William Zinisser. On Writing Well. Harper Perennial. 2006.

I have a confession. When I write, I do it badly. What I have learned is how to edit. To revise and proofread. Now I let something sit for a week, or a year. I stare at my words and I make changes. Maybe I change it back. Then I undo that. When I commit words to screen, I do so by rewriting. It is anything but smooth. It was pleasant to read William Zinsser in On Writing Well who shares my opinion: “rewriting is the essence of writing.” I am surprised I did not come across Zinisser’s first-rate book before. Now, in its Seventh Edition, Zinisser wrote the book to complement Skunk and White’s handy guide.

Today, I have been struggling with writer’s block. Going from coffee shop to café and trying to start the next chapter in my dissertation. In writing this year, I am learning a craft. It complements the ethnographers’ art I learned in the field. In Colombia, I cultivated the art of fieldwork: taking part, talking to people, and writing about the experience. The hard part is ‘writing it up.’

Zinisser, like many other guides, tools, anthropologists, and writers offers directions to improve this craft.

John Gruber links to an excellent article from a few years ago by Zinisser about keeping On Writing Well up to date.

Gruber and Merlin Mann discuss it in The Talk Show Episode 61.

William Strunk & E. B. White. The Elements of Style. Longman. 1999.

In 1919, William Skunk, an English Professor at Cornell University, wrote The Elements of Style for use by students in his classes. One of his students was E. B. White, of Charlotte’s Web fame, who, almost thirty-eight years later, edited and expanded the little book into a grammatical gem. The books is a pithy and concise guide to good English prose; something than many graduate students struggling to write a Ph.D. thesis will find useful. It consists of rules to write by, admonitions on word choice—disinterested meaning impartial, uninterested meaning “no interested in”—, and advice on style. The twenty-two elementary rules of English usage clearly explain how to properly write. For example, how to distinguish between the uses and abuses of commas and apostrophes, colons and semicolons, and hyphens and dashes, or how to correctly join to clauses. The recommendation to always use the last comma in series, before the and, was refreshing; as was the rule on “’s” for most plurals, even “Charles’s toothache.”

More than composition though, Skunk and White lay down guidelines for editing. A list to post at eye-level on the wall. They are rules to expand my own editing tricks, i.e., “When in doubt, cut it out,” and to curtail my reflexive turn toward short sentences where sometimes a more relaxed approach to punctuation would be an improvement.

I disagree with the rule, “Choose a suitable design and stick to it,” because the approach is more or less the opposite of how I write. I find writing to be a long process of composition, revision, and reflection, and anytime I have adopted a ‘plan’ before I begin approach, I become stymied in the straitjacket I set for myself. Writing is never easy, and I have always found the process of revision even more time consuming than the process of composition. The Elements of Style provides laundry list of common errors in style and composition, things to watch out for, and advice on how to improve. As in most things, I am sure the trick to striving towards perfection is to practice.