The quote in the title is among my most loved statements from William Zinsser (On Writing Well, 2006, p. 9). The statement not only captures how writing is, but it also soothes us: “don’t worry,” it seems to say, “it’s not your fault; it’s simply the nature of writing”. That’s one truth about writing that I like to pass on to my clients.
After a long life of writing and editing, William Zinsser recently died 92 years old. But his book On Writing Well will continue to influence writers. As it says on the cover of the 2006 edition (Collins), it’s “The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction”. The lessons we learn from Zinsser can and should be applied to academic writing as well (he refers to academic writers a few times). Zinsser asks us to show our passion for the topics we write about. That’s what interested him the most, even if he didn’t care about the topic at all (you know what he means when reading the excerpt from E. B. White’s “The Hen (An Appreciation)” from 1944; pp. 26-27). Zinsser asks that writers, including academic ones, show themselves and their passion in the text.
“Simplify, simplify”, is another lesson from Zinsser (2006, p. 16). Simplifying is hard work, though. With the reminder to “simplify”, Zinsser means to get rid of the clutter that burdens our prose. He wasn’t against writing beautiful sentences or using words with special meaning. However, he asks us to decide whether or not we need a word, phrase or sentence and whether we can simplify what we have written. We have to master the basic craft of writing, before we dare to adorn our prose. This applies to academic writers too. Simplifying might not only help you to show your passion for your topic, but also to convey the information clearly.
There are many other lessons in Zinsser’s books. If you want to improve your writing, see for yourself. But don’t despair if it doesn’t work immediately. I still need to learn a lot myself. But what better way to write well than to write and rewrite a lot?