On Writing Well by William Zissner
(A Complete Summary)
by Thomas Lotito
How do you write well? It’s a deceptively simple question that takes study, practice, and persistence to answer.
The author, William Zissner, luckily, has taken his lifetime as an acclaimed nonfiction writer and teacher to distill the principles, techniques, forms, and attitudes that go into learning the craft of writing and becoming a great writer.
At the end, the reader will discover that writing well consists of three things— the hard work of mastering the principles in this book, at least a modicum of talent, and the desire to be a great writer. So if you want to learn how to write well, what are you waiting for? It’s time to get to work.
In the transaction of writing, the product you’re trying to sell isn’t the subject being written about, but yourself. In order to sell yourself, you must aim for two (2) things: “Humanity and Warmth,” and to use “the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.”
Zissner says “the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.” Ultimately, your reader has a limited attention-span. Don’t make the reader work too hard, or they’ll find someone whose better at their writing craft.
Clutter is the nemesis of good writing. “Clutter is the laborious phrase that has pushed out the short word that means the same thing.” To clean up the clutter: Use short words for long words (eg. now instead of currently), remove redundancy (eg adverbs that mean the same as their verb) , and avoid euphemisms (eg. town dump instead of volume reduction unit) and avoid jargon (eg. invasion instead of protective reaction strike).
Another form of clutter is explaining how you will explain things. Instead of using a phrase like “I might add,” “it should be pointed out,” or “it is interesting to note,” simply add it, point it out, or note it.
“There is no style store; style is organic to the person doing the writing, as much a part of him as his hair, or if he is bald, his lack of it.” Extending this metaphor, he says “trying to add style is like adding a toupee. At first glance, the formerly bald man looks young and even handsome. But at second glance, he doesn’t look quite right.”
In other words, “the reader will notice if you are putting on airs.” Instead of risking coming off as ingenuine, you must follow a “fundamental rule: be yourself.” In order to do so, the writer “must relax, and they must have confidence.”
Zissner advises writing in first person to acheive confidence. “Writers are obliviously at their most natural when they write in the first person. Writing is an intiamate transaction between two people, conducted on paper, and it will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity.”
He concludes this section stating, “Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.”
Who are you writing for? “You are writing for yourself,” Zissner says. He adds, “whether the reader likes you, or likes what you’re saying or how you’re saying it, or agrees with you… don’t give him a moment’s worry. You are who you are, he is who he is, and either you’ll get along or you won’t.”
“You’ll never make your mark as a writer unless you develop a respect for words and a curiousity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive.” He continues, “The English language is rich in strong and supple words. Take the time to root around and find the ones you want.”
“Writing is learned by imitation… I learned by reading the men and women who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it.”
“Good writer’s prose must be part poet, always listening to what they write.” He uses himself as an example, saying “I write entrely by ear and read everything aloud before letting it go out into the world.”
“Good usage, to me, consists of using good words if they already exist— as they almost always do— to express myself clearly and simply to someone else.” Useage is more of an art than a science. Zissner implores us to, again, avoid jargon (eg. use rank instead of prioritize), but that words that convey an image, such as “bottom-line” (jargon from book-keeping) are permissible.
“You learn to write by writing.” He adds, “The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.”
“All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem” (eg. A problem of approach or attitude, tone, style, orginazation, etc). Solving these problems becomes easier with experience.
“Unity is the anchor of good writing.” Stick to your choices of unity. Examples of unity include: unity of pronoun (eg first person “I”, second person “you”, or third person “he/she/they”), unity of tense (eg past or present), and unity of mood (eg casualness or formality).
Other considerations should include “How much do I want to cover?” and “What one point do I want to make?” No one— not even Tolstoy or Melville— could cover a topic in its entirety. War and Peace is about a select few families, and Moby Dick is about a man pursuing one whale. Therefore, he says, “Every writing project must be reduced before you write.”
He recommends “think small.” You must “decide what corner of your subject you’re going to bite off, and be content to cover it well and stop.” In addressing the second consideration, he says “every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before. Not two thoughts, or five— just one.”
You can change choices of unity in revisions, but they must be in place when everything is finally put together.
The Lead and the Ending
“The most important sentence in any article is the first one.” If it doesn’t capture your reader, “your article is dead.” He continues, “If the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead.” This is the foundation and logic behind the “lead”— its purpose is to hook the reader.
Ultimatly, the lead must, both, “conjole [the reader] with freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humor, or suprise, or with an unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question,” and it also must “provide hard details that tell the reader why the piece was written and why he ought to read.” Essentially, it must be provocative and informative.
When conducting research for an article, “you should always collect more material than you will use.” Moreover, “Always look for ways to convey your information in narrative form.” Therefore, you’ll have ample material to draw from, and will have already begun planning your lead before you begin writing.
Bits and Pieces
This section is less narrative (teaching us how to write) and more referential (giving us technical examples). I’m only going to include the most important ones.
“Use active verbs, unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb.”
“Short is better than long.”
“Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum.
“Use precise verbs.”
“Don’t use adverbs unless they do necessary work.”
“Most adjectives are (like adverbs) also unnecessary… again, the rule is simple: make your adjectives do work that needs to be done.”
“Use adjectives sparsely.”
