"Hard writing makes easy reading. Easy writing makes hard reading."
"Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon."
"There's no sentence that's too short in the eyes of God."
~ Quotes by William Zinsser
Jeff has always said, "Being a writer is hard work – being a good writer is a lifetime of hard work," to which I'd sigh, shrug my shoulders, and bury my nose – once again – in my keyboard. Many months ago, I thought "How could something I love doing be this difficult?" Hard work? "Bah, humbug." As I continued to learn how to write, however, (and merely on an adequate level, mind you) I realized that truer words had never been spoken.
It is hard work.
As I compare the sentences I write to the ones Jeff edits, the difference is astounding. His sentences are clearer, shorter, easier to read, and "pack more punch." It's rather amazing.
I have often heard the tales of Dr. England's "red pen of death" from his college days. They're similar to horror stories – minus the monsters and evil demons. The meticulous way his papers were graded and the constructive criticism he received were a foundation of sorts for his writing. I must note, however, that the first time Jeff met England's pen this is what he read, "I like your rhetoric" and that they grew to admire each other's qualities and accomplishments – they became great friends.
I surmise – after reading a very small selection of his earlier work – that his talent to turn a phrase was born long ago, however. The Literature and Composition courses merely honed an ability that he already possessed. At least, that's the way I see it: And perhaps, Dr. England saw this as well, which is why he wrote "I never want to see this kind of work from you again" in red – once – on one of Jeff's papers.
And this product of Celtic/Anglo-Norman ancestry with his extensive and exuberant knack for words has been my teacher…
But it's far from the "Yellow brick road" I assumed it would be. It's more like the dark forest, in which the winged monkeys fly up my ass and strip me of my "straw."
To my mind, Dr. England's red pen doesn't hold a candle to Jeff's expressions of displeasure: "You are no longer allowed to use split infinitives or the passive voice – under any circumstances. Both have their uses, but in your case, they're just habits. And it's never appropriate to dangle participles or mix tenses. That shit's just wrong." One may conclude that I have done all of the above, by now – and often. And he or she would be one hundred percent accurate.
But that's neither here nor there…
During my quest for writing knowledge, Jeff accompanies me to many local used book sales. The treasure trove that awaits us at each one is extraordinary: Dictionaries, thesauruses, do-it-yourself books, and table after table of history – old and new.
One wonders why such resources aren't treasured. Why are there rows upon rows of these neglected prizes? But here they are for a pittance. We're like two kids in a candy store: $1.00 for that one, $2.00 for this one, and fifty cents for…no way. Fifty cents! Jeff and I comb the tables for hours for such bargains. By the end of the day, we feel as if we've stolen thousands of dollars worth in artifacts.
Just call us the "Bookstore Bandits."
On our last used book excursion, Jeff found William Zinsser's Writing Well.
As he read it, I heard laughter, many "ah-has," and "Honey, this guy really knows his shit." He reached a stopping point and laid it aside. I picked it up and began to read. I couldn't put it down. I've since read it cover- to-cover – twice.
One thing that fascinates me about Zinsser's teachings is their "to the point" nature – he's very blunt. So much so; he writes as Jeff speaks.
In the preface of his book, he states, "My purpose is not to teach good nonfiction, or good journalism, but to teach good English that can be put to those uses. Don't assume that bad English can still be good journalism. It can't."
And in Chapter Three he writes this about clutter:
"I might add," "It should be pointed out," "It is interesting to note that," – how many sentences begin with these dreary clauses announcing what the writer is going to do next? If you might add, add it. If it should be pointed out, point it out. If it is interesting to note, make it interesting…
…Clutter takes more forms than you can shake a stick at. Prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything that you can throw away.
How is it possible that this book's asking price was a mere dollar?
And yet, the information found in its 142 pages is priceless. No good writer should be without one – no writer, period.
So, now this piece of brilliant writing advice sits on my desk along with the other writing references mentioned on my website. And here it will stay (Well, until Jeff comes to reclaim it for a spell).
Perhaps what I am about say has come to pass in part due to Zinsser's instruction, or it's more likely that Jeff's coaching has finally sunk in and Zinsser's book drove the nail home. But for the last week I have written my pieces with a clearer mind and a "steadier" hand.
How do I know?
Because the man who writes better than anyone I've ever known, the man who turns a phrase as easily as taking a breath, the man who makes the English language sparkle in every sentence he writes told me so. And he doesn't hand out compliments unless they're warranted.
Hence, my hopes for the days that follow are that I continue to grow – to gain knowledge – as a writer for the rest of my days and that the smile I saw on Jeff's face when he read my work shines often.