Humanity and Warmth

Holy Grail in Valencia, Spain

Holy Grail in Valencia, Spain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If “…the essence of writing is rewriting” as William Zinsser claims in his book, “On Writing Well” , then take me to the dentist.  I would rather let a dentist do excavation work in my mouth than rewrite, but I know this evil twin to the writing process is necessary.

Zinsser, I suspect does not “suffer fools gladly”. I do, as I consider them to be my cohorts, but nonetheless I like his style—confident, demanding, and dare I say it, entertaining—though don’t tell him that. I think the word entertaining would baffle and horrify him, so I must find some better words: engaging, compelling, even witty describe him more suitably.

In Part 1 of his book, titled “Principles”, he sets out his manifesto. He states that two of the most important qualities his book “will go in search of are humanity and warmth”. In searching for these qualities he is unforgiving, but by being unforgiving he is setting goals for writers who should always be in search of the “Holy Grail” of writing: clarity.

Zinsser found himself on a two person panel at a school in Connecticut for a “day devoted to the arts.” He and a doctor (who had just recently begun to write) were asked several questions about the writing process.  The first was “What is it like to be a writer?” The doctor said he came home after an arduous day of surgery and would go straight to his yellow pad and “write his tensions away”. He said the words flowed and it was easy. The same question posed to Zinsser found a very different answer. He said that it was neither easy nor fun and that it was “hard and lonely and the words seldom just flowed.”

The doctor was asked if it was important to rewrite. His response was absolutely not—“let it all hang out”. He felt the sentences should reflect the writer at his most “natural”. Again Zinsser did not quite see things the same way. He stated that “rewriting is the essence of writing” and that professional writers “rewrite their sentences over and over and then rewrite what they have rewritten.”

What if you are depressed the students asked the panelists. Then “go fishing” said the doctor. Zinsser pointed out that if your job is to write every day, then you learn to do it every day, depressed or not.

The last question dealt with symbolism. The doctor said he loved symbols, and weaving them into his works was a joy.  Zinsser, in his humble assessment of his attributes said he did not use symbolism if he could help it because he “has an unbroken record of missing the deeper meaning in any story, play or movie, and as for dance and mime” he never had any idea about what was being conveyed.

I love this book—it is riveting. Zinsser is at once clever, uncompromising, intelligent and well, downright entertaining. He sprinkles his hard-nosed advice with wonderful asides, vignettes, and examples, and by the end, you too are convinced that the “essence of writing is in the rewriting” even if it is painful.

Oh, and as for the doctor—he was very interested to find out that writing could be hard. And Zinsser?  He is taking up surgery on the side, and I imagine when it gets difficult—he will just go fishing.

An icon for rewriting an article and for other...

An icon for rewriting an article and for other purposes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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13 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Lovely review. It’s funny, as I can see both the Dr’s viewpoint and Zinsser’s too in the exchange you mention. I am a writer and earn my money by writing (and editing) things for other people. This involves a lot of rewriting, editing, cutting. Yet when I sit to write my own thing, I get very anxious and sit there not knowing what to do. It’s like a fear that comes over me. So I can see the value of the advice to go fishing but then I think I might spend my life waiting for a catch! At that point it’s time to turn to Zinsser and be self-disciplined.

  2. there are always two sides aren’t there – and you have described both beautifully – you should blog on this – the doctor vs the serious writer – thanks for your comment

  3. Very interesting!

  4. Isn’t it wonderful when you love a book…I am always sorry a good book comes to an end. Great post, always interesting.

  5. Me too – sometimes you start to read it more slowly to make it last

  6. Love the review. Definitely will have to add this to my must read list. I’m trying to find more inspirations for my writing, but also wanting to be able to write well, what I do write. Maybe I need to take up fishing and this will all be resolved? I’ll read the book and find out. Great blog.

    • Zinsser is a hard task master, but well worth following. Good luck, and if all fails, go fishing!

  7. I quite liked this post. I’m going to have to pick up Zinsser’s book, I think. I often think along those lines myself; that writing must be clear. And re-writing is absolutely essential to clarity. I’m an editor by day, and my job would be so much simpler if the writers for whom I edit would just look at what they have written and have the good grace to go back over it and make it more clear. I’d spend fewer hours beating my head against my computer monitor, trying to “research” what they mean and more time actually editing their grammar and punctuation, which is what I’m paid to do. Having said that, by night I am a writer and I often find the task of re-writing to be terribly onerous and painful. However, when the task seems insurmountable, I use a trick to get me re-writing. I think of the initial draft as the foundation, then each re-write becomes a building block with which I craft or build the final, “perfect” draft. May your re-writing be less painful.

    • Thank you – I think if I look at it as the foundation and not the finished product I will be less likely to dislike rewriting – because, as you say rewriting is essential – I am in essence my own editor and it is tough editing your own work
      Sometimes though, when I rewrite, I lose my way–

  8. Editing and rewriting is time-consuming and none too pleasant. It’s just that those quick edits turn into month-long affairs. It’s because you want your work to be good and keep seeing ways to improve it. It’s part of the deal. Then again, the great writers, Dickens,Tolstoy, wrote a lot and probably did little to no editing. Victor Hugo averaged 20 hand-written pages a day. The late Isaac Asimov must have averaged even more than that.

    • I think we can over-edit, and throw out too many of our babies, but not editing at all, unless you are Dickens or Tolstoy is not a very professional way to go. As much as I do not like rewriting, I know it is necessary. Thanks for your insight


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