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To write well, first tune out the clatter — if you can

woman-readingWhat’s the difference between good writing and everything else? At the risk of sounding pedantic, I’ll offer this: specificity.

You have to know what you’re writing and why. This doesn’t mean you have to know the exact form your writing will take before you lay down the first sentence, but at the very least, you should know what you want to communicate. This could be information, or just a feeling.

And this is a very difficult skill to master. I always advise my students to “trim the fat” from their work — if they use 12 words to say something, perhaps it can be said in 10, or even six. If another sentence three sentences later says essentially the same thing, cut it. If any given word, sentence, or detail doesn’t add to a piece, then it has no business being there.

But I’d be lying if I said I don’t struggle with this myself. Last fall, I was working on a 3,500-word feature for a magazine that went through about seven drafts before I landed on the right tone and structure for the piece. And I had to go through those seven drafts to get there — all the failures led to success. I also had a wonderful editor helping me see what should stay, and what had to go.

So it was with great interest that I read about William Zinsser in yesterday’s New York Times, a writing teacher of more than 50 years who, at 90, can no longer see. But he still helps students craft their work, find the right voice, and in his words, try to help a society that is “strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”

I have not read his seminal book on nonfiction writing, whose title reflects the author’s edict of directness and clarity, “On Writing Well,” but I seem to have internalized its lessons through association. Published in 1976, Zinsser’s book no doubt influenced many of the writers I’ve read over the past 20 years. His approach feels familiar, rigorous but not rigid, and ultimately, sympathetic to the difficulty of truly writing well.

Blinded by glaucoma, Zinsser now welcomes students to his Upper East Side apartment, where he sits and listens as his charges — adults, mostly — read aloud from their work. To him, this is not a disadvantage. To the contrary, he believes we all read with our ears; we just don’t realize it.

Perhaps this is the key: Learning to hear language. I have a colleague at Hunter College who told me once that he fell in love with journalism as a child in the 1940s and 50s, when he would read Time magazine and walk away with the “jingle” of certain sentences staying with him for hours. I often use musical analogies in class — a comma is a valve, like a rest in a musical score; sentences can be staccato, mezzo forte, or andante. I implore my students to read, to immerse themselves in all kinds of texts — magazine articles, books, blogs, novels, whatever — and to absorb the myriad styles they “hear.” In the words of Roy Peter Clark, I want them to “live inside the language.”

But then, the old cynicism returns and I wonder, maybe there’s just too much noise out there now. How can you immerse yourself in a text when another text is always just a click away? It’s no mystery why the word “cacophony” is so often used to describe the constant onslaught of Twitter and Facebook updates, blog posts, and 24-hour news. Cacophony, of course, means a “harsh, discordant mixture of sounds.”

In such a noisy world, a blind 90-year-old man has a great deal to teach — if anyone will take the time to listen.

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  • Jennifer April 30, 2013, 7:37 am

    I try and start my day catching up on reading and this was my first for today. Well said and very profound. Don’t think I need to go on and I’ll just savor this awhile. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • David Alm April 30, 2013, 1:18 pm

      Thank you! Much appreciated.

  • Francesco Sinibaldi June 13, 2013, 11:12 am

    En la silla.

    El sonido
    perpetuo de
    la noche
    una dulce
    poesía, el llanto,
    el ardor, la
    nueva emoción
    que candida

    Francesco Sinibaldi