William Zinsser: What Is Good Writing? (Clarity, Simplicity, Brevity, and Humanity.)

Most of the students in my “News Writing” class don’t want to be journalists, but they all want to make a living from their writing skills. I’m trying to emphasize some of the markers that journalists put into their work, in order to signal that their work is credible.

For instance, one saying in journalism is “Get the brand of the beer, the model of the car, and the name of the dog.” The reader doesn’t really need those details; however, people love talking about their beer, their cars, and their dogs. If you spend enough time with a source to get these details, or other details that are equally important to your source, then you’ve spent some time listening, and you probably understand your source — and the story — better.

Most of my journalism students are already very good at writing the traditional English essay; however, I want them to learn another way to write, so that in the future they can make the deliberate to choice to write in essay mode if the rhetorical situation calls for it, rather than have them always produce essays because that’s all they’ve ever been asked to produce.

William Zinsser says that no matter what we call ourselves, if we write, we are in the storytelling business.

You may tell yourself that you’re doing “communications,” or “new media,” or “digital media” or some other fashionable new form. But ultimately you’re in the storytelling business. We all are. It’s the oldest of narrative forms, going back to the caveman and the crib, endlessly riveting. What happened? Then what happened?

Please remember, in moments of despair, whatever journalistic assignment you’ve been given, all you have to do is tell a story, using the simple tools of the English language and never losing your own humanity.

Repeat after me:

  • Short is better than long.
  • Simple is good. (Louder)
  • Long Latin nouns are the enemy. Anglo-Saxon active verbs are your best friend.
  • One thought per sentence.

Good luck to you all. —William Zinsser