Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Improve Your Writing - Tuesday's Tip

I decided I need to improve my writing skills. In private I am a researcher, a family historian, an analyzer of documents but in public, as a blogger, I'm a writer--and I want to write well. I found the following two books helpful and thought you might enjoy them if you, too, feel the need to improve your writing.

My first recommendation is On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser.

Zinsser tells the reader, "Writing is hard work." I never thought of it as hard because I enjoy it so much. Reading this book helped me understand that rewriting is as important as writing. Rewriting is one of my challenges.

He says, "The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what--these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.”

The author addresses the importance of unity (in tense, person, and/or mood); of avoiding journalese; of not using clichés. He advises: "Get into the habit of using dictionaries.... Don't scorn that bulging grab bag Roget's Thesaurus.... There's no better friend to have around to nudge the memory.... Also bear in mind, when you're choosing words and stringing them together, how they sound.... Such matters as rhythm and alliteration are vital to every sentence."

Zinsser discusses simplicity, clutter, style, the audience, words, and usage; unity, the lead and the ending; and various kinds of nonfiction including literature, about people, places, yourself, science and technology, sports, etc., plus other aspects of writing.

There are two excellent sections for family history writers: "Writing Family History and Memoir" and "Writing About Yourself: The Memoir." These two chapters were added in later editions because of an increased interest in these areas. He takes them seriously. He wrote, "Writers are the custodians of memory. . . . Memories too often die with their owner, and time too often surprises us by running out.” He shares some excellent thoughts, attitudes, and insights for family history writers.

Other gems from the book:
“The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead.... Therefore your lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading. It must cajole him with freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humor, or surprise, or with an unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question. Anything will do, as long as it nudges his curiosity and tugs at his sleeve.”

“You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for."

Zinsser offers a bounty of thought for writers determined on self-improvement. Open the book once a day, read a page or two, and you'll come away with some ideas about how to improve your writing. I highly recommend it.

The second book I recommend is The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White. William Strunk was one of White's college professors in 1919. From personal memory White gives a vivid and endearing description of Strunk and his teaching style. (I wish I'd been a student in his classroom.) Years later White was commissioned to revise and update the book. He was successful in maintaining Professor Strunk's style, purpose, and the integrity of the original.

This book is five chapters short: Strunk was a proponent of brevity and clarity. Each chapter has numbered statements to illustrate and teach and includes several paragraphs and examples for each statement. Below are the chapter headings and some sample statements.

Elementary Rules of Usage
"6. Do not break sentences in two. In other words, do not use periods for commas...."
"8. Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary."

Elementary Principles of Composition
"14. Use the active voice. The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive...."
"15. Put statements in positive form. Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language...."
"17. Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences...."

A Few Matters of Form
"Exclamations. Do not attempt to emphasize simple statements by using a mark of exclamation. The exclamation mark is to be reserved for use after true exclamations or commands...."

Words and Expressions Commonly Misused
This section includes explanations to clarify words misused because their meanings are misunderstood by the writer.

An Approach to Style (With a List of Reminders) (and paragraphs to explain)
"1. Place yourself in the background."
"4. Write with nouns and verbs."
"5. Revise and rewrite. Revising is part of writing. Few writers are so expert that they can produce what they are after on the first try...."

Strunk and White teach that "Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur."

The Elements of Style is a guide to clarity in writing. If you want to write better, I encourage you to read and use this book.

Now, let's see if I can put the teachings in these books to effective use in future blog posts!


  1. I think I will order the first one. My writing could always use improvement.

  2. I am certainly going to take your advice in getting these book. I love your style of writing wishing I could do as well. Maybe reading these books will help. Thanks for posting this information.

  3. I found this interesting! Haha, I use exclamations inappropriately all the time. There's an awesome book-- "Writing with Style" by Trimble-- we used for a class in college. It was a good read.

  4. Thank you, Renee. What a nice compliment.

    Brenna, I'm going to read the Trimble book. Thanks for suggesting it.


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