Remove the “small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw: ‘a bit,’ a little,’ ‘sort of,’ kind of,’ ‘rather,’ ‘quite,’ ‘very,’ ‘too,’ ‘pretty much,’ ‘in a sense,’ and dozens more.”
“Good writing is lean and confident.”
The Exlamation Point:
“Don’t use it unless you must, to acheive a certain effect.”
Used to add a related thought to the first part of a sentence. It brings sentences to a halt, so use sparingly.
“The dash is used in two ways. One is to amplify or justify in the second part of the sentence a thought you stated in the first part. (Eg. We decided to keep going— it was only 100 miles more and we could get there in time for dinner.)… The other use involves using two dashes, which set apart a parenthetical thought within a longer sentence. (Eg. She told me to get in the car— she had been after me all summer to have a haircut— and we drove silently into town.)”
Used for bringing sentences to a halt, before, say, an itemized list.
“Learn to alert the reader as soon as possible to any change in mood from the previous sentence. (Eg. But, yet, however, nevertheless, still, instead, thus, therefore, meanwhile, now, later, today, subsequently, etc.)”
“Don’t start a sentence with ‘however’— it hangs there like a wet dishrag. And don’t end with ‘however’— by that time its lost its howeverness. Put it as early as you can. (Eg. It is, however, a weaker word and needs careful placement.)”
“Your style will be warmer and truer to your personality if you use contractions like ‘I’ll” and “won’t” and “can’t” when they fit comfortably into what you’re writing.”
That and which:
Ultimatly, the that and which debate is one of usage. There are, however, some general guidelines:
“Always use “that” unless it makes your meaning ambiguous.”
“A high proportion of ‘which’ usages narrowly describe, or identify, or locate, or explain, or otherwise qualify the preface that preceded the comma. (Eg. The house, which has a red roof… The Rhine, which is in Germany… The moon, which I saw from the porch.”)
Nouns that express concepts are a sign of bad writing. (Eg. The common reaction is incredulous laughter.) To get rid of concept nouns, “Get people doing things: (eg. Most people just laugh with disbelief.”
“Don’t overstate,” Zissner says. “Let the humor sneak up so we hardly hear it coming.”
“Don’t inflate an incident… if the reader catches you in one bogus statement, everything you write thereafter will be suspect.”
Writing is not a Contest:
“Every writer is starting from a different point and is bound for a different destination… Your only contest is with yourself.”
The Subconcious Mind:
“Your subconscious mind does more writing than you think. Often you’ll spend a whole day trying to fight your way out of some verbal thicket… Frequently, a solution will occur to you the next morning when you plunge back in. While you slept, your writer’s mind didn’t.”
The Quickest Fix:
“Often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it.” Ask yourself “Do I need it at all? Probably you don’t. It was trying to do an unnecessary job all along— that’s why it was giving you so much grief… It’s the quickest cure and often the best.”
“Keep your paragraphs short.”
“Paragraphing is a subtle but important element in writing nonfiction articles and books— a road map constantly telling your reader how you have organized your ideas. Study good nonfiction writers to see how they do it… Each paragraph has its own integrity of content and structure.”
“One of the most vexing questions for writers is what to do about sexist language— especially the he/she pronoun… The best solutions simply eliminate “he” and its connotations of male ownership by using other pronouns or by altering some other component of the sentence. (Eg. Replace ‘he’ with ‘we’ or ‘you’)”
*Although this goes against the unity of pronouns, I’ve seen the alternating between he and she used to great effect in instructional/perscriptive non-fiction, such as the how-to writing book DIY MFA by Gabriel Perscius. tk
“Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost.”
“When you read your writing aloud… you’ll hear a dismaying number of places where you lost the reader, or confused the reader, or failed to tell him the one fact he needs to know, or told him the same thing twice: the inevitable loose ends of every early draft. What you must do is make an arrangement— one that holds together from start to finish and that moves with economy and warmth.”
“Learn to enjoy the tidying process. I don’t like to write; I like to have written. But I love to rewrite… With every small refinement I feel that I’m coming nearer to where I would like to arrive, and when I finally get there I know it was the rewriting, not the writing, that won the game.”
Trust Your Material:
“The longer I work at the craft of writing, the more I realize that there’s nothing more interesting than the truth. What people do— and what people say— continues to take me by surprise with its wonderfulness, or its quirkiness, or its drama, or its humor, or its pain.”
Go With Your Interests:
“If you follow your affections you will write well and will engage your readers.” Write about your hobbies… Write about your work… Write about a field you enjoyed in college and always wanted to get back to…” He continues, “No subject is too specialized or too quirky if you make an honest connection with it when you write about it.”
In this section, likewise with the preceding section Bits and Pieces, you can jump around from section to section (as I did in my first reading) until you find the form(s) that interest you. There is some general overlap between forms, but they are mostly independent.
Nonfiction as Literature
In this section, Zissner explains how American readers began shifting their demands from literature to non-fiction— a trend spurred by the televising of WWII— resulting in the emergence of a new genre: literary non-fiction. Citing the landmark non-fiction works such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and articles such as Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night, he says “Nonfiction became the new American literature.”
“…What writers now write and sell, what book and magazine publishers publish and what readers demand is nonfiction.”
