“You should write a book about how to write,” my wife said in June of 1974 when I was complaining to her, as I often did, that I had run out of things to write about. At that time our family lived at Yale, where I taught writing and was master of Branford College. When the academic year ended, we would move to our summer house in Niantic, Connecticut, and there I would hole up for three months doing writing projects of my own. I worked in a shed (below) at the rear of the property, next to some woods, my Underwood typewriter perched on a green metal typing table under a light bulb suspended from the ceiling.
Caroline’s suggestion came from out of nowhere—I had never thought of writing a textbook—but it felt right. I had then been teaching my course at Yale for four years, and I liked the idea of trying to capture it in a book. Many questions, however, occurred to me. Who would I be writing for? What tone should I adopt? How would my book differ from all the other books on writing?
The dominant manual at that time was The Elements of Style, by E. B. White and William Strunk Jr., which was E. B. White’s updating of the guide that had most influenced him, written in 1918 by his English professor at Cornell. My problem was that White was the writer who had most influenced me. His was the style—seemingly casual but urbane and wise—that I had long taken as my own model. How could I not agree with everything he said about language and usage in The Elements of Style? He was Goliath standing in my path.
But when I analyzed White’s book, its terrors evaporated. The Elements of Style was essentially a book of pointers and admonitions: Do this, don’t do that. As principles they were invaluable, but they were only principles, existing without context or reality. What his book didn’t teach was how to apply those principles to the various forms that nonfiction writing can take, each with its special requirements: travel writing, science writing, business writing, the interview, memoir, sports, criticism, humor. That’s what I taught in my course, and it’s what I would teach in my book. I wouldn’t compete with The Elements of Style; I would complement it.
That decision gave me my pedagogical structure. It also finally liberated me from E. B. White. I saw that I was long overdue to stop trying to write like E. B. White—and trying to be E. B. White, the sage essayist. He and I, after all, weren’t really much alike. He was a passive observer of events, withdrawn from the tumult, his world bounded by his office at The New Yorker and his house in rural Maine. I was a participant, a seeker of people and far places, change and risk. At Yale I had also become a teacher, my world enlarged by every new student who came along. The personal voice of the teacher, not the literary voice of the essayist, was the one I wanted narrating my book.
For that I would need a new model—a writer I would emulate not for his subject but for his turn of mind, his enjoyment of what he was teaching. That book wouldn’t come from a professor of English, squeezing the language dry with rules of rhetoric. It would have to come from an entirely different field, and it did. My model for On Writing Well was American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950, by the composer Alec Wilder.
Wilder’s book was one I had been waiting for all my life, the bible that every collector hopes someone will write in the field of his addiction. I was a collector of songs—the thousands of Broadway show tunes, Hollywood movie songs, and popular standards written in the 40-year golden age from Show Boat in 1926 to the rise of rock in the mid-1960s. As a part-time club pianist, I thought I knew them well—the oldest of old friends. Wilder showed me that I didn’t.
To write his book, Wilder examined the sheet music of 17,000 songs, selecting 300 in which he felt that the composer had pushed the form into new territory. Along with his text, he provided the pertinent bars of music to illustrate a passage that he found original or somehow touching. But what I loved most about Wilder’s book went beyond his erudition. It was his total commitment to his enthusiasms, as if he were saying: “These are just one man’s opinions—take ’em or leave ’em.” His pleasure was to praise. That connected with my own principle of not teaching by bad example. I may cite some horrible example of jargon or pomposity to warn against the prevailing bloatage, but I don’t deal in junk. Writing is learned by imitation, and I want my students to imitate the best.
Thus I saw from Wilder’s American Popular Song that I might write a book about writing that would be just one man’s book. I would write from my own convictions—take ’em or leave ’em—and I would illustrate my points with passages by writers I admired. I would treat the English language spaciously, as a gift waiting for anyone to unwrap, not as a narrow universe of grammar and syntax. Above all, I would try to enjoy the trip and to convey that enjoyment to my readers.
