I was reading the closing chapters of Zinsser’s “On Writing Well”.
Zinsser has an uncanny knack of pointing out things that I hadn’t thought of before, but that seem obvious once he says them.
His chapter on “Enjoyment, Fear and Confidence” is full of good advice. In general, we would all write a lot better if we wrote everything with enjoyment and confidence, and less fear.
Here are some of my favorite lessons from the chapter:
There’s no question that the best writing make you feel the writer’s enjoyment, something that Zinsser remarks upon. And certainly the more pleasure I take in an article, the better it generally turns out.
But Zinsser makes a key point here, quoting the humorist S.J. Perelman:
“‘The reader has to feel that the writer is feeling good.
‘Even if he isn’t.’”
I’ve often felt that I have good writing days and bad writing days. One of the first things I learnt when I wanted to pursue writing and journalism as a career, is that no matter what, you still have to produce the article. As Zinsser puts it:
“Writers have to jump-start themselves at the moment of performance, no less than actors and dancers and painters and musicians.”
That’s something that I don’t think most people realize when they read famous writers.
“We assume that when they go to work the words just flow. Nobody thinks of the effort they made every morning to turn on the switch.”
“You also have to turn on the switch. Nobody is going to do it for you.”
And then there’s the fear…
Zinsser on the fear of the blank page, and how it affects the quality of the writing:
“I’m often dismayed by the sludge I see appearing on my screen if I approach writing as a task—the day’s work—and not with some enjoyment. My only consolation is that I’ll get another shot at those dismal sentences tomorrow and the next day and the day after.
With each rewrite I try to force my personality onto the material.”
Even more pertinently, there’s the fear of not being able to bring off an assignment.
I have to admit I wrestle with fear while writing many articles. What if I can’t get hold of all the sources I need? What if I can’t get it done in time? What if I get something wrong? And worst of all, what if the end product is awful?
That’s where confidence comes in, says Zinsser.
Later in the chapter, he talks about how it’s ok to be nervous when writing about unfamiliar subjects, and when talking with experts. He says you can overcome that by showing genuine interest, and finding overlaps between the topic and your knowledge and experience.
I’m hoping to someday have that confidence for every article I write, but at the moment, Zinsser’s other advice works, and also reminds me of why I decided to pursue science writing:
“One way to generate confidence is to write about subjects that interest you and that you care about.
Living is the trick. Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested.
That’s almost the whole point of becoming a writer.”