Written by New York Times and Life columnist William Zinsser, “On Writing Well: An Informal Guide To Writing NonFiction” was the third edition of the book. It was, at the time, cutting-edge stuff, including a high-tech chapter on “Writing With A Word Processor”. (I first worked on a computer two years later.)
I can’t remember how thoroughly I read “On Writing Well” but it remains on a bookshelf behind my desk to this day, which is where I encountered it recently.
As I paged through the book, I found I’d written some notes to myself on the inside back cover. It struck me, as I deciphered my left-handed scrawl beneath the headline, “New Year resolutions”, that 25 years on, the older me could learn from the younger me. Here’s what I wrote:
1. Look for unexpected stories but don’t ignore what others are already talking/reading/writing about. Be opened minded and interested, no matter how unexciting the topic might first seem. Is there another angle? The more you learn, the more likely you’ll see an unanticipated angle.
2. Don’t be afraid to stand up to GW when he asks why you did something. Have answers ready. (GW was the owner/publisher of the company.)
3. Check and check again.
4. Don’t be nervous about asking questions that you think the subject might think you should already know the answers to. Don’t be afraid to ask questions that make people nervous if they are relevant to the story.
5. Don’t let PR people and/or advertisers/ad reps bully you.
6. Make notes of your notes when it’s possible interview subjects are going to deny/question quotes after publication. Save up for a recorder.
7. Remember you can’t include everything you have learned on the subject in all articles. Edit to the bone.
8. Don’t try and sound clever when you write. Just be clear.
9. Make every paragraph tell a story, however small – otherwise why write it?
10. Observe, observe, observe, ask, ask, ask…report.
Happy New Year!