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.
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