I found William Zinsser’s On Writing Well for 15¢ in a charity shop in Los Angeles, and it was the best 15¢ I’ve ever spent. (Not that I’ve spent many ¢ents. I tend to stick to pence.) It’s about writing non-fiction, not fiction, but what it teaches still works, I think, as a basic grounding in wordcraft. It’s also the best example of a test I apply to every book on writing I’ve come across since: if a book is about writing, it ought to be well written, to prove the author knows what they’re talking about.
Whenever I read an excerpt from Zinsser’s book, it provides the perfect instruction by example alone. His basic tenet is best set out in his own words:
“…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.”
I find something lean and persuasive in Zinsser’s very style.
The situation complicates once you’re talking about fiction, of course, but I think the basic rule still applies. You still need to have every word earning its keep, it’s just that in fiction “its keep” needn’t be the communication of sense alone, it can also be mood, character, feel, and countless other things. Clark Ashton Smith’s highly poetic prose feels just as disciplined as Zinsser’s, it’s just serving a different end.
I usually come away from any good book on writing with one key good idea, but with Zinsser’s I came away with two. The first is his principle that the craft of writing non-fiction is to always think of the reader, to never let him or her fall asleep or get bored. You’ve always got to be making sure they’ll get what you want them to get from the words you’re using. The exception to this reader-first approach is humour. Zinsser’s rule here is that, if you find it funny, use it. Because there’s no universal sense of humour, you’re inevitably going to find some people just don’t get your jokes. But as long as you find them funny there’s a chance someone else will, so leave them in.
I know, if you glance through a few Mewsings, you’ll find enough examples that go against Zinsser’s principles to damn me to the nether circles of writerly Hell. But still he remains, for me, one of those ideals, those guides to always bring me back, when I need it, to a solid approach, a thing that works — the craft of writing, if not the art.
Though maybe a bit of that, too.