Skip to content

William Zinsser, Writing Well, and Fair Use

Virtually every law professor who works with student law review editors has horror stories about students’ mindless affection for the Bluebook, for alleged “rules” of grammar, syntax, and writing style, and (my own favorite) for the journal’s “policy” regarding something or other. One colleague of mine told me recently that she has had great success in negotiating a bargain at the outset of the editing process: If the students have a question about the author’s writing style, then the students are to note the question with a comment, rather than hard-coding the students’ revision into an edited manuscript. The author’s side of the bargain is that she is a great stylist in the first place, so she had a pretty clear idea of what she stands to lose if she cedes too much power to the students and what she stands to gain if she stands her ground.

It’s implicit in that narrative not only that few students are great editors but also that few scholars are great stylists. Both scholars and students would benefit, in my view, from far greater attention to the discipline of writing as such.

So, I will take every opportunity I see to flog William Zinsser’s wonderful On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, now in its “30th anniversary edition.”  (I have the Third and Fourth editions on my bookshelf and now suspect that I have several more editions to collect.)  Use the book yourself; recommend it to your students and colleagues; and learn from both its contents and its methods.

On its methods, Zinsser himself has just published a short essay that describes how On Writing Well came to be. In it he includes this fascinating anecdote:

I began by writing brief chapters on fundamental principles, such as clarity, simplicity, brevity, usage, voice, and the elimination of clutter. Then I settled into the heart of the book — longer chapters explaining how to write a lead, how to write an ending, how to conduct and construct an interview, how to write about travel and technology and sports, and and how to write other forms of nonfiction. Throughout, I supplied examples of writing I admired. My authors were widely different in personality and style, but they all wrote well. That was the premise I wanted to establish: that nonfiction is hospitable to an infinite number of voices if the writing is good.

My only concern was that I would go broke paying for permission to reprint all those excerpts. But then I consulted the “fair use” provision of the copyright law and found that an excerpt of 300 words or less — in a book-length work — could be used without payment. That rule was not only a financial lifesaver; it was the breakthrough that gave the book its pace. As an editor I knew that almost anything can be cut to 300 words; the material is somewhere in the marble, waiting to be quarried out. Therefore I selected passages that made a coherent point in less than 300 words and also preserved the author’s style and personality. Only in a few cases, when the writer needed an amplitude I didn’t want to violate, did I let an excerpt run longer. That 300-word limit saved the book from looking and feeling like an anthology of required readings. It was my book; I was the tour guide.

Copyright lawyers know that there is no bright line “300 word” rule of fair use, even though publishers may prescribe guidelines of that or similar sorts.  (For the record, the quotation above copies 275 words of Zinsser’s essay.)

But note how Zinsser uses that bit of copyright mythology to his advantage as an author.  Quotation limits supplied by fair use, even if those limits are characterized crudely and rigidly, helped him produce better work.

4 thoughts on “William Zinsser, Writing Well, and Fair Use”

  1. Also a big fan of Zinsser’s book and the importance of careful and thoughtful writing style. Style, done well, is substance. It’s also terribly hard to write well, as Zinsser notes. Personally, I’m always struggling.

    The 300-word myth, while not part of copyright law, is not just good for Zinsser in this case, it’s also good for writers. Something to ponder.

  2. Don’t forget that this is also the 50th anniversary of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. News stories are popping up everywhere about it.

    If only we could all learn to use the active voice, write concisely, and use serial commas…

Comments are closed.