Writing to Learn: How to Write--and Think--Clearly About Any Subject at All by William Zinsser (Harper & Row: $15.95; 256 pages)
A friend recently described himself as "a fiction person" while I was "a nonfiction person," which struck me as both an accurate description of him and me and as a very good way of dividing the human race. There are fiction people and there are nonfiction people.
Fiction may indeed be a higher form of writing, and great literature may tell us more about the human condition than all nonfiction combined, but there is something to be said for nonfiction too. Clear, simple, declarative English sentences that convey information are a pleasure to read.
What's more, as William Zinsser insists in "Writing to Learn," good writing and good thinking are a unified whole. They come in a package. Improving one means improving the other, and it is a goal that everyone can and should attain.
"Writing is a form of thinking, whatever the subject," he tells us on Page 1. Later he adds, "If you force yourself to think clearly you will write clearly. It's as simple as that. The hard part isn't the writing; the hard part is the thinking."
Zinsser's book contains many useful tips and many good examples of good nonfiction prose, but it is not so much a textbook on good writing as an essay on good writing. The rules he leaves to "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White, which is still the best book available on how to write. Zinsser calls Strunk and White "a book every writer should read once a year." Hear! Hear!
But Zinsser has a somewhat different purpose in mind. His book is an argument for the value of writing in learning. Writing should not be just a tool for English majors to discuss literature, he says. It can and should be part of every academic discipline, particularly the sciences.
In the first part of the book, Zinsser, an accomplished writer and editor, describes his efforts to help institutions of higher learning implement "writing across the curriculum." This involves getting students and faculty in all disciplines to make writing an integral part of their course work.
"Writing . . . isn't a special language that belongs to English teachers and a few other sensitive souls who have a 'gift for words.' Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly should be able to write clearly--about any subject at all."
Under this plan, chemists and geologists and musicians and mathematicians are all required to write down what they're trying to say, to present it clearly and to organize it in a way that makes sense to an interested but non-specialist reader. The process of doing this helps them clarify their thinking.
"Writing is a tool that enables people in every discipline to wrestle with facts and ideas," Zinsser says. "It compels us by the repeated effort of language to go after those thoughts and to organize them and present them clearly. It forces us to keep asking, 'Am I saying what I want to say?' Very often the answer is 'No.' It's a useful piece of information."
In the second part of the book, Zinsser continues his exploration of the relationship between writing and thinking, and he backs up his ideas with a number of long examples of fine writing on some fairly technical subjects. He draws his examples from the sciences and from the arts. Geologists and physicists are represented, as are artists and composers. Unfortunately, his examples are too long to be presented here.
Clarity is an important component in good prose, he says, but more important, good writing must be "robust," full of life. "Timidity never produced a good piece of writing."
He cites Charles Darwin as an example of a scientist with a compelling idea who presented it in a compelling way. "Someone who gives the frontiers of knowledge an immense push is a good bet to be someone who can express his ideas clearly. Writing is the handmaiden of leadership; Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill rode to glory on the back of the strong declarative sentence."
Voice in Reader's Mind
This is the message of Zinsser's book. Good writing is a sign of good thinking. Whatever his discipline, a writer's thought processes should come through the page, and his voice should enter the reader's mind.
"The mathematician, the scientist and the philosopher, thinking and writing their way toward the center of a problem, are no less immersed than the composer, the artist and the writer in an act of commitment that they can never recover or even explain. What finally impels them all is not the work they achieve, but the work of achieving it."
Further, he says, "The subject--what a book is about--isn't as important as the qualities of mind or personality that the writer brings to it."
One of the differences between fiction and nonfiction is that it is easier to teach people to write nonfiction well. A literary style is very hard to teach. But most people can learn to write in a clear, compelling way. It's a matter of practice and having someone point out the mistakes.
Zinsser has struck a blow for clarity in prose and thought. His book proposes a lifetime education plan under which learning, thinking and writing are different aspects of the same activity.
One of the most charming things about "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White is that it practices what it preaches. It urges brevity in writing, and it is a short book. Like Strunk and White, Zinsser follows his own advice.