I didn’t look at any other books on writing. I just sat down and wrote my own book. I wrote in the first person, starting with the very first sentence—highly untextbook-like behavior—and quickly found myself addressing the reader directly (“you’ll find,” “always remember,” “try not to”). It was a teacher’s style, not a writer’s style, and I fell into it naturally, working from the notes I had used in class.
I began by writing brief chapters on fundamental principles, such as clarity, simplicity, brevity, usage, voice, and the elimination of clutter. Then I settled into the heart of the book—longer chapters explaining how to write a lead, how to write an ending, how to conduct and construct an interview, how to write about travel and technology and sports, and and how to write other forms of nonfiction. Throughout, I supplied examples of writing I admired. My authors were widely different in personality and style, but they all wrote well. That was the premise I wanted to establish: that nonfiction is hospitable to an infinite number of voices if the writing is good.
My only concern was that I would go broke paying for permission to reprint all those excerpts. But then I consulted the “fair use” provision of the copyright law and found that an excerpt of 300 words or less—in a book-length work—could be used without payment. That rule was not only a financial lifesaver; it was the breakthrough that gave the book its pace. As an editor I knew that almost anything can be cut to 300 words; the material is somewhere in the marble, waiting to be quarried out. Therefore I selected passages that made a coherent point in less than 300 words and also preserved the author’s style and personality. Only in a few cases, when the writer needed an amplitude I didn’t want to violate, did I let an excerpt run longer. That 300-word limit saved the book from looking and feeling like an anthology of required readings. It was my book; I was the tour guide.
At that time nonfiction was still a man’s world; women mainly plied the quieter waters of invented truth—novels and short stories. But the feminist movement had begun to empower women to believe in their own reality, and they had begun to create a bold new literature of memoir, biography, and social and political concern. Only one woman, however, had grabbed my attention as an important long-form journalist: Joan Didion. Her newly published book of collected magazine pieces, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, was just the kind of writing I was trying to teach—personal, observant, engaged—and it had worked well for my Yale students. Now, in my book, I used several of her strong passages.
But otherwise it was a lineup of white males—mostly the same old lions who had influenced my generation of nonfiction writers: H. L. Mencken, George Orwell, Joseph Mitchell, Alfred Kazin, E. B. White, Alan Moorehead, Norman Mailer, Red Smith. I included three scientists who wrote with clarity and warmth (René Dubos, Loren Eiseley, and Lewis Thomas); an architect (Moshe Safdie); a film critic (James Agee); a music critic (Virgil Thomson); and a few other favorite stylists (Garry Wills, V. S. Pritchett), all highly respectable. But a few outlaws sneaked into the tent. One was Hunter S. Thompson, author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a narcotic salute to the departed ’60s. Another was Richard Burton, the Welsh actor, writing about his national religion of rugby. Both writers exemplified my point about the boundless hospitality of nonfiction. I also didn’t think they would turn up in any other books on writing.
My book was also heavily male in its language. The writer was referred to as “he” or “him.” So was the reader (“Coax the reader a little more; keep him inquisitive”). So was every other generic type: the humorist, the columnist, the critic. I was the product of a cultural lineage that excluded women by pronoun and never gave their absence a second thought. It would be another decade before Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s Handbook of Nonsexist Writing came along to wake us all up.
Another person who got excluded from my book was me. I was present as an authority figure, a teacher handing down teacherlike advice. But there was no mention of the work I had done in a long career of writing for newspapers and magazines. How had I dealt with the problems I was so blithely telling readers how to solve? But I sailed through half the summer keeping my own experience out of my book.
The reason was a fear of immodesty, born of the injunction that wasps shouldn’t “make a show” of themselves. It was all right for me to explain the decisions that other writers made, but not the ones I had made. Only gradually did that affectation strike me as foolish. I would find myself remembering some assignment that taught me a useful lesson, and I would think, “If that was so helpful to me, it would be helpful to other writers.” So I dipped my toe in the forbidden stream, allowing myself to describe how I constructed certain articles. But I never quite stopped expecting a knock on the door by the reticence police.
