The Study Dude – On Writing Well, Part III

There is nothing more that The Study Dude wants for you than to get out of your comfort zone and imitate the writers whose works you enjoy reading the most.

Well, in these articles, as The Study Dude, I’ll try to give you the study tips you need to help make your learning easier. I’ll also give you straight and honest opinions and personal anecdotes?even the embarrassing ones that you wouldn’t ever dare read about from any other study tip guru.

This week’s Study Dude article takes on part three of the look at William Zinsser’s iconic book On Writing Well.

On Style
Some books resonate with the reader. For instance, I recently bought a gripping book on well-being that I finished almost as soon as I started. While taking notes from this book, I decided to imitate the style of the author and discovered many rules of English taking place that Helen Sword and other authors discourage. For instance, the passive voice appears often. Also, long subordinate clauses clutter the paragraphs. Yet, the book reads like a gem.

Curiously, I began to analyze the structure of the book. It turns out that the book introduces a general problem being examined in the first sentence. Then, an example is given or some supporting evidence revealed. An anecdote of real people demonstrating the problem might follow. After that, the authors present one or more solutions to the problem discussed in the first sentence. All of these components make up for a brilliant paragraph. Most of the subsequent paragraphs follow this formula, and the authors take their time making their points, in a sort of longwinded manner. I loved it.

I wanted to type up passages from the book to get a sense of the style, but I’ve discovered an even better book written by a New York Times journalist that I will discuss in next week’s Study Dude article. The journalists book is called How We Learn, and the writing makes science come alive through a breezy style that uses lots of metaphors. That’s the author I plan on imitating.

Zinsser tells you to imitate authors and do much more to develop your style.
– If you find a writer with a style you admire, imitate that writer. Consider the imitating of style as a normal part of the writing process.
– When you come across authors who speak to you, read their writing out loud to get a better sense of the voice.
– Develop your voice, and don’t modify it just to fit the subject matter or audience. Let people recognize your voice in every type of writing.
– Use simple words with precision.
– Don’t introduce a sentence with “You see…”. [Uh oh.]
– In writing, as in fashion and fine cooking, certain components of the art stand the test of time. They don’t go out of vogue. They are lasting.
– Every time you edit your document, take out any additional clich├ęs you spot.
– Avoid words with three or more syllables, especially those that end in -ion or -ive.

Write Like You Enjoy It
I thoroughly enjoy writing. But sometimes, lethargy kicks in, and I need to summon up the energy to begin writing. Once at the computer, however, the writing enthusiasm kicks into full gear. Writing can become almost cathartic, especially when you put yourself, your passions, your hobbies, and your interests into what you write.

Recently, I encountered a strong woman, passionate about the environment; she is about to become my interview subject for a piece for a print publication. This woman sends me tons of material, from Web site PDFs to event summaries. You can hear in every word in her e-mails how passionate she is about her cause. Print publications of all types seek out this kind of woman.

Now, I’m on fire for writing the article. More realistically, I’m kind of terrified that I might not capture the extent of passion for the topic that she demonstrates. I have a thousand words to make the fire in her belly apparent. My challenge is to change that fear of mine into enjoyment for the reader.

Zinsser tells you to write your paper as if it’s play for you:
– Try to stuff as much of your personality into the paper as you can.
– Focus your writing on topics that spark your curiosity, interests, or pleasure.
– Add some humour at any opportunity. Be playful.
– If you write about people, focus on those persons you like.
– Don’t ever write to wreck someone’s reputation.
– When writing, try to bring your own life narratives into the equation. (This mostly applies to journalistic writing, but you can also apply it to anecdotes you use in presentations or in some thesis.)
– When interviewing people, go ahead and ask stupid or naive questions. They sometimes reveal interesting answers.

Big and Small Writer’s Choices
When I first started writing The Study Dude, I made myself seem like a subservient, obsequious, fawning mess to my readers. After some criticism for this approach, I dropped it, for the most part. Zinsser, suggests, however, that such a self-belittling approach can delight the audience. Giving the audience the upper hand, or a smug sense of superiority, actually works in your favour.

As an example, the most opened e-mail for The Voice recently was one in which the managing editor referred to himself as a moron. We all revelled and delighted in that one. As a matter of fact, Zinsser says making yourself seem “downright stupid” can delight your audience. With that in mind, I suspect the Study Dude must have a rabid readership.

Zinsser advises you to play the fool sometimes; he also advises on a number of other strategic choices, big and small:
– The first sentence, or the lead, as it is called in journalism, should be catchy. Even essays in most disciplines could benefit from an appealing lead.
– Every sentence you write should contain no more than one thought.
– Make your writing personal: “It’s not enough just to take your readers on a trip; you must take them on your trip. Make them identify with you?with your hopes and apprehensions” (p. 265)
– When you have to relay boring facts, find a metaphor or a proper name to package it in.
– Alliteration and other figures of speech can add a freshness to your writing.
– Use verbs that evoke images, such as “exploded.”
– If it takes you an hour to write a sentence, then the time was probably well spent.
– Readers enjoy hearing you berate yourself, reveal your gullibility, or act like a fool. This tactic, however, should be used sparingly.

So, there’s nothing to fear. The Study Dude is determined to make right for you all the wrongs I made in grad school?one A+ at a time.

Zinsser, William. (2006). On Writing Well. New York, NY: Collins.