“I’m not saying that fiction is dead. Obviously the novelist can take us into places where no other writer can go: into the deep emotions and the interior life. What I’m saying is that I have no patience with the snobbery that says nonfiction is only journalism by another name and that journalism by any name is a dirty word.”
“The only important distinction is between good writing and bad writing…. whatever we call it.”
Writing about People (The Interview)
This section focuses on how to conduct an interview; “Get people talking…” he says, “Nothing so animates writing as someone telling what he thinks or what he does— in his own words.”
“Take heart. You’ll find the solution if you look for the human element.”
Thus, below is a rough outline of how to conduct an interview:
“How should you start? First, decide what person you want to interview… Choose, in short, someone who touches some corner of the readers life.”
“Interviewing is one of those skills you can only get better at.” He says that interviewing is part mechanical— asking questions, jotting answers— and part instinct— “knowing how to make the other person relax, when to push, when to listen, when to to stop.” “This” he concludes, “can all be learned with experience.
The basic tools for an interview are some pencils and paper. “But keep your notebook out of sight until you need it. There’s nothing less likely to relax a person than the arrival of a stranger with a stenographers pad… Take a while to just chat, gauging what sort of person you’re dealing with, getting him or her to trust you.”
“Make a list of likely questions,” so you won’t go dry mid-interview. “If [the persons being inteviewed] stray hopelessly off the subject, drag them back. If you like the new direction, follow along and forget the questions you intended to ask.”
The common fear among beginning inteviewers of imposing on other people or invading upon their privavy is unfounded. He says, “Most men and women lead lives, if not of quite desperation, at least of desperate quietness, and they jump at a chance to talk about their work to an outsider who seems eager to listen.”
If your subject begins talking faster than you’re able to write, “Tell him to stop… What you are trying to do with your feverish scribbling is to quote him correctly, and nobody wants to be misquoted.”
“When you get home, type out your notes… Single out sentences that are most important or colorful… Your job is to distill the essence.” He asks, rhetorically, “What [is] your obligation to the person you interviewed?… the answer isn’t hard if you keep in mind two standards: brevity and fair play. Your ethical duty to the person being interviewed is to present his position accurately.” He adds “But after that your duty is to the reader.”
“Quotes are livelier when you break them up, making periodic appearances in your role as guide.” Another piece of advice: “When you use a quotation, start the sentence with it.” Lastly, “Don’t strain to find synonyms for ‘he said.’”
“Conducting a good interview is finally related to the character and personality of the writer, because the person you’re interviewing will always know more about the subject than you do.”
He summarizes the section saying “When you get people talking, handle what they say as you would handle a valuable gift.”
Writing about Places (The Travel Article)
“Every human event happens somewhere, and the reader wants to know what that somewhere was like.”
Depending on the piece, your need to describe the setting of an event could range from only a paragraph or two to, in the case of a travel article, the entire piece. While it may seem easy, Zissner says, it is very hard.
Why? Because terrible work is produced due to enthusiasm. “Nobody turns so quickly into a bore as a traveler home from his travels. He enjoys his trip so much that he wants to tell us all about it— and all is what we don’t want to hear.”
“The other big trap is style.” Nowhere else in nonfiction are such “syrupy” adjectives and “groaning” platitudes used more frequently. Zissner calls this language Travelese. Don’t write in Travelese.
So how do you write well about places? Zissner says “My advice can be reduced to two principals— one of style, the other of substance.”
“First choose your words with unusual care.” Avoid using easy cliches (that have become deeply woven into the fabric of travel writing) and avoid “straining for the luminous lyrical phrase to describe a wonderous waterfall” (which will make you sound artificial, at best, and, pompous, at worst). Instead, “Strive for fresh words and images.”
“As for substance, be intensely selective.” Avoid telling the obvious (eg. “The sea had waves and the sand was white.”) Instead, “find details that are significant. They may be important to your narrative; they may be unusual, or colorful, or comic, or entertaining. But make sure they do useful work.”
He says “Your main task as a travel writer is to find the central idea of the place you’re dealing with.” In order to do so, you must “isolate the qualities that make it distinctive. Usually this will be some combination of the place and the people who inhabit it.” (Footnote 2)
*This goes back to his advice that people and truth are the most interesting things. (Create subscript for a footnote 2)
Lastly, Zissner warns about waxing, saying “If you’re writing about places that are sacred or meaningful, leave the waxing to someone else.” In other words, rather than delving into an artificial poetic musing, let the details of the setting (that you’ve carefully selected) tell the story.
Writing About Yourself (The Memoir)
Of all nonfiction genres, the memoir (or ‘personal history’) can be the most enjoyable to read, and, especially, to write. Luckily, he says “Of all the subjects available to you as a writer, the one you know best is yourself: your past and your present, your thoughts and your emotions.”
Before getting into techniques, Zissner lays a framework for writing a memoir:
“If you’re a writer, give yourself permission to tell us who you are.” He continues, “Permission, however is a two-edged instrument… A thin line separates ego from egotism. Ego is healthy; no writer can go far without it. Egotism, however, is a drag, and this chapter is not intended as a license to prattle just for therapy.”
Therefore, the rule he suggests is: “Make sure every component of your memoir is doing useful work. Write about yourself, by all means, with confidence and with pleasure. But see that all the details— people, places, events, anecdotes, ideas, emotions— are moving your story steadily along.”
