On Rewriting Well

Excerpts from On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Let’s look at a typical paragraph and imagine that it’s the writer’s first draft. There’s nothing really wrong with it; it’s clear and it’s grammatical. But it’s full of ragged edges: failures of the writer to keep the reader notified of changes in time, place and mood, or to vary and animate the style.

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There used to be a time when neighbors took care of one another, he remembered. [Put “he remembered” first to establish reflective tone.He remembered that neighbors used to take care of one another.] It no longer seemed to happen that way, however. [The contrast supplied by “however” must come first. Start with “But.” Also establish America locale.But that no longer seemed to happen in America.] He wondered if it was because everyone in the modern world was so busy. [All these sentences are the same length and have the same soporific rhythm; turn this one into a question?Was it because everyone was so busy?] It occurred to him that people today have so many things to do that they don’t have time for old-fashioned friendship. [Sentence essentially repeats previous sentence; kill it or warm it up with specific detail.Were people really so preoccupied with their television sets and their cars and their fitness programs that they had no time for friendship?] Things didn’t work that way in America in previous eras. [Reader is still in the present; reverse the sentence to tell him he’s now in the past. “America” no longer needed if inserted earlier.In previous eras that was never true.] And he knew that the situation was very different in other countries, as he recalled from the years when he lived in villages in Spain and Italy. [Reader is still in America. Use a negative transition word to get him to Europe. Sentence is also too flabby. Break it into two sentences?Nor was it how families lived in other parts of the world. Even in the poorest villages of Spain and Italy, he recalled, people would drop in with a loaf of bread.] It almost seemed to him that as people got richer and built their houses farther apart they isolated themselves from the essentials of life. [Irony deferred too long. Plant irony early. Sharpen the paradox about richness.An ironic idea struck him: as people got richer they cut themselves off from the richness of life.] And there was another thought that troubled him. [This is the real point of the paragraph; signal the reader that it’s important. Avoid weak “there was” construction.But what really troubled him was an even more shocking fact.] His friends had deserted him when he needed them most during his recent illness. [Reshape to end with “most”; the last word is the one that stays in the reader’s ear and gives the sentence its punch. Hold sickness for next sentence; it’s a separate thought.The time when his friends deserted him was the time when he needed them most.] It was almost as if they found him guilty of doing something shameful. [Introduce sickness here as the reason for the shame. Omit “guilty”; it’s implicit.By getting sick he almost seemed to have done something shameful.] He recalled reading somewhere about societies in primitive parts of the world in which sick people were shunned, though he had never heard of any such ritual in America. [Sentence starts slowly and stays sluggish and dull. Break it into shorter units. Snap off the ironic point.He knew that other societies had a custom of “shunning” people who were very ill. But that ritual only existed in primitive cultures. Or did it?]

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My revisions aren’t the best ones that could be made, or the only ones. They’re mainly matters of carpentry: altering the sequence, tightening the flow, sharpening the point. Much could still be done in such areas as cadence, detail and freshness of language. The total construction is equally important. Read your article aloud from beginning to end, always remembering where you left the reader in the previous sentence. You might find you had written two sentences like this:

The tragic hero of the play is Othello. Small and malevolent, Iago feeds his jealous suspicions.

In itself there’s nothing wrong with the Iago sentence. But as a sequel to the previous sentence it’s very wrong. The name lingering in the reader’s ear is Othello; the reader naturally assumes that Othello is small and malevolent.

When you read your writing aloud with these connecting links in mind you’ll hear a dismaying number of places where you lost the reader, or confused the reader, or failed to tell him the one fact he needed to know, or told him the same thing twice: the inevitable loose ends of every early draft. What you must do is make an arrangement—one that holds together from start to finish and that moves with economy and warmth.