william zinsser

Write On Wednesday: Editor at Large

This process of moving house has become an exercise in revision. For weeks, I’ve been going over all my possessions with a fine tooth comb - must I have four sets of casserole dishes? five travel mugs? half a dozen different styles of placemats? How many black purses do I really need? So I red-pencil items like a good editor would do extraneous words, consigning them to trash bags, donation bins, Craig’s List.

It’s been surprisingly easy to jettison all this baggage, and I feel lighter and freer by the moment. I’m almost loathe to take anything at all to the new house, am delighted at the thought of being pared down to the most bare of essentials.

That’s what a well-written piece of writing is like, isn’t it? Pared down to bare essentials.

The key is knowing what words are essential.

“The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components,” writes William Zinsser in On Writing Well, a copy of which I found buried in a chest of drawers in my bedroom during yesterday’s cleaning. “Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb which carries the same meaning that is already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what - these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence."


Like my cupboards overflowing with coffee mugs and dresser drawers spilling scarves, socks, and costume jewelry, Zinsser shakes a red-ink stained finger at clutter - “the disease of American writing.”  Clear your head of it, he exhorts the writer. “Clear thinking becomes clear writing."

But I can’t help but wonder (a phrase Zinsser would strike right through with red pen) - can things be too clear? Does writing stripped so clean and uncluttered lack some undefinable personality, a spark of cachet to endear it to the reader? This comes to mind as I peruse the top of my piano, the family photographs, the crystal candlesticks, the tiny sculpture of a woman with arms spread wide in joy. Each of these items could be classified as clutter, yet each one means something to me. Like beautiful, descriptive language, each one adds a touch of beauty to the room.

It’s a fine line, this process of revision.

What to leave in. What to leave out.

While my impulse at this moment is to clear out all the clutter, when all is said and done will I survey my surroundings and feel that something is missing?

The challenge is to strike a balance between the two.

I hope I’m up for it.