After laying this framework, he defines the form of memoir:
“What gives [memoirs] their power is the narrowness of their focus. Unlike autobiography, which spans an entire life, memoir assumes the life and ignores most of it. The memoir writer takes us back to some corner of his or her past that was unusually intense— childhood for instance— or that was framed by war or some other social upheaval… It’s an act of writing frozen in a unique time and place.”
Essentially, he says “Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; its a window into a life, very much like a photography in its selective composition… it’s a deliberate construction.”
Next, he delves into how to construct a memoir: “Memoir is the art of inventing the truth. One secret of the art is detail.”
Giving examples, Zissner shows how the power of invoking details such as sound, smell, or a song title, can help us distill the memorable moments of our lives.
Aside from using vivid details, Zissner says “The crucial ingredient in memoir is, of course, people… Finally you must summon back the men and women and children who notably crossed your life. What was it that made them memorable— what turn of mind, what crazy habits?”
Continuing, he says “But the most interesting character in the memoir, we hope, will turn out to be the person who wrote it. What did that man or woman learn from the hills and valleys of life?”
“The best gift you have to offer when you write personal history is the gift of yourself. Give yourself permission to write about yourself, and have a good time doing it.” he concludes.
Science and Technology
Writing about science and technology can be daunting, especially for those of us right-brained, liberal-arts-background writers (such as myself). Zissner, however, finds a way to simplify the process.
“A tenant of journalism is that “the reader knows nothing… [and] a technical writer can never forget it.” You cannot assume your reader already knows something or remembers what was once explained to them, because it is possible they don’t.
Thus, you must describe how a process works, which is valuable for two reasons. First, “It forces you to make sure you know how it works. Then it forces you to take the reader through the same sequence of ideas and deductions that made the process clear to you.”
He says “Imagine science writing as an upside-down pyramid. Start at the bottom with one fact a reader must know before he can learn any more. The second sentence broadens what was stated first, making the pyramid wider, and the third sentence broadens the [idea posited in the] second, so that you can gradually move beyond facts into significance and speculation.”
Another tip: “You can take much of the mystery out of science writing by helping the reader to identify with the scientific work being done… this means looking for the human element…” He continues “One human element is yourself. Use your own experience to connect the reader to some mechanism that also touches his life.”
Yet another tip: “Another way to help your readers understand unfamiliar facts is to relate them to sights they are familiar with. Reduce the abstract principle to an image they can visualize.”
Okay, one more tip: “Another way of making science accessible is to write like a person and not like a scientist. It’s the same old question of being yourself. Just because you’re dealing with a scholarly discipline that’s usually reported in a style of dry pedantry is no reason why you shouldn’t write in good fresh English.”
Phew! See, that wasn’t so hard.
Business Writing (Writing in Your Job)
This section is for those who have to do any writing— the memo, the business letter, the administrative report, the financial analysis, the marketing proposal, the note to the boss, the fax, the e-mail, the post-it— in their job.
In business writing, “anxiety is a big part of the problem,” he says, “and humanity and clear thinking are a big part of the solution.”
The big problem with business writing is that it tends to lack humanity. It’s often filled with information presented pompously, or writers using passive voice instead of the pronoun ‘I,’ or using jargon instead of good English.
“Any organization that wont take the trouble to be both clear and personal in its writing will lose friends, customers and money.” Tongue in cheek, he says “Let me put it another way for business executives: a shortfall will be experienced in anticipated profit.”
Part of the reason for bad writing in business comes from a fallacy: “Managers at every level are prisoners of the notion that a simple style reflects a simple mind. Actually a simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking; a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too arrogant, or too dumb, or too lazy to organize he thoughts… If what you write is ornate, or pompous, or fuzzy, that’s how you’ll be perceived.”
There’s hope, though. He says, “If you work for an institution, whatever your job, whatever your level, be yourself when you write. You will stand out as a real person among robots…” Essentially, being yourself when you write is your chance to reclaim your identity, and capitalize on your individuality, in the corporate world.
In bad sportswriting, the writer uses unneccesary synonyms and cliches, until the ‘pitcher’ becomes a ‘hurler,’ a ‘baseball’ becomes ‘the old horeshide,’ and the ‘batter’ becomes a ‘batsman’ trying to ‘solve his slants.’ Zissner admits “We read the articles to find out who won, but we don’t read them with enjoyment.”
He says, however, “The best sportswriters know this. They avoid the exhausted synonyms and strive for freshness elsewhere in their sentences.”
“What keeps most sportswriters from writing good English is the misapprehension that they shouldn’t be trying to… they also have a dread of repeating the word that’s easiest for the reader to visual— batter, runner, golfer, boxer— if a synonym can be found.” He says the sportswriter shouldn’t be afraid of recycling a word in trying to avoid redundancy because “The cure is worse than the ailment.”
What makes a good peice of sportswriting, similarly, but, perhaps more so than other forms, is finding the humanity. Zissner says “Look for this human bond… hold the hype and give us heroes who are believe.” Also, as in other forms, he says, look to emphasize “people and places, time and transition.”
