Thursday, April 2, 2009

Anatomy of an Accidental Best Seller: William Zinsser's On Writing Well

There are many excellent books on the art and science of writing, with William Zinsser's On Writing Well possibly the best of the lot. His recent commentary about the book's evolution over 35 years includes much wisdom about personal and professional development, not just about writing. Here are the key points I took away from this article:

* Trust your gut and the advice of those who love you.
The idea for the book came from Zinsser's wife, and he intuitively like it.

* Write about what you teach others to do.
Zinsser had been teaching writing at Yale for four years, so the book provided him the opportunity to engage course material on a deeper level.

* Consult other sources for inspiration, but don't copy them. Be yourself. Zinsser achieved a breakthrough when he realized he didn't need to be like E.B. White, the author of another classic, The Elements of Style. He merely needed to draw on his own experience and style.

* Seek inspiration from outside your primary area of activity. Zinsser's model was Alec Wilder's American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, not other books on writing.

* Go wherever the process takes you physically and intellectually. In Zinsser's case, that meant speaking at universities around the U.S. and expanding and revising the book as times demanded.

The result: a book that's sold nearly 1.5 million copies, an amazing intellectual and professional journey, and undoubtedly a rich, rewarding life.

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