On Writing Well by William Zinsser

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.


Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch

Creators whose work you admire, and who talk about the process of creation in an articulate, helpful, and inspiring way are quite rare. This is, I suppose, partly because creative people are not always prepared to turn round and face the mechanics of what they’re doing, particularly if it ain’t broke. (Alan Moore has that excellent comparison between himself and someone whose livelihood depends on the vehicle they drive: they would naturally want to understand how things work under the bonnet, so why shouldn’t he?) This makes those that can do this all the more valuable. I suppose it’s only natural that the most articulate creators should be those who are used to doing collaborative work where they have to explain their creative vision so that other people can understand it. So this would include comic creators such as the already-mentioned Alan Moore (the recent DVD of The Mindscape of Alan Moore being a prime example), and film directors such as Ridley Scott (whose DVD commentaries are always excellent) and Guillermo del Toro (ditto). I wouldn’t have ever expected David Lynch to fall into this category. In interviews about his films, he notoriously declines to analyse, comment or interpret his work, which always made me think he had a basically instinctive, rather than analytical, approach. (He says: “A film should stand on its own. It’s absurd if a filmmaker needs to say what a film means in words.”) So it was with great surprise that I discovered he’d written a book about the creative process, Catching the Big Fish, which was published in 2006.


It’s made up of a lot of short chapters. (Some chapters consist of a single sentence. Having just discussed the origins of Mulholland Drive, for instance, there’s a chapter called “The Box and the Key” — which are important elements in that film — which reads, simply, “I don’t have a clue what those are.”) Lynch writes in short, simple sentences which get straight to the point and leave out embellishment. He covers ideas and the creative process, film-making, anecdotes from his own life, but also there’s a lot about consciousness and meditation (the subtitle of the book is “Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity”). There’s rather more about consciousness and meditation than about creativity, but as Lynch sees the three as inextricably linked, that’s understandable.

David Lynch practices Transcendental Meditation. He sees this “diving deep down into the Self” as key to not just successful creativity, but a happy life. He doesn’t proselytise, but he also doesn’t really explain the process of TM (as they charge for courses, I suppose he can’t), which is a bit frustrating for the reader. You can’t try it out for yourself without an outlay (of about $2,500, according to Wikipedia), but I’m inclined to think that any form of “diving deep down into the Self” should do just as well, so Zen meditation, which is free to learn (simply sit there and think of nothing — a remarkably difficult thing to achieve), is probably just as good.

Lynch’s remarks about creativity are incisive. There’s nothing especially new, but hearing these things simply stated, and coming from a creator I admire, is inspiring in itself. Or perhaps this is just because Lynch’s simple prose makes everything he says seem so commonsensical. (“If you want to get one hour of good painting in, you have to have four hours of uninterrupted time” — something he was told by Bushnell Keeler, the artist father of a childhood friend. Also: “It’s crucial to have a setup, so that, at any given moment, when you get an idea, you have the place and the tools to make it happen.”) Lynch’s basic metaphor is that ideas are like fish, and, as he says, “If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch big fish, you’ve got to go deeper.” In one sentence he expresses a truth about creative ideas which I’ve long thought myself but have never managed to put so succinctly: an idea is “a thought that holds more than you think it does when you receive it.” This thought, this idea, for Lynch, is his touchstone throughout the rest of the creative process. He believes in being absolutely true to it, in always comparing what you’re doing to that initial thought or feeling, and correcting what you do if it strays too far. “If you stay true to the idea,” he says, “it tells you everything you need to know.” This can mean hard work, particularly in a commercial environment which, of all the arts, film is to the greatest extent. “Stay true to yourself,” he says. “Let your voice ring out, and don’t let anybody fiddle with it.” And if you do this? “You’ll glow in this peaceful way. Your friends will be very, very happy with you. Everyone will want to sit next to you. And people will give you money!”

Here’s to that last. Oh, and the others, I suppose. But can I have the last one sooner rather than later?