“Hang around the track and the stable, the stadium and the rink. Observe closely. Interview in depth. Listen to old-timers. Ponder the Changes. Write well.” he concludes.
Writing About the Arts (Critics and Columnists)
In this section, Zissner explains how to write about the arts, not just from an objective perspective— such as the interview, or explaining a scientific concept— but from a subjective perspective.
“… To write about the arts from the inside— to appraise a new work, to evaluate a performance, to recognize what’s good and what’s bad— calls for a special set of skills and a special body of knowledge. It’s necessary, in short, to be a critic…”
If the difficulty in travel writing is controlling your enthusiasm and avoiding flowery adjectives, the difficulty in critisism is “… to say why you think a play is good, in words that don’t sound banal…”
In the realm of writing about the arts, there are two main writers: reviewers and critics. Although they share some similarities, there are key differences that set them apart. Let’s start with reviewers, and the similarities they share with critics.
“Reviewers write for a newspaper or magazine, and what they cover is primarily an industry— the output of, for instance, the television industry, the motion-picture industry, and, increasingly, the publishing industry…” He continues, “As a reviewer, your job is more to report than to make an aesthetic judgment.” Think of yourself as a deputy to the average man or woman, who wants to know if the latest movie, book, or TV series is something they would find interesting or would enjoy. “Think what you would want to know if you had to spend the money for the movie…” he says.
Firstly, reviewers and critics “should like— or, better still, love— the medium they are reviewing.”
“Another rule is: don’t give away too much of the plot. Tell readers just enough to let them decide whether its the kind of story they tend to enjoy, but not so much that you’ll kill their enjoyment. One sentence *(a concise summary) will often do the trick… Don’t spoil their pleasure by revealing every twist of the narrative…”
“A third principle is to use specific detail. This avoids dealing in generalities, which, being generalities, mean nothing… Put your readers in your theater seat. Help them see what you saw.”
“A final caution is to avoid the ecstatic adjectives that occupy such disproportionate space in every critic’s quiver— words like “enthralling” and “luminous.” Good [review and] critisism needs a lean and vivid style to express what you observed and what you think.”
Now that we’ve covered reviewers, what is critisism? “Critisim is a serious intellectual act. It tries to evaluate serious works of art and to place them in the context of what has been done before in that medium or by that artist.”
“Therefore,” he says, “if you want to be a critic, steep yourself in the litearture of the medium you hope to make your specialty. If you want to be a theater critic, see every possible play— the good and the bad, the old and the new. Catch up on the past by reading the classics or seeing them in revival. Know your Shakespeare and Shaw, your Chekhov and Moliere, your Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, and know how they broke new ground… Only then can you place every new play or musical within an older tradition and tell the pioneer from the imitator.”
Since critisism is so specialized, “As a critic you can pressuppose certain shared areas of knowledge with the men and women you are writing for. You don’t have to tell them that William Faulkner was a Southern novelist.” He continues, “What you do have to do, if you are assessing the first novel of a Southern author and weighing Faulkner’s influence, is to generate a provocative idea and throw it onto the page, where your readers can savor it. They may disagree with your point… But they have enjoyed the turn of your mind and the journey that took you to your conclusion. We like good critics as much for their personality as for their opinions.”
“One lubricant in criticism is humor *(also the next section of the book). It allows the critic to come at a work obliquely and to write a piece that is itself an entertainment. But the column should be an organic piece of writing, not just a few rabbit punches of wit.”
So critisism is scholarly, and sometimes uses humor and wit to reach a provocative idea, but how should a good peice of critisism start? “You must make an immediate effort to orient your readers to the special world they are about to enter. Even if they are broadly educated men and women they need to be told or reminded of certain facts… The water needs to be warmed up.”
“Today, critisism has many first cousins in journalism: the newspaper or magazine column, the personal essay, the editorial, and the essay-review, in which a critic digresses from a book or a cultural phenomenon into a larger point… But what is common to all the forms is that they consist of personal opinion… What is crucial for you as the writer is to express your opinion firmly… Take your stand with conviction.” he says.
In this section, Zissner, drawing from his experience teaching a Humor Writing course at Yale, and from a lifetime of reading and enjoying funny writiers, teaches us the serious art of humor writing.
“Humor is the secret weapon of the nonfiction writer. It’s secret because so few writers realized that humor is often their best tool— and sometimes their only too— for making an important point… if you’re trying to write humor, almost everything you do is serious.”
“[Humor writers are] not just fooling around.” he continues. “One Catch-22 or Dr. Strangelove is more powerful than all the books and movies that try to show war “as it is”… Joseph Heller and Stanley Kubrick heightened the truth about war just enough to catch its lunacy, and we recognize it as lunacy. The joke is no joke.” He continues, “This heightening of some crazy truth— to a level where it will be seen as crazy— is the essence of what serious humorists are trying to do.”
In Zissner’s own work, citing an example he published in Life parodying the rise in popularity of hair curlers, he says “What made those pieces work was that they stuck close to the form they were parodying. (i.e. the article never strayed from the reader-to-editor letter form it adopted from the beginning.)” Thus, he says “Control is vital to humor. Don’t use comical names like Throttlebottom. Don’t make the same kind of joke two or three times— readers will enjoy themselves more if you make it only once. Trust the sophistication of readers who do know what you’re doing, and don’t worry about the rest.”
