Non-fiction was never considered as literature. It was only in 1946 that The Book of the Month Club chose its first Non-Fiction title, even though the club existed since the 1920s. Today even good journalism entails the new American Literature. “Good writing is good writing, whatever form it takes and whatever we call it,” is Zinsser’s motto.
Non-fiction writing is enormous in scope and Zinsser systematically takes you through each aspect.
He starts with the interview- this is a basic skill. You need to talk to people to get information out of them that you can turn into star quotes in your feature. If the interviewee trusts you and gives you a story, it’s your responsibility not to misquote him. Ethics is a part of writing too.
Getting your travel pieces right is all about getting the texture of the place to jump off of the page. You can’t be completely candid as you would in a facebook post, but you should give the reader enough to make them sit up and notice. Zinsser quotes a delightful passage by Pritchett about how in Turkey even the faces of some people ‘sit’. This is very striking imagery and gives you a sense of what it means to be in Turkey, at least to Pritchett.
How do you write a memoir? It’s supposed to be easy, isn’t it? It isn’t though—you may have realized this when you tried to draft an SOP while applying to college. The problem with writing about yourself is that you could end up writing too much or nothing at all.
And now I might just give all of this book away, but I won’t. Zinsser can write about how to write anything and this is because he has taken cues from writers of all genres and all topics.
He talks about writing science with clarity, not jargon. He points to writers like Primo Levi, Oliver Sacks, Stephen Jay Gould. I can’t help adding Dr. Krishnan Chopra and Dr. Deepak Chopra, writers who have made health and spirituality more accessible to the lay person. One way to learn how to write non-fiction is to read books by writers who dabble in your field of interest.
Zinsser also cracks the business writing code. If all the memos, reports, analyses and proposals were dejargonized, corporate life would be so much easier and more productive. Have you read George Orwell’s essay called Politics and the English Language? He stresses on the importance of simple language too; large words and unnecessary coinages mislead people.
The bottom line is writing isn’t very easy at all and not anyone can write unless she is knee deep in the writing world and concerned about the efficacy of every word she uses. It’s a performance and can be improved with practice and a bit of conscience. Zinsser doesn’t believe that you have to write to sell. If you see the check, you don’t make the magic.
Your quest to write better than you did the last time is what does it.