So the three months of summer raced by, the rattle of my Underwood mingling with the chatter of birds in the woods behind my shed, until Labor Day played its annual terminator role and sent us all back to New Haven. By then my book was about 85 percent finished, and I was pleased with its tone. Although the college division of Harper & Row, my longtime publisher, had given me a tentative nod of approval, it didn’t feel like a textbook. One day the thought popped into my head that the book might also appeal to general readers, and I told my trade editor at Harper’s, Buz Wyeth, that I would also be submitting it to him. I packed up the manuscript and took it down to the Niantic post office and mailed it in.
In mid-October Buz called to say he would like to publish the book in a hard-cover trade edition. That was a bolder decision than it may appear today; there was no book quite like it and no assurance that it would find a popular audience. Back at Yale, I wrote the remaining chapters, between other tasks, in my Branford College office, which was located beneath Harkness Tower and its 44-bell carillon. The book, called On Writing Well, was published in the spring of 1976—a slender volume of only 151 pages, its size only 8½ by 5½ inches. Nobody who saw it would expect it to be anything but what it was—just one man’s journey.
The book got a few pleasant reviews and sold in modest numbers, matching my own modest expectations. I had no inkling that On Writing Well would shift the direction of my life, taking me far beyond the classrooms of Yale. I began to get letters and calls from colleges inviting me to come and talk about writing to their students and faculty—a visit that often began with a lecture that was open to the whole town. Deciding which invitations to accept, I chose colleges in parts of America where I had never been. Almost all of them were colleges I had never heard of.
Today their names come back to me in a kaleidoscope of memory—small liberal arts colleges, their Gothic buildings woven into the landscape of town life. Some of those names are Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington; Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana; Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota; Millikin College in Decatur, Illinois; Ohio Wesleyan College in Delaware, Ohio; Denison College in Granville, Ohio, and Kentucky Wesleyan College in Owensboro, Kentucky. In memory I also revisit big universities with teeming campuses: Boise State, Wright State, Southeastern Missouri State, Brigham Young, the University of Arizona, the University of Southern Indiana, the University of Wisconsin. . . . On all those campuses I found professors dedicated to the nuts-and-bolts labor of teaching students to write well—doing a better job, I suspected, than it was being done at Ivy League colleges, where expository writing is a neglected waif in the temple of learning.
The huge bonus of those travels was to put me in touch with my readers. They told me which parts of the book they found most helpful and what subjects they hoped I would cover in future editions. What they liked most was that I made myself available. They weren’t hearing from a professor; they were hearing from a writer who had wrestled with the same problems they were facing. They also liked the book’s humor. Students, especially, couldn’t believe they had been assigned a textbook that actually made an effort to keep them amused.
So I was persuaded that my initial fear of immodesty was misguided. The best teachers of a craft, I saw, are their own best textbook. Students who take their classes really want to know how they do what they do—how they grew into their knowledge and learned from their wrong turns. Thereafter, in every edition, I wrote more revealingly, trusting my readers to trust me if I veered down some unlikely trail of anecdote to illustrate a point.
It now occurs to me that I didn’t really find my style until I wrote On Writing Well, at the late age of 52. Until then my style more probably reflected who I wanted to be perceived as—the urbane columnist and humorist and critic. Only when I started writing as a teacher and had no agenda except to be helpful did my style become integrated with my personality and my character.
For the second edition, in 1980, I responded to those early readers’ questions. I updated topical references and matters of usage, adding a section on jargon—a plague that teachers told me they found troublesome. At the request of many readers I wrote a chapter called “Writing in Your Job.” Most of that writing is pompous and impenetrable, damaging the organization it represents. My chapter tried to explain that institutions can be made human.
I broadened the “Sports” chapter to note some of the darker forces that had begun to corrupt that once-sanitized world. I also expanded the “Humor” chapter, which had previously dealt only with the uses of topical humor to make a serious point. Since then I had taught a humor-writing course at Yale that situated American humor in its longer historical context. Now I provided that history, adding passages by such pioneers as George Ade, Don Marquis, Ring Lardner, Donald Ogden Stewart, Robert Benchley, James Thurber, and S. J. Perelman.