His columns for Life made people laugh, “But they had a serious purpose, which was to say “Something crazy is going on here—some erosion in the quality of life, or some threat to life itself, and yet everyone assumes it’s normal.” Today the outlandish becomes routine overnight. The humorist is trying to say that it’s still outlandish… The targets will change from week to week, but there will never be a dearth of new lunacies and dangers for the humorist to fight.”
Humor, therefore, is based on fundamental truths. “Humor is not a separate organism that can survive on its own frail metabolism. It’s a special angle of vision granted to certain writers who already write good English. They aren’t writing about life that’s essentially ludicrous; they are writing about life that’s essentially serious, but their eye falls on areas where serious hopes are mocked by some ironic turn of fate— “the strange incongruiety,” as Stephen Leacock put it, “between our aspiration and our achievement.” He continues, “E.B. White made the same point. “I don’t like the word ‘humorist,’” he said. “It seems to me misleading. Humor is a by-product that occurs in the serious work of some and not others. I was more influenced by Don Marquis than by Earnest Hemingway, by Perelman than by Dreiser.”
As in other sections, he provides some principles for the humor writer:
“Master the craft of writing good ‘straight’ English.” Basically, walk before you fly. He adds, “Don’t search for the outlandish and scorn what seems too ordinary; you will touch more chords by finding what’s funny in what you know to be true. Finally, don’t strain for laughs; humor is built on surprise, and you can surprise the reader only so often.”
“…One of the classic function of humor [is]: “to deflect anger into a channel where we can laugh at faulty instead of railing against it.”
“All humor must be about something— it must touch concretely on life,” said S.J. Perelmen, a pioneering humor writer. Zissner says “… although readers savoring his style may lose sight of his motive, some form of pomposity lies in ruins at the end of a Perelman piece… He was seldom at a loss for charlatans and knaves, especially in the worlds of Broadway, Hollywood, advertising and merchandising.”
“You must learn by imitation,” Perelman said. “I could have been arrested for imitating Lardner in my pieces in the late 1920s— not the content, but the manner. These influences gradually fall away.”
Turning to his experience teaching his humor writing course at Yale, Zissner says, “Enjoyment, finally, is what all humorists must convey— the idea that they are having a terrific time, and this notion of cranked up audacity is what I wanted my Yale students to grapple with.”
One of the writers he and his students looked at was Stephen Leacock, who reminding him that “another function of the humorist is to represent himself or herself as the victim or dunce, helpless in most situations.” He adds, “a humorist who deals with ordinary life never runs out of material.”
In his Yale class, he says, “We ran into problems, mainly of exaggeration, and gradually solved them, trying to acheive control, cutting the extra sentence that explains a funny point that is already implicit.” Summing up the class’s experience, he says “…our class began by striving first for humor and hoping to wing a few truths along the way. We ended by striving for truth and hoping to add humor along the way. Ultimately we realized that the two are intertwined.”
The Sound of Your Voice
Zissner starts this section explaining that he’s written two books— one on jazz and one on baseball— but that both books are written in the same style: his unique voice.
He says “My commodity as a writer, whatever I’m writing about, is me. And your commodity is you. Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page, a voice that’s enjoyable not only in its musical line but in its avoidance of sounds that would cheapen its tone: breeziness and condescension and cliches.
First, he starts with breeziness (what it is and what it’s not).
The effortless style (where it sounds as if the writer were telling you a story in the same room) is not breeziness. The effortless style is the opposite of breeziness. He says, “the effortless style at its best [is]: a methodical act of composition that disarms us with its generated warmth. The writer sounds confident; he’s not trying to ingratiate himself with the reader.”
On the other hand, there’s a labourious list of “all the reasons why [breeziness] is so terrible. It’s crude. It’s corny. It’s verbose. It’s contemptuous of the English language. It’s condescending. (I stop reading writers who say “You see.”) But the most pathetic thing about the breezy style is that it’s harder to read than good English… Nobody wants to be patronized.” He continues, “Write with respect for the English language at its best… If you’re smitten by the urge to try the breezy style, read what you’ve written aloud and see if you like the sound of your voice.”
Finding a voice that readers will enjoy, he says, comes down to the undefinable quality of taste— which being undefinable, he admits, isn’t much helpful advice. Unlike the aspects of taste in other art forms— such as in architecture where certain attractive features (the subjective) can be distilled into mathematical proportions (the objective)— writing has fewer guidelines. “…Writing is the expression of every peron’s individuality, and we know what we like when it comes along.” He continues, “Again, however, much can be gained by knowing what to omit.”
“Cliches are the enemy of taste.” Echoing his earlier, fundamental advice, he says, “freshness is crucial. Taste chooses words that have surprise, strength, and precision.” Then, “But finally, taste is a mixture of qualities that are beyond analyzing: an ear that can hear the difference between a sentence that limps and a sentence that lilts, an intuition that knows when a casual or a vernacular phrase dropped into a formal sentence will not only sound right but will seem to be the inevitable choice.”
So, can taste be learned? “Yes and no. Perfect taste, like perfect pitch is a gift from God. But a certain amount can be acquired… The trick is to study the writers who have it.” He continues, “Never hesitate to imitate another writer. Imitation is part of the creative process for anyone learning an art or a craft… Find the best writers in the fields that interest you and read their work aloud. Get their voice and their taste into your ear— their attitude toward language.”
