What About Me?

The book I most often recommend to writers is William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. It is wise, practical, and enjoyable to read. Friends have even heard me talk about Zinsserizing a manuscript – a mischievously ironic term since Zinsser abhors such neologisms. 

In On Writing Well, however, Zinsser self-consciously makes an apparent contradiction. On the one hand he tells writers not to worry about the audience, what people will like or understand or agree with. Don’t write for an audience. Write for yourself, he tells us confidently. Write about what interests you. If you think something is funny, put it in. If you like a word, say neologism, don’t fret over whether most people will know what it means. If it fits you, use it. 

If you find cockroaches to be fascinating, then don’t let your fear of squeamish readers deter you. Do chess-playing bronco riders give you a kick? Then make the move. If the atonal music of Arnold Schoenberg sends your heart into rhapsodic palpitations, then strike that chord in your prose. Don’t be concerned if Aunt Henrietta doesn’t know the difference between a twelve-tone scale and the twelve apostles. Just have fun. 

As I write, podcasts are widely enjoyed. Of course, true crime stories have been a popular genre for generations; no surprise then that podcasts should enjoy success there too. But many other types abound. No topic is too specialized for How Stuff Works, which has episodes like “How Lion Taming Works” and “How Commercial Jingles Work.” Neither life nor death nor my pocketbook depend on being informed on such subjects. But the producers and reporters do a fascinating job, and we listen. 

I personally enjoy The American Life and Radiolab. They lean on telling stories about what otherwise might be considered an arcane subject. Where did the legal phrase “We can neither confirm nor deny” come from? Why are US cities opposed to fighting crime using successful techniques developed by US companies for places like Mexico and Iraq? Why did badminton players try to lose in order to win a tournament? When Radiolab puts together stories like these, they keep our interest. They tell stories with drama, with compelling narrative questions as we learn something new. They don’t give a second thought to what others may or may not like. If they alone think it’s a good story, they tell it. 

from “Write Better: A Lifelong Editor on Craft, Art, and Spirituality” by Andrew T. Le Peau