So the book went back out into the world stronger and more helpful—and still less than 200 pages long.
By 1985, when it was time for a third edition, I had long been back in New York City, busy with writing projects that taught me many new lessons. One was a long piece for The New Yorker about a trip I took to Shanghai with the musicians Willie Ruff and Dwike Mitchell in 1981, when they introduced live jazz to China. In my article I dutifully explained everything I was absolutely sure a reader would need to know about Ruff and Mitchell and how I felt about their music. But the editor of The New Yorker, William Shawn, eliminated most of those sections, assuring me that the points I was so determined to make were implicit. I was nervous, but Shawn was right—readers had no trouble getting the point.
That lesson would strengthen everything I wrote thereafter. I learned to delete every word or phrase or sentence that told readers something they had already been enabled to know or were bright enough to deduce. I also tried to stop using phrases like of course and adverbs like surprisingly, predictably, understandably, and ironically, which place a value on a sentence before the reader has a chance to read it. Readers, I learned, are not as dumb as the writer thinks; they must be given room to play their role in the act of writing—to discover for themselves what’s surprising or predictable or understandable or ironic. They don’t want that pleasure usurped. That struck me as an important lesson, and I put it into a new section called “Trust Your Material.”
I also wrote a highly personal final chapter about the values that shaped my own writing, starting with the ethical values of my parents. Called “Write as Well as You Can,” it stated my credo that writers must set higher standards for their work than anyone else does—and must defend what they write against every editor or publisher or agent who tries to distort or dilute it.
But the biggest revolution was in the technology of how writers did their writing. Overnight, they had been given a machine called a word processor that wrenched them away from the bone-deep process of putting words on paper, and they were fearful about making the leap. Nobody was more fearful than I. But I forced myself to go out and buy one of the new contraptions, an early ibm behemoth, and to puzzle out its arcane commands (“initialize diskette”), discovering that it miraculously eased the drudgery of writing and rewriting and retyping. That also called for a new chapter.
Those three new chapters ran at the end of the third edition, adding substance to the book without pulling apart its fabric.
By 1990, however, America had changed considerably. On Writing Well was a child of the 1970s. I knew that its principles were still valid. But what about its references and its tone? Would it strike a new generation of readers as an old man’s book? I took a closer look and saw that my 14-year-old product was slowly slipping out of touch. Without a major overhaul it would wither and die.
Most obviously, much of the nonfiction I now admired was written by women. Yet my excerpted passages were still mostly by men—the graybeards who had been models for my generation of journalists, now gray-bearded ourselves. The language was also lopsidedly male; he and him were still the prevailing pronouns, though women readers had chided me for referring to the reader as he, pointing out that they did much of the nation’s reading and resented having to picture themselves as men.
I began by hacking at the pronouns. I found more than 100 places where I could eliminate he, him, his, himself, and man, either by switching to the plural or by altering some other component of the sentence. Then I took another look at all those male writers. Some of them no longer served my purposes and were gently eased overboard. I wrote a new chapter, on memoir, the glamorous new belle of the nonfiction form, and that provided a natural habitat for such newly fledged memoirists as Eudora Welty (One Writer’s Beginnings), Patricia Hampl (A Romantic Education), and Vivian Gornick (Fierce Attachments).
Other strong women tumbled into chapters that almost seemed to be waiting for them: the nature writer Diane Ackerman, the science writer Dava Sobel, the Texas regional writer Prudence Mackintosh, the movie critic Molly Haskell, the literary critic Cynthia Ozick. All of them came bearing new sensitivities that gave the book an emotional tenor it had lacked. Many of them also brought new information. Janice Kaplan, one of my Yale students, had carved a journalistic beat out of the immense gains made by women in physical stamina and athletic performance, and I expanded my sports chapter to include two passages from her magazine pieces.
