Writer’s Dozen: William Zinsser and Voice

This is the second in a series of posts, called “A Writer’s Dozen,” on texts that have been important to me as a writer.

In learning to write, there is always some unlearning to do. As writers, we build up our vocabularies and strategies in ways useful to us, but sometimes we get locked into those ways, and our writing becomes disembodied, unnatural, overwrought, show off-y. For writing to be good and worth reading, it has to fit the rhetorical situation and have a voice – a real one that could only come from that writer.

For me, the best definition and treatment of “voice,” as it applies to writing, comes from William Zinsser in his On Writing Well (1976): it is your “commodity as a writer” and conveys your “attitude toward language.” As writer, it is uniquely you.

Last week, some colleagues and I were reading stacks of essays by first-year students, as part of a writing assessment project at another local university. We read in mostly silence, but on our lunch and coffee breaks we would discuss features of student work that we liked or didn’t like. This is the writing teacher’s version of water-cooler gossip.

Uniformly we were irked by students using 50-cent words when plainer ones would do. For example, instead of using “posit” as a verb, which we saw used repeatedly in one essay, we prefer “state” or “argue” when quoting from an article or book or “say” when quoting from an interview.

The fancy word choices enraged one or two of my colleagues. I like a more straightforward style myself, but I understand why students write in what they believe to be a more formal register: to sound smart and to reach the teacher. (For a nice discussion of register, try this: link.)

Entering the academy and the conventions of academic writing is “like learning a new language,” I suggested to my colleagues. “It’s awkward at first, and it takes some mastery of the language before you use it naturally.” Before you get to the point of sounding like a native, there’s a lot of stilted use that doesn’t sound quite right to experienced ears.

I mostly practiced creative writing when I was in high school, and I was considered to be a fluent writer. When I got to college, however, and turned in my first academic paper – over which I had toiled devotedly and seriously – and got an F for a grade, with the comment, “This is not an analytical essay,” I realized I was unprepared for this new country called College and its strange customs. It was a new start and a tough one.

In the case of that paper, I went to the teacher, asked for help, and met with him several times over the semester. I figured it out. Over four years of college, I mastered the academic style at the undergraduate level. Like the first-year students my colleagues and I mocked for their highfalutin word choices, I too discovered and regularly used about 25 different ways to say “said.” Perhaps I even used “posited.” I confess I still have a thing for “articulated.” (It’s such a sharp word.)

But that kind of writing was arduous to produce and not appropriate for every task.  Fortunately I had more than one kind of writing experience at Wellesley, and I also worked for three years while a student for the Office of Media Relations. The director, Anne O’Sullivan ‘57, was an excellent teacher. Her edits to the press releases and faculty bios I wrote were written with her customary green Flair pen and improved the simplicity and flow of my prose. We also discussed every one of her suggestions; she was frank yet cheery.

It was Anne, I believe, who recommended to me Zinsser’s book. Written by a journalist, On Writing Well is at turns rigorous and liberating. Zinsser insists on good words, the right ones, simplicity, and unity in pronoun, tense, and mood. He also frees the writer to write like herself, and he demands a standard for that voice on the page:

My commodity as a writer, whatever I’m writing about, is me. And your commodity is you. Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page, a voice that’s enjoyable not only in its musical line but in its avoidance of sounds that would cheapen its tone: breeziness and condescension and clichés.

You must get this book and read chapter 20, “The Sound of Your Voice,” to understand what Zinsser means by voice and how you develop it in a deliberate way. It’s not about just writing how you talk, although some effective writers do have a spoken-word quality to their writing voice. It’s not about using common language, because common language may be inconsistent with your sensibility. (I tell my students not to use profanity and clichés, for example, not because I dislike them, but because they are so over-used that they no longer mean anything, and how can one write originally about original research using over-used language? Zinsser says, “Clichés are the enemy of taste.”) It’s not about aping a style you admire or one you are required to learn, like the generic academic one. It’s about carefully displaying your “attitude toward language” in everything you write for a reader, and I would guess that, for Zinsser, this applies to academic writing as well. (Yes, there are some scholars worth reading for their writing.)

After you read chapter 20 – yes, go there first – read the first section of the book, “Principles,” on Simplicity, Clutter, Style, The Audience, Words, and Usage. Here is a sample of insights:

  • “The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.”
  • “Clutter is the official language used by corporations to hide their mistakes.”
  • A paradox: “Earlier I warned that the reader is an impatient bird, perched on the thin edge of distraction. Now I’m saying you must write for yourself and not be gnawed by worry over whether the reader is tagging along.”
  • “What is good usage? One helpful approach is to try to separate usage from jargon. […] Good usage, to me, consists of using good words if they already exist – as they almost always do – to express myself clearly and simply to someone else.”

Even though words are vital to Zinsser, in reading his book I get the sense that he’d like language to get out of a writer’s way. Fussiness and artificiality become barriers to understanding and connection. A writer must use words, of course (he even calls them “tools”), but not become a mere deliverer of them. We must get better at this every day.

Third in the series: Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, because words in all written speech, not only poetry, must make a sound.

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I love this recent photograph of William Zinsser, taken by blogger Mister Mort and posted here. I use it with Mr. Mort’s permission.

3 thoughts on “Writer’s Dozen: William Zinsser and Voice

  1. Thanks for this introduction to Zinsser’s book. I’m inspired to buy it for my son, who loves to write and is developing his voice. He also likes wisdom. Recently I gave him the quote from the book FLOW included in your earlier post. He read it carefully and kept it; it really spoke to him.

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