An Open Letter to the Student Who Criticized William Zinsser

Dear Adam: *

In this week’s online discussion, you do a great disservice to William Zinsser by dismissing his work as “based on nothing but his subjective opinions.” Zinsser was opinionated, of course, but in On Writing Well, he also used his own prose style to illustrate how it’s done.

Your focus on his injunction against qualifiers like “very” or “a bit” doesn’t acknowledge what mattered most to this gifted writing instructor: simplicity and unity. I chose his classic guide as the text for our class because so much work published online lacks simplicity and unity. Any form of creative expression relies on these principles to have an impact.

Some chapters in On Writing Well are outdated for a digital-media course. (The book was originally published in 1976.) But Zinsser’s chapters on “The Transaction,” “Simplicity,” “The Audience,” “Unity”—and especially “Clutter”—remain as relevant as ever. In fact, his jeremiad against word clutter is even more relevant in a world of overly chatty, misinformed, ranting social-media posts.

More than anything, I want students to use words in an intentional way. I believe Zinsser would have said that’s the end goal, too.

In my opening line above, for example, I use the phrase “great disservice”—which might seem like clutter, given that I qualify a formal word such as “disservice” with “great.” I could have expressed myself in far fewer words. But as a professional writer and editor, I’m used to choosing my words carefully. My use of “great disservice” is intentional. The phrasing is meant to convey my sadness that you seem so casually dismissive of Zinsser.

Over the past decade, I’ve witnessed many changes in journalism and the publishing industry as everything moves online. There’s no doubt our use of language and acceptable prose style keeps evolving. I, William Zinsser, Steven Pinker—even Strunk and White—wouldn’t tell any aspiring writer to cling to writing rules just because they’re rules.

Yet I have to push back when you insist generic words like spectacular or awesome get across what a reader wants to know. “Lady Gaga’s dress on the MTV Music Awards a few years ago,” you write, “can’t be expressed more accurately than as ‘spectacular.’”

How would you describe this dress—or dresses?
Lady Gaga at MTV’s Video Music Awards in 2010.

Yes it can. In this case, spectacular is a value judgment on your part, one that requires specifics. I’m not sure if you were referring to Gaga’s “meat dress,” but regardless: Why do you think it’s spectacular? Just because it was made of raw meat? Because it included a matching hat? Because the outfit included lace-up meat boots? Even if a post includes an image of the dress in question (as in the clip above), we all have different opinions of dresses, Lady Gaga, MTV, or other idioms that may seem obvious to you, the writer, but aren’t to others.

Here’s what Gaga herself said in an interview with Ellen DeGeneres:

“It’s certainly no disrespect to anyone that’s vegan or vegetarian,” Gaga told DeGeneres, who herself is vegan, in a post-show interview. “As you know, I’m the most judgment-free human being on the Earth. It has many interpretations, but for me this evening it’s [saying], ‘If we don’t stand up for what we believe in, if we don’t fight for our rights, pretty soon we’re going to have as much rights as the meat on our bones.’ “

—from “Lady Gaga Explains Her Meat Dress”
(Billboard, 2010)

Whatever you think of a pop star’s attempt to explain her actions, the donning of a dress as public spectacle and symbol covers a lot more ground than “spectacular.”

Writing well is a craft, one that authors like me develop over a lifetime. That’s why I think of writing assessment as qualitative rather than based on “subjective opinions.” In evaluating a piece of writing, I focus on the quality of what I’m reading overall. I consider each sentence to be a unit of thought. When the writing is intentional and has a unified point of view, a writer may well break the rules—just as I’m doing now with my use of qualifiers like “just” or “I think.”

But generic words like awesome, which people now use for everything from a slice of pizza to Medicare for All, are the verbal equivalent of an emoji. They’re all attitude with no specifics.

Worse, they undercut a writer or speaker’s credibility. Think of US President Donald Trump’s use of a “perfect” phone call or a “beautiful” coronavirus test, and you’ll see why such generic words are not only information-free but can also be dangerous.

‘Beautiful’ and ‘perfect’ tests: Trump visits the CDC on March 6, 2020.

Good writing is all in the details. It’s about conveying what you know and observe of the world in specific descriptions that speak to more than just the writer or a few of his or her friends. At the close of George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write,” he famously put it this way: “Good prose is like a windowpane.” He meant prose that allows readers to see, feel, and understand the thing described—and in which the words themselves don’t clutter things up or confuse readers.

This matches my own goals as a writer and journalist, not to mention Zinsser’s advice in On Writing Well and Steven Pinker’s emphasis on classic writing style in A Sense of Style (Viking Penguin, 2015). As a teacher, I encourage students to question how writers of all kinds use words. I also believe due respect should be paid to the masters.

I’ll close with Orwell’s ending for “Why I Write,” which may not appeal to you, Adam. But for me, Orwell’s words remain powerful seven-plus decades after they were first published. Considering how unsettled the world is at this moment, they’re not only relevant but prescient:

Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

— George Orwell, “Why I Write” (1946)

Martha Nichols is a faculty instructor in the journalism program at the Harvard Extension School. She’s also the co-founder and editor of Talking Writing, a digital magazine and nonprofit organization based in the Boston area. She’s published work in Utne Reader, Harvard Business Review, Christian Science Monitor, and many other outlets—and recently edited the anthology Into Sanity: Essays About Mental Health, Mental Illness, and Living in Between (Talking Writing Books, 2019).

* “Adam” is not this student’s real name, but his comment was made in a March 2020 online class discussion in Designing Stories for the Web.

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