Another woman writer, Kennedy Fraser, reviewing a book about the abused girlhood of Virginia Woolf, a tireless writer of journals, diaries, and letters, revealed that what Woolf wrote in those intimate forms had been crucially helpful to her and other women contending with similar demons of loneliness and pain. Fraser’s voice of vulnerability, stunningly honest, had never been heard in the male-oriented world of On Writing Well. The “Humor” chapter was also stuck in the dark ages, and I added passages by writers like Woody Allen, Nora Ephron, and Garrison Keillor, who were tilting at modern quandaries and neuroses.
Finally, I wrote a new chapter called “A Writer’s Decisions.” I had discovered that the crippling problem for many writers is not how to write, but how to organize what they have written. Yet that skill is almost never mentioned or taught in writing classes. My chapter, strictly pedagogical, using myself as a laboratory specimen, analyzes sequentially the big and small decisions that went into a long magazine article about a trip that Caroline and I made to Timbuktu to look for a camel caravan in the Sahara. Teachers have told me that the chapter is unusually helpful because it puts readers into the mind of the writer during the process of construction.
When that fourth edition was published, in 1990, On Writing Well had sold a half-million copies. Bigger spurts were still to come. But they wouldn’t have been achieved without the regular tune-ups that saved the book from the fatal sin of not keeping up with the times.
Demographically, as always, America refused to hold still. By 1994 a tidal wave of immigration had reshaped the national character. Around me, the neighborhoods of New York were suddenly a tapestry of exotic faces, clothes, languages, shops, signs, foods, sounds, smells, and ceremonial customs. On Writing Well could no longer overlook those lively new Americans, and in the fifth edition I added a half-dozen passages by writers from other cultural traditions.
One passage, from The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston, the daughter of Chinese immigrants in Stockton, California, describes the acute shyness and embarrassment of being a child starting school in a strange land. Another, from Halfway to Dick and Jane: A Puerto Rican Pilgrimage, by Jack Agüeros, recalls the author’s boyhood in an urban neighborhood where several ethnic principalities existed within a single block, all fiercely defended.
Not all my writers from other cultures were born in other countries. Some grew up in the United States but felt no less like outsiders in white America. One was James Baldwin, whose The Fire Next Time, an electrifying account of his years as a boy preacher in Harlem, I still remembered 30 years later. Another native-born outsider, Lewis P. Johnson, a great-grandson of the last recognized chief of the Potawatomi Ottawas, describes a bittersweet quest for his lost identity in an essay called “For My Indian Daughter.”
Those immigrant and minority writers filled still another hole in On Writing Well. With my safely chosen samples of writing from my own culture, I had undoubtedly suggested that the only writers worth emulating were white people leading mainstream lives. Now I wanted to tell Americans of every ethnic origin that their own narratives were no less valid and that they could use forms like memoir to contend with the pain of adjusting to a new homeland.
The “Science and Technology” chapter was also showing its age. The writing was still fresh, but the science wasn’t. Partial rescue came with an article in Scientific American, written with warmth and linear clarity, on “The Future of the Transistor,” by Robert W. Keyes. But my big break came when I saw in The New York Times that the winner of the National Magazine Award for 1993 in the coveted category of reporting, defeating such traditional champs as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Newsweek, and Vanity Fair, was a magazine called I.E.E.E. Spectrum. I don’t think I was the only reader of the Times who hadn’t heard of it. It turned out to be the magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a professional association with 320,000 members. I found its office in the Manhattan telephone directory and walked over and got a copy of the award-winning article, “How Iraq Reverse-Engineered the Bomb,” by Glenn Zorpette.
The awards committee was right—it was a gem of investigative reporting. Constructed like a detective story, it traced the efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor a secret program whereby the Iraqis, in violation of the agency’s disclosure rules, came close to building an atomic bomb. Zorpette’s article also couldn’t have been more current; Iraq and its weapons haven’t been out of the news since.
After that fifth edition, almost all the new material in On Writing Well (in the sixth edition, in 1998; the 25th anniversary edition, in 2001; and the 30th anniversary edition, in 2006) was self-generated, not written in response to external change. I wasn’t the same person who sat typing in a shed in Connecticut in 1974; the book and I had grown older together. Books that teach, if they have a long life, should reflect who the writer has become at later stages of his own long life—what new work he has done and how his thinking has evolved.
