When I decided that I wanted to be a writer on more than a casual basis, I decided that I needed to learn more about the craft of writing. I was also working out how I wanted to write a book on quitting my job. I had started out believing that this book would be a how-to manual on leaving a high paying job. I outlined the book on that premise and started filling in the chapters. The material was okay but not particularly interesting. I needed to pause and give some more thought to this writing process. About the same time I was reading a few memoirs and now with a writer’s eye I was reading the books differently. I was impressed with how writer of memoirs made an ordinary story about and experience in life interesting to others. I soon discovered that it’s a real art form to write well and requires hard work to execute.
As I was looking around the Internet for resources on writing memoirs, a search on the “best book on writing memoir” brought me some interesting possibilities. The search brought back a book called Writing about Your Life by William Zinsser. I then looked up William Zinsser. He has a website and several links to articles he published online. He also has links to his many books, about 18 in total. Zinsser, who is now in his 80’s, is a reporter, editor, teacher, author, world traveller, and family man. He was born and raised in New York City and continues to call New York City home.
So I sat down with my iPad and started to read the blog that Bill (I now feel familiar enough to him to call him Bill) wrote for the American Scholar, an online magazine. Zinsser on Friday ran for two years starting in 2010 and the magazine keeps the posts available on their website. As I read the posts, I realized that I was hooked. I decided that I’m a William Zinsser groupie. He is funny, smart, and accessible. He’s had an interesting life – at least the parts he writes about. The best thing about his writing though is that he considers himself a teacher first, and through instruction and example, he instills a confidence in you that you too can write nonfiction well. There is a catch of course, you have to be willing to work hard at the craft to stand out in a crowd.
My father is a retired journeyman electrician. I can vaguely remember when I was four or five years old that he would leave for weeks at a time to go away to school in Calgary, AB, to do his course work. Dad apprenticed under Uncle Lester, my mother’s uncle, and earned his papers working for him. Dad was supposed to be brought into the family farm enterprise but being a city boy, he had no real connection to the business. Maybe he had a kinship Uncle Lester, because while my great uncle was born and raised on a farm, farming was not in his blood either.
Uncle Lester taught my dad to be a professional. In turn, Dad taught me what it meant to be a professional. Dad would often point out that the difference between the work he did and the work that weekend do-it-yourselfers did was distinguished by the quality of the work left behind. Yes, you could learn to wire a house out of a book, but the mastery of the craft comes from practice. It’s hard work: anticipating problems, planning ahead, running wires neatly, wires tied off properly, a panel wired to code. Even I could see the difference between a professional wiring job and the work of a hack.
Dad also taught me about the value of learning to use your tools well. His tools were wire cutters, screw drivers, wrenches and electrical tape among others. I learned to tell the difference between a Robertson and Phillips screw driver. I learned the minimum compliment of tools for a tool pouch. I also learned that you need to start with the basics. Learn how to screw in a screw with a screw driver. Learn to do it with either hand because a day’s worth of work screwing in screws will make your dominant hand tired in a hurry. You must do a really good job of the basics and then you can move onto the more complicated stuff that makes the profession interesting.
I never quite mastered using the tools of an electrician effectively and efficiently. I wasn’t going to be a journeyman electrician, I had other plans. Yet the lessons I learned I still carry with me. For me, that was learning how to effectively and efficiently use a computer, software, and other tools of my administrator’s trade. I learned the art of management and took an advanced degree to learn the principles. It took years of experience in applying those principles to make me a professional, confident and competent manager.
Now I am embarking on a new profession. I need to learn from an accomplished master, learn to use the tools of the trade, and master the basics before moving onto the more complicated aspects of writing, that is, before I turn pro.
After I was hooked on Bill’s writing by reading his entire two year archive of blog posts in one sitting on a Saturday afternoon, I knew that I needed to read one of his books. I wanted to read On Writing Well probably his best known book about writing nonfiction. Bill wrote the book in 1976 and has faithfully updated and revised the book about every five years since. I really wanted to read it on my iPad, but there was no electronic form of the book available. The latest edition was the 30th Anniversary Edition published in 2006. The next edition is due out but not until next year. I wasn’t prepared to wait that long to read the next edition, even if it was published in an electronic format.
So I went online to my one of my favourite bookstores and ordered the book. In order to meet a minimum amount for free shipping, I bought Writing About Your Life too. The total came to $26 just enough to meet the minimum requirement for free shipping. I’m unaccustomed these days to waiting to read a book, but I had wait the week it took for the books to arrive. It was worth the wait.
Bill’s approach to writing is to teach you about the process of writing. He wants to focus on teaching the craft. He assumes that you have a basic grasp of writing skills like grammar or spelling although he doesn’t entirely take that assumption for granted. He points out that the writer’s main tools are words and the tool kit is made up of grammar and spelling and usage. He wants to teach the basics of “writing well.” Strong, simple, active language. Interesting narrative. Advancement of the story.
He compares the process of learning to write to learning the basics of carpentry. Learn to “saw wood neatly and drive nails.” Start with the foundation of good grammar, spelling, syntax and other basics. Write in plain and simple English. There is plenty of time to get fancy “with bevelled edges and elegant finials.” There are basic principles of writing to learn first. His book outlines all the basics, clearly and in a conversational tone. There are plenty of examples of good writing and an odd piece of poor writing to illustrate the various points he makes. There are sections on different kinds of non-fiction writing such as travel writing and sports writing. Yet every chapter comes back to the basics. Learn the basics first.
Actually, Bill’s point is once you understand the rules, then you can break them.
So as I embark on learning the craft of writing and on becoming a professional writer, this is one book I’m going to continually reference. I already know this fact to be true. Bill has given me permission to write. He doesn’t even know me but I feel as though On Writing Well was written just for me. I suspect the more than one million writers who have bought and read the book feel the same way. It was lucky for me that his name ranked high in the search engine. I have a feeling I’m going to continue to re-read and relearn his lessons for a long time.
So thanks to Dad and Bill, I’m looking forward to moving out of the ranks of the weekend do-it-yourselfer to that of a professional.
Cheers, Catherine Location:Edmonton, AB
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