A professor once threatened to boot me from his course for my crimes against the English language. My breezy essays were careless, inexact, perhaps even terrible. In his mercy Dr. Wright —a white-haired taskmaster in tweed jackets who frequently referenced “the war” (World War II)—gave me some advice: “Read Strunk and White every morning while eating your Wheaties.”
If William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style is the life vest keeping your head above water, William Zissner’s On Writing Well is the Coast Guard. Zissner saves your nonfiction from drowning in jargon and moribund nouns. He warns against dehumanizing corporate speech (“de-impact,” “input”) and political weasel words that obfuscate meaning. He gives permission to use first person (“I”), “that” instead of “which,” and humor whenever it feels right. And best of all he provides examples of his own work, explaining the how and why of his decision-making.
His writing workshop for school principals shows his methods in action:
They began to write in the first person and use active verbs. For a while they still couldn’t loose their grip on long words and vague nouns (‘parent communication response’). But gradually their sentences became human. When I asked them to tackle ‘Evaluative procedures for the objectives were also established based on acceptable criteria,’ one of them wrote: ‘At the end of the year we will evaluate our progress.’ Another wrote: ‘We will see how well we have succeeded.’
That’s the kind of plain talk a parent wants. It’s also what stockholders want from their corporations, what customers want from their bank, what the widow wants from the agency that’s handling her social security. There is a deep yearning for human contact and a resentment of bombast.”
Complicated, constipated writing is everywhere. Study this book in hard copy to avoid adding to the pile!