Among other changes, I had become more interested in the intangibles—beyond craft—that produce the best writing: matters of character, intention, values, confidence, and enjoyment. I had also done many kinds of writing that I had never tried before. Three were highly reportorial books: Mitchell & Ruff, about jazz; Spring Training, about baseball; and American Places, about 15 iconic American sites. In those books I learned to gather hundreds of facts and to let those facts speak for themselves, unvarnished. I learned to generate emotion by getting other people to tell me things they felt strongly about, not by waxing emotional myself. I learned not to wax.
Above all, I returned to the classroom. Since 1993 I’ve taught a night class in memoir writing at the New School, in New York, for men and women eager to go in search of who they are, who they once were, and what heritage they were born into. Teaching that class revealed two immobilizing traits I wouldn’t otherwise have known about. One was structural, the other psychological.
Most people starting on a memoir, I found, can already picture the jacket of the book: their name in big type, the handsome lettering of the title, and the tinted photograph of a child holding a pail by the seashore. They can also picture exactly what the book will say and how it will be constructed. Their biggest problem is how to find an agent and get it published. The only thing they haven’t thought about is how to actually write the book. Nobody has told them that they will only discover its shape and its content in the act of writing it—and that the finished book won’t much resemble the one they had in mind.
To focus my students on the process, rather than on the finished product, I invented a writing course that doesn’t require any writing. I only ask the women and men in my class to talk about their hopes and intentions and about the possible ways of getting where they want to go. That forces them to confront all the prior decisions that memoir insists on: matters of voice, tone, tense, attitude, scope, narrative, and the privacy of their family and friends. How do they plan to reduce the vast jumble of memories clamoring to be sorted out and described? A new chapter was written on that subject, called “The Tyranny of the Final Product.”
Teasing memories out of those bright and accomplished adults, I was also struck by how unconfident they were, how apologetic, how uncertain of the worthiness of the tale they wanted to tell, although the stories they eventually dredged up from the past always moved the rest of us with their powerful emotions. Women, in particular, felt that they needed permission to believe in their remembered truth. To give them that permission I wrote two new chapters: “The Sound of Your Voice” and “Enjoyment, Fear and Confidence.”
Later, in 2006, I added a chapter on family history, a cousin of memoir that is now attracting boomers and retired people, drawn by new technology that enables them to self-publish their saga for their children, their grandchildren, their friends, and their local library or historical society. With that chapter I felt that I had said almost everything a nonfiction writer might need to know. It only took 30 years.
On Writing Well sold its millionth copy in 2000. (Sales are now approaching 1.5 million.) It was a figure I could hardly believe or even imagine; I’ve never thought of myself as a “best-selling” author, and I’m still surprised to hear that someone knows my name and my books. The numbers that mean the most to me are the hundreds of readers who have written or called just to say how much they like the book and how much it helped them. Surprisingly often they use the phrase “You changed my life.” I don’t take that to mean that they found Buddhist enlightenment or quit smoking. What they mainly mean is that I cleaned out the sludge in their thinking that had paralyzed them from doing writing of any kind—a phobia not unlike the fear of cleaning out the closets or the basement. (The hard part of writing isn’t the writing; it’s the thinking.) Now, they tell me, I’m at their side whenever they write, exhorting them to cut every word or phrase or sentence or paragraph that isn’t doing necessary work. That, finally, is the life-changing message of On Writing Well: simplify your language and thereby find your humanity.
I particularly like to hear from people who came upon the book by surprise, never having thought of themselves as writers, and were taken by its sense of enjoyment. The following letter, from a young woman in Orlando, speaks for all the voyagers whose affection for the book has kept me company on the journey:
“I am the night duty manager at a resort campground. I have never aspired to being a writer, but I was persuaded to take over the job of reporter, writer and editor of our weekly newsletter. Because of my moaning and groaning about what to write and how to write it, my boyfriend gave me a copy of On Writing Well. Now I’m having a real blast!”