How can I, as a writer, balance writing for myself and for my readers without sacrificing the other? That is the question I was struck with while reading Zinsser’s book On Writing Well, and one he presents. In his book, writers are encouraged to adopt a style that is fitting of themselves, yet capture and maintain the attention of readers. What if my style does not capture readers? What if what captures the attention of readers does not do the same for me as I write? Am I stuck wrestling between this paradox of uncertainty or is there a way out? Note to self: NOT writing is not an option.
Luckily, Zinsser, who is a writer, editor and teacher, offers solutions in chapters four, five, and nine that I found very helpful and will serve as a guide in future writing assignments. He advises that I eliminate any unnecessary words and keep my language simple. This won’t take away from my style, but enhance it by removing the “excess or murkiness [that] has crept into [my] style” and obstructs the message I am trying to convey to readers. Style is something that every writer possesses and makes him/her equally unique. So, the first step in capturing my audience while writing for myself is to relax and be myself.
Zinsser states: The reader will notice if you are putting on airs. Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself (19). Before writing, I should relieve myself of any pressure to write in a way that feels unnatural, produce an awesome paper that will rock everyone’s socks off, or meet a certain page length. Just sit down, believe in my own identity and opinions, and write! Aside from being myself, the second step is to determine the audience of my paper. A writers’ audience will first and foremost be him/herself.
Zinsser continues to reiterate this point of authenticity by saying, “Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience – every reader is a different person…You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for (24). ” Oftentimes, I forget about myself when writing in an effort to complete the assignment and give the teacher what I think he/she may be expecting from someone at my educational level. Those assignments have been the ones I least enjoyed writing and/or have been told was missing my voice.
By writing in this manner, I have been performing a huge disservice to my audience by not giving them what they need: me. I apologize! Along with expressing my personality, I should not neglect my craft. There is no excuse, as Zinsser states, for sloppy workmanship. I should respect my audience enough to pay close attention to technical details and ensure that their reading process is one of clarity then artistry. Third and final, I should start and end all of my writing assignments with “freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humor, or surprise, or with an unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question” that will capture my readers (55).
Zinsser says that the most important sentence in any article is the first one. If the reader has not been attracted to my subject through that sentence then there are no chances the reader will want to read further. Along with creatively beginning and ending my writing assignment, the information I present must give the reader a sense of purpose while reading. Readers need to know why I have chosen my topic, why they should read it, and be given enough information that leaves them feeling well-informed.
As I continue to hone my writing skills and further develop them in other students, I want to carry Zinsser’s central message of authenticity with me. Writing at its best is unique, informative, and “an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper, and it will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity” (20). I want to urge my students to never forget the most essential piece in their writings: themselves. If that is forgotten, then the “intimate transaction” that is needed between them and their audience will be distant and ineffective.