Thursday, January 26, 2012

On Writing Well

For Christmas, one of the gifts I received was On Writing Well by William Zinsser. This is a resource I highly recommend for all writers, regardless of the type of writing you do - yes, even bloggers.

The subtitle indicates that the book is a style guide for writing nonfiction. While this is true, fiction writers can learn a great deal from the book as well. The principles of good style apply to all writers.

One of the things I enjoyed about the book was that Zinsser didn’t universally dismiss adverbs (they often come under attack by writing guides). Instead, he advocates simplicity and specificity. If there is a verb that connotes the adverb plus verb you started with, replace the two words with one. It isn’t that adverbs are evil, but they are often used unskillfully, resulting in clutter.

Zinsser calls attention to the loose style so many of us employ without thinking. In fact, it is precisely because we fail to think that we fail to write well. Rather than questioning the words and phrases we choose, we mimic the clunky jargon that surrounds us in the media and daily conversations.

If you want to improve your writing - again, even you, bloggers - and you’re willing to honestly examine your work, this book will illuminate flaws. I plan on keeping this one on my desk next to the dictionary.

Monday, January 09, 2012


It’s important to take the time to do research for fiction. Research for fiction? Yes.

With any story, there are details around the plot, characters and setting which may touch reality. For example, I might write a story set in Paris. Regardless of how much fiction exists within the story, if I were to mention something inconsistent with Paris due to a lack of research, I would come out looking rather foolish.

I think this ties into why people use the adage: write what you know. While that can certainly save time – relying upon person experience – there are inevitably areas you don’t know anything about.

Even within fantasy writing, there are aspects of reality we need to research. Subjects I’ve researched for fantasy stories include horses, armies, armor, swords (and weapons in general), languages and medieval history.

I will say that bombarding the reader with researched facts risks boring the reader. But carefully entwining those facts in an interesting way will help the reader feel like an insider with the narrator and feel grounded within factual boundaries. If a writer fakes facts, it cheats the reader. As a reader, I would rather the writer avoid details than give false ones.

Take the time to look things up before you write (or at least before you complete the final draft). Your readers will appreciate the work.