Well, writing

Back in my undergraduate days, we were schooled in writing at the curmudgeonly guidance of William Zinsser and his classic work On Writing Well. It was an instruction for writing nonfiction, and it is now in its seventh edition, so it must still carry some weight.

I suppose I’ve internalized most of its lessons, so I don’t want to be dismissive of Mr. Zinsser. I probably owe him more than I will ever recognize. But to this day, I wonder if William Zinsser wears a seatbelt when he drives.

There is a point in the work that I still vividly remember in which Zinsser insists that people learn the proper meaning of the word “presently.” It means “soon” rather than “right now,” which is what most modern readers think it means. I’m not sure anyone since Mark Twain’s time uses the word with its proper meaning any more, but Zinsser was adamant that they should.

Yet later in the book he rants about how he refuses to say “This is he,” when asked for by name on the phone. He acknowledged that it is the correct, grammatical formation of the sentence, but he says he is simply uncomfortable saying it. And so I wonder about the seat belts. Once you’ve buckled up long enough, you grow comfortable wearing a seat belt. And so I wonder if perhaps he had just tried answering the query with the correct, grammatical formation, he might grow comfortable with it too. After all, he insists on proper usage by others.

So I had the chance to listen to another recorded book recently. (Even a bad book is welcome when you’re driving across Kansas twice in two days.) The story wasn’t much. It was set in China, but it was translated from the French, so I don’t know how many transformative iterations it had before it reached my ears. There were some usage problems in it though that would likely drive William Zinsser to harsh language.

People were constantly falling down. Things were rising up. Things were gathered together. Ugh! Is all of that redundant? Can something fall any direction but down? Or rise any direction but up? Do you ever need “together” after “gather”? Can you gather things “apart”?

These formations bug me (perhaps thanks to Mr. Zinsser’s classic book). It seems like sloppy writing and sloppy editing.

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One Comment on “Well, writing”

  1. osmiumantidote Says:

    I know how “Even a bad book is welcome when you’re driving across Kansas twice in two days.” I listened attentively to “Ft. Bragg” whilst driving across Oklahoma, even though the story was less than stellar. I highly recommend Anne Perry stories read by David McCallum, though.


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