By William Zinsser
November 5, 2010
“We want you to come to our school and talk to our students about writing,” said the voice on the phone, introducing himself as the chairman of the school’s English department. I asked what he had in mind. “We’d like you to give our students some tips that will make them better writers,” he said.
Tips! The ugly little word hung in the air, exuding its aroma of illicit information. Bookies live on tips delivered, horseplayers on tips received, investors on stock tips, preferably hot, and taxpayers on tips about how to evade the tax code. College-bound students pay for tips on how to pass the SAT test.
The tip is presumed to be based on inside knowledge, giving its recipient an edge in outwitting life’s cruel odds, and never has the tip-dispensing industry been so alive and well, plying us in magazines and books and on television programs with maxims of salvation. Golf tips (keep your left arm straight), tennis tips (bend your knees), cooking tips (preheat the oven), gardening tips (buy a trowel), parenting tips (listen to your child), sex tips (take off your socks).
“I don’t do tips,” I told the man calling from the school’s English department. It’s not that I don’t have any; On Writing Well is full of what might be called tips. But that’s not the point of the book. It’s a book of craft principles that add up to what it means to be a writer.
Tips can make someone a better writer but not necessarily a good writer. That’s a larger package–a matter of character. Golfing is more than keeping the left arm straight. Every good golfer is a complex engine that runs on ability, ego, determination, discipline, patience, confidence, and other qualities that are self-taught. So it is with writers and all creative artists. If their values are solid their work is likely to be solid.
In my own work I operate within a framework of Christian values, and the words that are important to me are religious words: witness, pilgrimage, intention. I think of intention as the writer’s soul. Writers can write to affirm and to celebrate, or they can write to debunk and destroy; the choice is ours. Editors may want us to do destructive work to serve some agenda of their own, but nobody can make us write what we don’t want to write. We get to keep intention.
I always write to affirm. I choose to write about people whose values I respect; my pleasure is to bear witness to their lives. Much of my writing has taken the form of a pilgrimage: to sacred places that represent the best of America, to writers and musicians who represent the best of their art. Tips didn’t get them there.
William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.