On Writing Well

It’s holiday season. Time to catch up with friends and family I haven’t seen in a while. Their first question is usually, what have you been up to? I usually say, not much. This year will be different. I will tell them; I have been learning to write well. Some will be surprised to hear this. Others, with a slight change in their facial expression, will broadcast their silent agreement that, yes, I probably should learn to write well. Or do they mean better?

I have been writing for over thirty years. But recently discovered I have not been writing well. Natasha from NY Book Editors recommended a book by William Zissner, On Writing Well, for writers who want to improve their non-fiction writing. I like Natasha so I took her advice.  Besides, with my recent decision to launch my writing and teaching online, I decided any book that could improve my writing was worth a read.

I have sensed many times that my writing could be tighter, bolder, yet more personable, more me. When I first started writing in the nineties, my efforts were tight, measured, with descriptions that painted small pictures. I could not splash my words with abandon while wading through the shallows of the craft. I tried not to splash, not to create any waves. On reflection I think this was typical of me; a writer terrified of sharing with others who I truly was.

William Zissner insists writers must wield their tools with precision and intention. Writers should work at their writing until they know their words work. Is my writing precise? Is it intentional? It was when I wrote sparse descriptions and tight dialogue. My words only ever said what I intended. Which wasn’t much at all. Just the bare minimum. Just the facts, ma’am. Why should I say any more than the bare minimum?

My peers insisted I made readers work too hard. So, I learned to fluff out my fiction with more words, long and unhurried descriptions. When writing non-fiction, I took refuge in wordy sentences, believing they would elevate my authority on the subject. What I was really doing was hiding my lack of knowledge and my lack of confidence.

But I feel I have come full circle. Until now, I assumed a large word count was the sign of a prolific writer, synonymous with a good writer. But more words do not a better writer make. They would be if, in the process, I learned to think about my words and make them say what I mean. Then prune, prune, prune. This is the essence of what Zissner states in his book.

After only two chapters of Zissner’s book, I know my writing holds too much clutter. Anyone who knows me knows clutter is a personal issue. I am at war with clutter in my home. To consider it a bane of good writing is a surprise. Even now, as I write this, I have erased or rewritten almost every sentence. Without access to digital tools, I would have given up on writing a long time ago. If I were writing the old fashioned way, using a typewriter, my bin would overflow with my umpteen attempts at writing this small piece.   

Zissner implores writers to prune unnecessary verbiage to make good clean copy. Easy to say. Challenging to do. He also discusses how writing will reveal who a writer is. This is scary for a writer who has always hidden from the world. I realised late last week writing has become my lover. We have danced many years. Not always a perfect fit; definitely lots of missteps. After thirty years of intimacy, it is still in my life. Closer than ever. It knows my longings, my secrets, my fears, my unkind thoughts about others that I never share, yet does not judge me, and it keeps my confidences. If I practise what Zissner shares in his book, I will become more visible to my readers. Am I ready for that? I think so. Leaving the safety of anonymity is both terrifying and a little bracing.

His instructions on the beginning and ending for non-fiction are clear and sensible, as is his approach to writing memoir, one of my favourite genres (I have written 2 memoirs which will live forever in my bottom desk drawer). Despite his acute observations about myself and other writers, and after collecting the shards of discovery amongst the shattered self-perceptions, I am almost ready to leave my shell and venture into a bigger sandbox. As I learn more about what he has to say, I want to use the tools he shares. He encourages authenticity, clean writing and clear thinking when approaching any non-fiction writing project. It is time for me to become a better writer. Time to write well and it is a long way past time to share who I am.