Reading A Timely New Essay By William Zinsser (Amidst A March Madness of Magazines)

For whatever fluke of timing, I received nearly a half-dozen magazines in my mailbox (and email inbox) over the last couple of days. Good stuff in each of them, worth sharing here. 

The latest issue of North Carolina’s Metro Magazine (under whose aegis I write this blog) features a cover story on Durham, N.C. — really a set of several articles, including Diane Lea’s look at the city’s architectural past, present and future and a great write-up by Morton Neal on “America’s Foodiest Town.” (The latter made me hungry.)

Mystery Scene, to which I contribute regularly, has offered up a great new issue too, featuring a cover story on S.J. Rozan, a look back at Gregory McDonald’s famous Fletch series, an article by Charles and Caroline Todd about their new book A Matter of Justice (also see my own interview here), and Jon L. Breen’s reviews of some new scholarly books, include The Annotated Dracula (and that’s just hitting the articles I’ve read so far!). The issue also includes, I should add, my own quick look at Agatha Christie’s Mrs. Marple. (Note: As I’m writing this, Mystery Scene‘s website has not been updated with the new issue; I’ll provide links later as they become available.)

On the subject of mysteries: The Strand arrived on the same day, and I was interested to see “New Story by Mark Twain” on the cover: “The Undertaker’s Tale,” from the collection Who Is Mark Twain? (Mark Twain seems to be producing a lot of new work lately; threats of a blizzard (that never materialized) unfortunately forced several of us to miss the Olney Theatre’s production of Twain’s recently discovered play Is He Dead?)

I also received an email this week from Stop Smiling magazine, pitching their annual “20 Interviews” issue. The big sell was the last interview conducted with Roberto Bolaño (not available online, unfortunately, and I haven’t seen the full issue yet); what is available online here includes interviews with Ry Cooder and Junot Díaz, among others.

Finally — and especially timely given where we are on my syllabus at this point in the semester — the Yale Alumni Magazine brought an essay by William Zinsser, legendary writing teacher and author of the book On Writing Well. In one of my own classes this week, I’ll be teaching Joseph Mitchell’s “The Old House At Home,” and in another, I’ll be in the thick of one-on-one conferences with my students, trying to tell them what they did right and where they still need to put in more effort on their big research essays, so it was coincidental to see Mitchell discussed in the following excerpt from Zinsser’s essay, and given Zinsser’s reflections on teaching writing, I’m doubly prepped now to get my own hands dirty in those conferences:

toc_zinsser1Every week I assigned a paper in one of the forms that nonfiction commonly takes: the interview, the technical or scientific or medical article, the business article, the sports article, the humor piece, the critical review, writing about a place. I would explain the pitfalls and special requirements of the genre, often reading one of my own pieces to demonstrate how I had tried to solve the problem, or reading passages by writers I admired who had brought distinction to a particular form: Alan Moorehead, Joan Didion, V. S. Pritchett, Norman Mailer, Garry Wills ’61PhD, Virgil Thomson. I wanted my students to know that nonfiction has an honorable literature — they were entering the land of H. L. Mencken and George Orwell and Joseph Mitchell.

Mitchell had been the most influential journalist for nonfiction writers of my generation. His long New Yorker articles about the New York waterfront were gems of reporting and humanity; the “ordinary” people he wrote about were never patronized or judged. But he had perversely allowed his books to go out of print, and the students in my class had never heard of him until I brought in some passages to read….

When I first taught my course I assumed that I would achieve most of my teaching with my didactic little talk explaining the form that the students had been assigned next. I sent them forth to do a travel piece or a sports piece or an interview in full confidence that they would apply all the hard-won principles I had so lucidly imparted. But when their papers came back, only about 20 percent of those principles had made it onto the page; pitfalls I had specifically warned against were repeatedly fallen into. The moral was clear: crafts don’t get learned by listening. If you want to be an auto mechanic you take an engine apart and reassemble it, and the teacher points out that you have put the carburetor in wrong. I would need to get my hands dirty making sure every carburetor was properly installed.

The full essay, “First, use plain English,” is well worth the read — for writing teachers, for writers, or for anyone. 

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0 thoughts on “Reading A Timely New Essay By William Zinsser (Amidst A March Madness of Magazines)

  1. emerich

    I read one of his early editions 30 years ago and got this 30th anniversary edition just now. I was reading pleasurably along when I came across the sentence: “It was during George Bush’s presidency that ‘civilian casualties’ in Iraq became ‘collateral damage.'” I happen to be old to enough to remember that the same euphemism was used during the Vietnam war. Pruning your sentences is great advice, but getting your facts right helps your credibility. A lot.