciate what he has to say about the Latin and Anglo-Saxon roots of the language.

Zinsser also gives examples of sentences written in bad English and teaches us how to transform them into good English. He provides us with some simple writing tools. And he then outlines, and elaborates on, his four principles of writing good English: Clarity, Simplicity, Brevity, and Humanity.

Read the complete text of William Zinsser's extraordinary speech here: "Writing English as a Second Language".

Now you know why I idolise this great man.

UPDATE (May 23, 2015): William Zinsser died in New York City on May 12 at the age of 92. Lavish tributes have been paid to him by a host of newspaper and magazine writers:

Corby Kummer in The Atlantic: Remembering Bill Zinsser

Mark Singer in The New Yorker: Tuesdays with Zinsser

The American Scholar, for whom William Zinsser wrote a popular blog, republished one of his seminal pieces: How to Write a Memoir

Laura Fraser in Al Jazeera America: William Zinsser, the man who taught a nation to write well

Douglas Martin in The New York Times: A book that editors and teachers encouraged writers to reread annually

 THE RIGHT STUFF: Commits student Priya Jain, Class of 2017, right after the university exams ended on May 30, 2016, came to tell me that she had bought On Writing Well on my recommendation because she realised during her recent industry internship that good writing skills will be crucial to her success as a media professional.