Tag: william zinsser

Two Quotes on Verbs

“Your best tools are short, plain Anglo-Saxon verbs. I mean active verbs, not passive verbs. If you could write an article using only active verbs, your article would automatically have clarity and warmth and vigor. […] Fall in love with active verbs. They are your best friends.”

William Zinsser, Writing English as a Second Language

“The nouniness of a piece of writing is a sure sign of lack of care for the reader and lack of thought in the writer. For writing is not just a way of communicating; it is a way of thinking. Nouny writing relieves the writer of the need to do either. In nouny writing, anything can be claimed and nothing can be felt. No one says who did what to whom, or takes ownership or blame. Instead of saying that x is not working (verb and participle), they say that there has been a loss of functionality (two nouns) in x.

How do you breathe life into sentences choked with nouns? Simple: use verbs. […] Verbs enact this universal law: everything moves. […] Life is a noun but it can only be lived as a verb.”

Joe Moran, First You Write a Sentence

Cut The Schwa

In their work George Orwell and William Zinsser encourage us to choose short words over long words because short words tend to be Anglo-Saxon and clear while long words tend to be Latin and unclear. Zinsser says of Latin words that “In general they are long, pompous nouns that end in -ion- like implementation […] or that end in -ent- like development and fulfilment. Those nouns express a vague concept or an abstract idea, a specific action we can picture – somebody doing something.” But is clarity the only reason short words are preferable over the long?

Joe Moran writes in First You Write a Sentence that “lots of short words in a sentence fattens the vowel sounds and cuts down on schwa. Schwa is that little indistinct uh sound in unstressed syllables – such as the a in above or sofa. Schwa is the most common sound in English, although you barely hear it, because it doesn’t shape the mouth.”

If, like a poet, you care for the sounds of your sentences, for the “sonic force” of your sentences as Moran put it, choose shorter words and cut the schwa.

How Do Writers Write?

E.B. White by Jill Krementz.

Writing isn’t just writing. Writing is rewriting; writing is editing; writing is brainstorming and organising; writing is all of these and more. According to writing coach Roy Peter Clarke, writing is a recursive process and every writer has their own process for each step.

In an interview with Conan a few years ago, the novelist George R.R. Martin revealed he writes on a DOS machine with Wordstar 4.0. The software is ancient but he’s wrote all the current books in A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) on it (some two million words) so, despite its age, it works for him.

At one point in his career John McPhee used KEDIT, a text editor, with two extensions, Structur and Alpha, to support and automate his system for structuring his writing. I tried his system for some of my essays and found it to be too much work. But it works for him.

When I wrote screenplays in university I tried the system Vince Gillian used for outlining episodes on Breaking Bad: a Sharpie and index cards. But that didn’t work either. I guess the magic isn’t in the Sharpie but in the person who wields the Sharpie.

In his introduction to the thirtieth anniversary edition of On Writing Well, William Zinsser says:

“I don’t know what still newer marvels will make writing twice as easy in the next 30 years. But I do know they won’t make writing twice as good. That will still require plain old hard thinking […] and the plain old tools of the English language.”