Sunday, February 3, 2013

For Navy Leaders, Readers - ‘On Writing Well’

Review by Bill Doughty

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the phrase “All men are created equal,” reportedly said this about writing: “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”

William Zinsser would agree.

Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” shows how to achieve good nonfiction writing by removing clutter and striving for unity. “Unity is the anchor of good writing,” he said.

Also, good writing comes from clarity, simplicity, brevity and humanity, according to Zinsser, who provides plenty of examples by writers and thinkers -- Lewis Thomas, H. L. Mencken, James Baldwin, Diane Ackerman, Woody Allen and many others.

JFK's PT-109 essay, June 17, 1944
Excerpts by these writers show that principles like brevity and simplicity don’t have to result in colorless prose.   New Yorker magazine is brought up continually as a good source for great writing -- prose and poetry, nonfiction and storytelling.  Zinsser, himself, has written for New Yorker throughout his career.

In "On Writing Well" Zinsser writes about the art of choosing the right nouns, verbs and images to communicate effectively.

“This is a book about decisions -- the countless successive decisions that go into every act of writing,” he writes.  That includes choosing how to organize the sentences, paragraphs and entire piece to achieve that all-important unity.

“All your clear and pleasing sentences will fall apart if you don’t keep remembering that writing is linear and sequential, that logic is the glue that holds it together, that tension must be maintained from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next and from one section to the next...”

Salt caravan in Timbuktu.  (file photo)
In a chapter called “A Writer’s Decisions,” Zinsser dissects his own long travel article, “The News from Timbuktu.” He takes the reader to Mali, Africa to witness a rare salt caravan from across the Sahara, where nervous camels walk in undulating unison carrying huge slabs of salt “like dirty white marble.”  Throughout the chapter, the author explains why he chose images, themes and even particular words.

Writing with brevity doesn’t negate eloquence.  Like Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln believed in choosing words that conveyed deep meaning.

Zinsser briefly examines Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (the speech at the conclusion of the Spielberg movie, “Lincoln,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis).

Lincoln gave his address March 4, 1865 near the end of the Civil War as slavery was being abolished.  His address concludes with words of transcendence: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Lincoln reads with son Tad. (Photo from National Archives)
Zinsser says the speech “affects me more than any other American document” because “Lincoln tapped some of Western man’s oldest teachings about slavery, clemency and judgment.”

“On Writing Well” is recommended for anyone who writes.  That includes every Navy leader.  I first heard about this book as a recommendation by Navy’s Chief of Information, Rear Adm. John Kirby, who shared his list of essential 15 books last year.  Kirby’s list was picked up and posted on by Tom Ricks, author of “The Gamble” and “The Generals.”

Kirby’s diverse list includes works by Ernie Pyle, Mark Twain and John F. Kennedy.  It also features books about Lincoln, North Pacific history, and a collection of poems by Kipling, Emerson and others.  Kirby’s list starts with Zinsser’s “definitive book” and includes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Stride Toward Freedom,” reviewed last month on Navy Reads.

King, Lincoln and Jefferson loved books.  They were great readers, thinkers and writers.  They could create works with clarity, cadence, humanity, etc.  And they had something to say about unity -- in and through their writing.

Posted on NFL Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013.

No comments: