Zinsser on Writing Good English

Writing Good English: A talk by William Zinsser to foreign students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism is a wonderful essay for native speakers too. Although it is aimed at journalism students, most of it is applies to legal writing too. I wish all my students would read it.

Legal writing is different from journalistic writing in ways that matter, and these may obscure the essential lessons of Zinsser's exhortation for “Clarity, Simplicity, Brevity, and Humanity.” Lawyers sometimes must deal in great complexity. We must use terms of art if we mean the things that those terms, however unhappy, refer to, else we will be thought to mean something else. Details matter, and detail in law is rarely brief. Nevertheless.

And especially this:

The epidemic I’m most worried about isn’t swine flu. It’s the death of logical thinking. The cause, I assume, is that most people now get their information from random images on a screen—pop-ups, windows, and sidebars—or from scraps of talk on a digital phone. But writing is linear and sequential; Sentence B must follow Sentence A, and Sentence C must follow Sentence B, and eventually you get to Sentence Z. The hard part of writing isn’t the writing; it’s the thinking. You can solve most of your writing problems if you stop after every sentence and ask: What does the reader need to know next?”

Oh yes. [update: But see the comments.]

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4 Responses to Zinsser on Writing Good English

  1. I don’t dispute that logical thinking is important, or even that it’s threatened, but the assertion that the cause for this is that “most people now get their information from random images on a screen—pop-ups, windows, and sidebars—or from scraps of talk on a digital phone” is, well, not very logical. Zinsser is asking that we accept some pretty sweeping generalizations about the contents of other people’s computer screens and telephone conversations. But you know, it’s rather likely that if we looked a little closer we’d probably find that many of those “pop-ups, windows, and sidebars” are actually meaningful both in their content and in their arrangement…and that most of those “digital phone” conversations actually consist of more than grunted “scraps.”

    If Zinsser wants to make a case for the idea that modern conventions of graphic design are responsible for eroding our sense of logical connection and causality, he’s welcome to do so, but this kind of handwaving doesn’t cut it. For one thing, sidebars and callouts weren’t invented yesterday; they’re conventions of presentation that go back many decades and centuries before the invention of the web. Likewise, if he wants to argue that telephones are inimical to logical conversation, he should feel free, but what he’s presenting here isn’t an argument, it’s just an invitation to his audience to join him in being ill-natured toward others. People today are stupid because, look, stuff that annoys me! I’m really surprised to see you buying this.

  2. Vic says:

    I can’t stand reading much of anything in the press these days. I am constantly flabbergasted by stories that don’t answer the basic question at hand, but just display knowledge of a bunch of facts. Like they pulled a bunch of sentances out of a hat and were asked to assemble them into a story. Like yesterday when I was trying to assemble the facts of gay rights votes for your other post. I had to go through tons of stories on those votes before I found even one that actually had some figures (which you’d think would be more informative that “it was defeated” as a fact.

    However, I think one can better blame our current education system, which puts very little emphasis on creative writing, or basic English skills. Even when I was in college I had an English teacher who specialized in feminist chicano poets, but knew absolutely nothing about Shakespeare. Really? How does one become college professor and not know any Shakespeare? I actually had to explain the plot of Richard III to her so she could understand a paper I wrote (and I am convinced she gave me an A so she didn’t have to think about it further, or maybe read the play). Meanwhile every student is required to take two to three years of a foreign language, two to three years of African-American studies, etc. In the end, it’s very easy to have your education be composed entirely of your major and what the school deems you should take to be culturally aware and see politics from their point of view. The hell with history, writing, English, basic math skills, etc.

    It won’t matter anyway, once those supersnakes get ahold of us.

  3. michael says:

    I think you both are right: the real blame for the crisis in logical thinking lies not in media but in the schools. I was focusing more on the statement of the problem than the cause, and didn’t mean to endorse a swipe at electronic media when much of the fault lies in print and in schools.

    I have kids in middle school and high school. Their textbooks for almost all courses pre-AP tend to avoid long blocks of prose in favor of things with modules, boxes, illustrations, and almost as much preview and review as substance. Those books make me suspect that lack of exposure to sustained argument in print at an early age may be the reason why older graduates cannot produce them.

  4. Patrick (G) says:

    There’s another fundamental flaw with one of his main points. Let me summarize and translate it to French to make it obvious:

    Pour bien écrire l’anglais, éviter les mots latin pour les mots anglo-saxon.
    “J’ai 4 principes pour bien écrire l’anglais. Ils sont la Clarité, la Simplicité, la Brièveté, et l’Humanité,”

    To write well in English avoid Latin words for Anglo-Saxon words.
    “I have four principles of writing good English. They are Clarity, Simplicity, Brevity, and Humanity.”

    Anybody else see the contradiction here?

    Old English was an oral Germanic language, Latin was used for writing, and the Normands introduced their bastardized Latin (Old French) into the language as well. Middle English jumbled these together but featured haphazard phonetic spelling and incomplete and in-cohesive rules, which leads to haphazard comprehension, not to mention the regional differences. So there’s a reason that 19th Century educators tried to rationalize English writing along Latin rules and vocabulary.

    The gateway to Higher Education in the U.S. today is still to demonstrate mastery of those 19th Century rules via the SAT/ACT/TOEFL exams. Is it truly surprising that people use the rules and vocabulary that they’re taught?

    The subset of Old English that we still use is not sufficient to cover all the concepts that have come into the world since 1066. We use longer, more descriptive phrases when writing because we can’t rely on body language to help make our meaning clear. We avoid writing words which are weird to spell. Most of us don’t have the time or energy to read lists of obscure and archaic words trying to find ‘le mot juste’. A few of us do it for entertainment or because it throws off an adversary if you argue with words that they don’t understand but possibly should.

    We sometimes disassociate ourselves from what we write by using the third person; often it’s just conforming to the perceived convention. Occasionally, we truly desire to be well understood, but sometimes we throw in gratuitous verbiage because we’re required to fill up a certain amount of space, or we cut out necessary ideas for the exact same reason, sometimes we prefer hiding our real message “in between the lines” and oftentimes we muck it up because we’re not professional novelists polishing (hopefully) income-generating manuscripts with a deadline measured in months.

    The point being: bad writing is quite logical in its own way. Good writing is really about knowing your lectors’ needs and desires well enough to exceed their expectations.

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