Enjoyment, Fear, and Confidence
Growing up, Zissner deeply admired the writers of a newspaper he read daily, the New York Herald, because he sensed the editors, writers, photographers, etc. were having a good time. Years later, when he finally got a job at the same newspaper, he says “I brought with me my belief that a sense of enjoyment is a priceless attribute for a writer or for a publication… Since then I’ve made that sense of enjoyment my credo as a writer and an editor.”
When S.J. Perelman, who Zissner invited to his speak to his Yale class, was asked “What does it take to be a comic writer?”, he responded “It takes audacity and exuberance and gaiety, and the most important one is audacity… The reader has to feel that the writer is feeling good. Even if he isn’t.
The easiest way to make the reader feel like you’re (the writer) feeling good is actually get into a state of feeling good. “Writers have to jump-start themselves at the moment of performance, no less than actors and dencers and painters and musicians… You also have to turn on the switch.”
Whenever fear arises and Zissner looks at his writing as “the days work,” and not with enjoyment, he’s “often dismayed by the sludge [he sees] appearing on [his] screen.” The only consolation, he says, is “I’ll get another shot at those dismal sentences tomorrow and the next day and the day after. With each rewrite I try to force my personality onto the material.”
To quell fear, Zissner recommends “[writing] about subjects that interest you and that you care about.” How else do you build confidence? “Living is the trick. Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested… I’ve used writing to give myself an interesting life and a continuing education. If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write. Learning is a tonic.
Another tip: “If you want your writing to convey enjoyment, write about people you respect.”
As for writing about subjects outside of your comfort-zone, he says “If you master the tools of the trade— the fundamentals of interviewing and of orderly construction—and if you bring to the assignment your general intelligence and your humanity, you can write about any subject. That’s your ticket to an interesting life.”
The Tyranny of the Final Product
In this section, Zissner warns against the lethal question “How can I sell my writing?” which puts the writer’s focus on the end-product, instead of on the process to get there.
“This fixation on the finished article causes writers a lot of trouble, deflecting them from all the earlier decisions that have to be made to determine its shape and voice and content… If the process is sound, the product will take care of itself, and sales are likely to follow.”
While wondering how to solve the predicament of getting new writers to let go of their infactuation with the completed act of writing, Zissner designed a course for the New School in New York City where the students didn’t actually do any writing at all. Instead, he asked the class to pitch their ideas for a story. During each class, his students pitched ideas, and Zissner rejected them asking the writer to go deeper. When, finally, the student arrived at a subject worth writing about, several people in the class said, “There’s your story.” In essence, “The student had been given time to find it… That release from immediacy was what I wanted to get into the metabolism of my students.”
The section ends with advice centered around two words: quest and advice.
Many of the students from his New School class “used the assignment to go on a quest for something deeper than the place [they chose to write about] itself: a meaning, an idea, some sliver of the past… Every quest that a student embarked on found an echo in some search or yearning of our own. Moral: Any time you can tell a story in the form of a quest or a pilgrimage you’ll be ahead of the game.”
“Intention is what we wish to accomplish with our writing. Call it the writer’s soul. We can write to affirm and to celebrate, or we can write to debunk and to destroy; the choice is ours… It all begins with intention. Figure out what you want to do and how you want to do it, and work your way with humanity and integrity to the completed article. Then you’ll have something to sell.
A Writer’s Decisions
In this section, Zissner uses an article he wrote (which ran in Condé Nast Traveler) about his travels to Timbuktu— yes, it’s a real place— to show us the smaller decisions (compared to matters of shape, structure, compression, focus, intention, etc.) that go into the organizing of an article.
“Learning how to organize a long article is just as important as learning how to write a clear and pleasing sentence. All your clear and pleasing sentences will fall apart if you dont keep remembering that writing is linear and sequential, that logic is the glue that holds it together, that tension must be maintained from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next and from one section to the next, and that narrative— good old-fashioned storytelling— is what should pull your readers along without their noticing the tug. The only thing they should notice is that you have made a sensible plan for your journey. Every step should seem inevitable.”
Taking us back to The Lead, he says “The hardest decision about any article is how to begin it. The lead must grab the reader with a provocative idea and continue with each paragraph to hold him or her in a tight grip, gradually adding information. The point of the information is to get readers so interest that they will stick around for the whole trip… You’ll know its over when all the necessary work has been done and you can take a more relaxed tone and get on with your narrative.”
Next, “No less important then decisions about structure are decisions about individual words. Banality is the enemy of good writing; the challenge is to not write like everybody else.”
When deciding how much to describe something (eg a person, a place, or an event), he says “At such moments I ask myself one very helpful question: “What is the piece really about?” You should cut anything that isn’t relevant to the higher meaning of the story, which, he admits, requires “Self-discipline bordering on masochism…”
Then, he goes into an in-depth analysis explaining his reasoning for choosing certain words instead of others, why he decided to inject humor into a particular sentence, the varying length of his sentences, etc (all the smaller details that add up to a bigger picture).
