Nonfiction writing guru William Zinsser has a reflection on teaching and learning how to write nonfiction in the current issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine. I arrived at Yale too late to take one of his seminars, but I’ve been a fan of his work since I first read On Writing Well as an undergraduate. Sometimes, I succeed in working bits of his wisdom into my writing and into my teaching. Here’s a bit from the piece:
When I first taught my course I assumed that I would achieve most of my teaching with my didactic little talk explaining the form that the students had been assigned next. I sent them forth to do a travel piece or a sports piece or an interview in full confidence that they would apply all the hard-won principles I had so lucidly imparted. But when their papers came back, only about 20 percent of those principles had made it onto the page; pitfalls I had specifically warned against were repeatedly fallen into. The moral was clear: crafts don’t get learned by listening. If you want to be an auto mechanic you take an engine apart and reassemble it, and the teacher points out that you have put the carburetor in wrong. I would need to get my hands dirty making sure every carburetor was properly installed.
After that I began every class by reading aloud good and bad examples from student papers of the previous week. Perpetrators of bad examples were never identified; the rest were named and praised. Writers, I learned, are one of nature’s most unconfident species, in constant need of assurance that they are not doomed souls. After class I handed back the students’ papers with my corrections and comments and encouragements. That’s where the real work got done.
The overwhelming sin was clutter. It was in that Yale class that I became a fierce enemy of every word or phrase or sentence or paragraph in a piece of writing that wasn’t doing necessary work. To this day, what my students most vividly remember was my pruning of the weeds that were smothering what they wanted to say.