Monday, April 16, 2007

On Writing Well

My boss gave mea copy of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. Since I’ve spent the past year reading almost nothing but academic tomes, Zinsser’s book was like throwing open the windows of a boarded house and letting in a rush of fresh air. Zinsser has a lot of good things to say, but two in particular stand out.

First, get rid of the clutter. If it can be said with ten words, don’t use fifteen. If the noun already contains the adjective, forget the adjective (e.g., the round orange—are oranges anything but round?). If the noun already contains the adverb, forget the adverb (e.g., he banged loudly on the door—how else would one bang? Softly?). If you’ve already stated it once, there’s probably no need to state it again. Armed with Zinsser’s clarion call to remove clutter, I reviewed an old manuscript and began deleting large chunks of it. The manuscript went from 170 pages to 150.

Second, Zinsser takes to task the pretense of academic snobbery—perhaps not as sharply as he could have, but sharp enough to sting me. The essence of his message is, “Don’t write to be smart; write to be understood.” Now that is a good word. God forgive us—forgive me—that we would use theology as a means of making ourselves look smart. Writing to impress is about the author. Writing to be understood is about the reader. The former is the way of arrogance; the latter is the way of love. Besides, it is not the bigness of one’s words that impress, but the substance of one’s ideas. Doesn’t every beginner in NT Greek begin with John? He uses the smallest, most common words. Yet John’s writings contain arguably the deepest theology in the entire cannon of Scripture.

Zinsser is not writing from a distinctly Christian perspective, but how much more should his words have application to those of us who would claim that our scholarship is ministry? Are we writing to build our kingdom, or Christ’s? Oh God, help me not get swept again into the academic pride that permeates so much of theological scholarship. I want to be a servant to my readers, not a lord.


CrnbrdEater said...

I started reading your post with great interest...but couldn't finish it. Too many words.

Gerald said...

Stuff it.

How's that for brevity?