Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Its Only Words

A few months ago I discovered a weekly posting at The American Scholar by writer, journalist, editor, literary critic and, most importantly in my opinion, teacher William Zinsser.   Though to the best of my knowledge he has never addressed the subject of policies and procedures I was introduced to him during a Procedures Writing Course several years ago.  The professor insisted he was a "must read" for anyone planning to write "anything".   And what recommended him most was his insistence on the economy of language in writing.   It is rumoured that some teachers even tell their students to "Zinsser" their work (a newly coined verb meaning to take the clutter out of their essays).

Since then his On Writing Well has become one of those books that I return to almost yearly as a reminder that "writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it.'" His Zinsser on Friday essays cover a broad range of subjects from baseball (one of his great loves) to jazz, from his WASPishness to his waspishness - and you'd be hard pressed to find an extraneous word - like extraneous - in any of them.

What brought Mr Zinsser to mind - and has me eager to unpack On Writing Well as soon as possible for another (much needed) read - was an e-mail from my friend Charlie highlighting some interesting facts about writing.
    Pythagoras' Theorem:  24 words
    Lord's Prayer (King James version):66 words
    Archimedes' Principle:67 words
    Ten Commandments (KJV):179 words
    Gettysburg Address:286 words
    American Declaration of Independence:1,300 words
    US Constitution including all 27 amendments:7,818 words
    EU Regulations on the sale of cabbage:26,911 words

Having just gone through the EU export procedures for "live" animals - heaven only knows what they would be for "dead" animals - I am going to write Mr Zinsser and suggest that a book on writing policies and procedures is long overdue. And I want the concession for sales in Brussels!

23 agosto/August -Santa Rosa di Lima


lynette said...

Ha! Brevity? Nevaaaaah :-) Truly, it is amazing what can be cut out while still retaining meaning and style. I am reading Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott. It's essentially a writer's handbook, and I am newly liberated by her insistence that writing a dreadful first draft is absolutely necessary to producing anything of value. Thanks for this sweetie.

Debra She Who Seeks said...

This reminds me of that quotation by Winston Churchill (I believe) where he apologized in a letter for its length, saying he didn't have the time to make it shorter. Brevity does take much longer to achieve than simply barfing up on the page everything that's in your mind!


judas priest.