At last, “A crucial decision about a piece of writing is where to end it. Often the story will tell you where it wants to stop… When your story tells you its over, regardless of what subsequently happened— look for the door.” The ending he ended up using in the article was not the original ending he had in mind. But after realizing that the climax of his story had been about the hospitality of nomads he met along the way, he knew he wasn’t obligated to detail how his trip ended. “The realization that I could stop was a terrific feeling, not only because my labors were over— the jigsaw puzzle solved— but because the ending felt right. It was the correct decision.”
He ends the section saying “there’s one last deciding I’d like to mention. It has to do with the nonfiction writer’s need to make his or her own luck. An exhoration I often us to keep myself going is “Get on the plane… Getting on the plane has taken me to unusual stories all over the world and all over America, and it still does… As a nonfiction writer you must get on the plane. If a subject interests you, go after it, even if it’s in the next county or the next state or the next country…” He continues, “Decide what you want to do. Then decide to do it. Then do it.”
Writing Family History and Memoir
This section, I believe, should’ve been condensed into the earlier Memoirs section, as it has more to do with the reasons for writing a memoir and its form, rather than any type of attitude towards writing. Aside from the memoir, however, Zissner tells us how we can preserve our family histories for future generations through writing.
First, family histories; recording your family history can take many shapes— it can be a formal memoir, or it can be an informal family history, or it can be an oral history taken with a tape recorder, or it can be some hybrid form of each. “Whatever it is, its an important kind of writing. Memories too often die with their owner, and time to often surprises us by running out.”
Onto the memoir; Zissner recalls the wave of memoirs that came washing ashore in the 90’s— a result, he says, of the advent of tell-all talk shows— in which writers used the form “to wallow in self-revelation and self-pity and to bash everyone who had ever done them wrong.” He continues, “Writing was out and whining was in… But nobody remembers those books today; readers won’t connect with whining.”
“The memoirs that we do remember from the 1990s are the ones written with love and forgiveness, like Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, Frank MccCourt’s Angelas’ Ashes, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, and Pete Hamill’s A Drinking Life.” The difference was that these writers were as hard on themselves, as they were on others; in other words, they were fair. He says, “For them, writing a memoir became an act of healing.”
“It can also be an act of healing for you. If you make an honest transaction with your own humanity and with the humanity of the people who crossed your life, no matter how much pain these caused you or you cause them, readers will connect with your journey.”
How do you organize a memoir? “Most people embarking on a memoir are paralyzed by the size of the task… Because of this anxiety, many memoirs linger for years half-written, or never get written at all.” Like in many other forms, you must make decisions of reduction. If you recall from the earlir memoir section from forms, Zissener says the memoir is an a focused look at an specific time in one’s life.
Thus, he says “Look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in memory. If you still remember them it’s because they contain a universal truth that readers will recognize in their own life… The small stories that stick in you memory have a resonance of their own. Trust them.”
When and if you decide to embark on a memoir, he says “Tackle your life in manageable chunks.”
He instructs: ”Go to your desk on Monday morning and write about some event that’s still vivid in your memory. It doesn’t have to be long…but it should have a beginning and an end. Put that episode in a folder and get on with your life. On Tuesday morning, do the same thing… Keep this up for two months, or three months, or six months.” He continues, “Then, one day, take all your entries out of their folder and spread them on the floor… Read them through and see what they tell you and what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoir is about— and what it’s not about… Then all you have to do is put the pieces together.”
Write as Well as you Can
In this final section, Zissner reveals the two biggest influences on his writing— one received from each parent— and sums up what it takes to be a great writer.
His mother was the literary one in his family, and loved good writing whether she found it in a newspaper or a book. Thus, she instilled in him from an early age the idea “that good writing can appear anywhere… and that what matters is the writing itself, not the medium where it was published. Therefore, he says, “I’ve always tried to write as well as I could by my own standards…”
From his father’s side, a business man, who “had a passion for quality and had no patience with the second-rate…” he received the gift of “a bone-deep belief that quality is its own reward.” He continues “… it was from the world of business that I absorbed my craftsman’s ethic.”
A love of language and a craftsman’s work-ethic are, ultimatly, what led Zissner to become a writer, and he wanted to be the best. But “Unlike medicine or the other sciences, writing has no new discoveries to spring upon us.” The information about how to write a clear English sentence has been around since the King James Bible. “We’re all working with the same words and the same principles.”
He asks, rhetorically, “Where, then, is the edge?”
“Ninety percent of the answer lies in the hard work of mastering the tools discussed in this book. Add a few points for such natural gifts as a good musical ear, a sense of rhythm and a feeling for words. But the final advantage is the same one that applies in every other competitive venture. If you would like Ike to write better than everybody else, you have to want to write better than everybody else.”
In a more digestible format, that’s:
What it Takes to be a Great Writer:
90% hard work of mastering the craft of writing
2-3% in-bourne talent
As a last bit of advice, he says “Take your talent as far as you can and guard it with you life. Only you know how far that is; no editor knows. Writing well means believing in your writing and believing in yourself, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel. You will write only as well as you can make yourself write.”
Zissner leaves us with his favorite quote, from Joe DiMaggio, repurposed to define a careful writer: When a reporter asked the player how he managed to play so well so consistently, he said “I always thought that there was at least one person in the stands who had never seen me play, and I didn’t want to let him down.”