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Posts Tagged ‘On Writing Well’

On May 12, 2015, the writing world lost a great encourager, teacher, and mentor. At age 92, William Zinsser passed away. Author of the book that is (or should be) on the shelf of every writer and editor, On Writing Well, Zinsser left a legacy of helping people learn how to put words together. On Writing Well was first published in 1976 and has gone through seven editions as Zinsser updated it to take into account new technologies.

on writing well

The focus of the book is writing nonfiction, but the principles of good writing span all genres. Simplicity, economy of words, style, usage, voice, and understanding one’s audience are important for every type of writing–from the business email to the fantasy novel.

Zinsser spent his career writing and teaching writing. During the 1950s, he wrote editorials and features for the New York Herald Tribune. In the 1960s, he was a freelancer, writing for the likes of Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look, and Sports Illustrated. The 1970s saw him at Yale University teaching nonfiction writing and humor writing. In the 1980s, he worked as editor of the Book-of-the-Month club, a mail-order book sales club that operated from 1926-2014. The remainder of his life he continued freelancing, writing eighteen books, and (of all things) playing jazz piano!

But he’ll be most remembered and loved for what he did for helping writers understand their craft.

Referring to writing, Zinsser wrote:

There isn’t any “right” way to do such personal work. There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of methods, and any method that helps you to say what you want to say to the right method for you. . . . All [writers] are vulnerable and all of them are tense. They are driven by a compulsion to put some part of themselves on paper, and yet they don’t just write about what comes naturally. They sit down to commit an act of literature, and the self who emerges on paper is far stiffer than the person who sat down to write.

So Zinsser set out to help writers not be stiff, but instead to be able to truly commit acts of literature. I love that! But he also encourages:

Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard. . . .  Writing well means believing in your writing and believing in yourself, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel. You will write only as well as you make yourself write.

It’s not an easy life–this writing life. Those of you who have chosen to live your life with words–reading them, studying them, marveling at them, talking about them, writing them–you know this all too well.

But it’s that moment when it all comes together, when we have written well, when we have committed an act of literature–it’s that moment that makes it all worthwhile.

Thank you, William Zinsser, for your encouragement.

 

 

 

 

 

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Continuing to sing the praises of some of the unsung heros of publishing, I bring to you today an interview with my friend Stephanie Rische, who is a senior editor at Tyndale House Publishers. Stephanie works mainly with nonfiction–so that includes memoirs, inspirational books, devotionals, Bible studies, etc. I love that fact that she loves her work so much. Below, Stephanie answers some questions I asked her about her own process of editing and how it works at Tyndale.

stephanieHow long have you been working as an editor?
I’ve been at Tyndale House for almost a dozen years now. Before I started here full time, I edited curriculum on a freelance basis. I started out as a copy editor at Tyndale, and now I’m a senior editor, working with authors at a developmental level and managing one of our nonfiction teams. I wake up every morning marveling that God would allow me to read books for a living!

You generally edit nonfiction, but do you ever cross over into fiction? In your opinion, how familiar does an editor need to be in a genre in order to edit it well?
I love to read just about anything, but I edit nonfiction (memoir, devotional books, Christian living, children’s Bible storybooks, etc.). I think the best training to be a good editor is to read good writing. Part of your job as an editor isn’t solely to work on the manuscript in front of you; it’s also to do background reading in the genre you edit in so you know what readers are expecting, what the competition is doing, and what makes your manuscript stand out.

Give us a sense of your career path. Did you always know you wanted to do this job? Did you prepare for it in college, or did other circumstances lead you where you are today?
I have always loved to read. I remember missing my bus stop in second grade because my nose was in a book. I didn’t know much about editing until later in life, but in a sense I was being prepared for it through my love of books and writing and words in general. I’m not sure if this was a direct part of my career path, but I’ve always been a noticer. I enjoy observing and exploring, whether it’s little grammar details or big ideas.

In terms of my education, I received a strong foundation in English and writing from Taylor University, and then I taught English for several years. There’s nothing that solidifies your understanding of grammar and writing techniques like having to explain it to a roomful of teenagers who would rather be dong something else!

At Tyndale House, what is the process for acquiring manuscripts, and at what point do you receive the manuscript to begin your work?
At Tyndale the manuscript comes to me after the contract has been signed. In some companies, editors acquire and do developmental editing, but here those two roles are separated. There are advantages to each approach–the consistency is helpful when those roles are combined, but I appreciate that the division here allows me to be more of a purist about the editing process–to be devoted to the content and what’s best for the manuscript without having to weigh the financial and contractual side of things.

What is your process for editing? When a new manuscript lands on your desk, what tools do you gather and then what steps do you take to go from A to Z?
First, I do a manuscript review and make a plan for editing. At that point I talk to the team that acquired the manuscript and make sure we’re all in agreement about the vision for the book as we move forward. The next step is to meet the author (usually over the phone) and let him or her know what the editing process will look like. Depending on how much work the manuscript needs, I’ll go through it two more times–once to make the big-picture, structural edits, and once more to fine-tune and make line edits. It’s a funny thing about the way the brain is wired–it’s almost impossible to do the more creative, right-brained edits at the same time as the analytical, left-brained work. When I’m finished, I’ll send it on to a copy editor, who will do the fact checking and take a close look at the grammar and spelling.

Do you generally work back and forth with the author? What are the guidelines or expectations for that process—that is, do you always have to defer to the author or how much can you, as editor, press your point?
The back-and-forth process with authors is one of my favorite parts of editing. When people find out I’m an editor, they sometimes ask, “How do you decide who wins: you or the author?” But I don’t see the author/editor relationship as an adversarial one; it’s more of a collaboration. Both parties have the same goal: to make the book the best it can be. I marvel at how often the collaborative process of editing produces a third way–a solution that’s better than what the author or the editor would have come with individually. As an editor, I have the privilege of shaping and sharpening someone’s story, and it’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly.

For my students who are learning editing and want to eventually work in a publishing house, what would you tell them is the most important skill to acquire in their preparation so they can hit the ground running when the arrive in an editorial department for an internship or a job?

  1. Read a lot, and read widely.
  2. Read critically. As you read, be aware of what’s happening under the surface. Are there parts you’re tempted to skim? If so, why? If you’re hooked, what has the author done to make that happen?
  3. Learn the basics. Even if you want to do higher-level editing, those grammatical building blocks will help you understand language in a deeper way.bird by bird

Any favorite books about editing? What has been most helpful?

Anything else you want to add?
In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King offers these words of thanks to his editor: “One rule of the road not directly stated elsewhere in this book: ‘The editor is always right.’ The corollary is that no writer will take all of his or her editor’s advice; for all have sinned and fallen short of editorial perfection. Put another way, to write is human, to edit is divine.” His words are a bit tongue in cheek, but there is some truth in the idea that editing is a divine practice. As editors, we have a high calling to take someone else’s words and be part of that mysterious process of iron sharpening iron.

 

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