Zinsser: On Writing, Journalism And Technology

on-writing-well[1]It’s near the end of the school year, and I’m chatting with Preston Michelson ’13, my star journalism student, about the changing nature of writing and reporting.

Michelson, who will attend the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University next year, has just finished his last exam. He celebrates by walking into the Palmer Trinity School newsroom with a printed edition of The New York Times

In my recent memory, I can’t recall seeing any other 18-year-old read an actual newspaper—certainly not as intently. I chide Michelson for supporting a dying relic, the printed word. It seems strange that such a tech-savvy student would even glance at a newspaper. After all, Michelson epitomizes what I like to call “Journalist 2.0.” He edits video, sound, and photographs, and he even has a strong command of basic Web site coding.

“But I still like the printed article,” Michelson tells me. “It’s okay to have an appreciation for both print and online journalism.”

I’m taken aback. It takes me a moment to remember that with all of Michelson’s technical skills, none of his other talents compares to his reporting and writing abilities. We spend the next hour discussing the changing nature of writing, and how one should teach journalism for the 21st century.

As we chat, I’m appropriately reminded of an April 28 New York Times piece, “A Writing Coach Becomes a Listener,” about William Zinsser, 90, considered by many to be one of this country’s greatest masters of prose. Zinsser is also author of On Writing Well, among the most lauded and utilized teaching and learning guides.

“Clutter is the disease of American writing,” Zinsser writes. “We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constrictions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”

I reach out to Zinsser, a living legend, for his views on how he adapted to writing for an online audience, and whether the Web adds “pompous frills and meaningless jargon” to the public discourse. First and foremost, Zinsser tells me that technology is not the issue.

“The issue is learn to write,” he says. “Put one sentence after another in good, simple declarative language and get what you want written the way you want to write it. Then find a way to harness it, publish it in whatever technology that exists.”

Zinsser is a self-professed “lifelong child of paper.” For years, he sold pieces to The American Scholar, a prestigious quarterly magazine that ran his work in a print edition. At first, Zinsser balked when he heard from his editors that they wanted him to go online.

Zinsser says, “I thought ‘Oh, God, that’s the kiss of death. I will vanish into some electronic black hole. I don’t even know who’s reading.’ I assumed that nobody of any intelligence was reading out there–it was one vast mess.”

I have long argued in favor of moving print publications online, especially with an increased emphasis on “going green.” I find solace in discovering another supporter in Zinsser.

“I have been impressed by the fact that The American Scholar, like all magazines, now is putting a heavy emphasis on its online presence,” Zinsser says. “That’s their only road to salvation.”

For a man that lived most of his life dependent on paper, Zinsser adapted extremely well to the Internet—so much so, in fact, that he proposed starting his own blog:

I said to the editor, “You’re only a quarterly. That’s not much product.” I said, “How would it be if I wrote you a weekly blog?” I didn’t tell him that I’d never even seen a blog, but I never really had. He said, “Fine.” I began writing this blog, and I wrote it for 80 straight weeks.

Zinsser tells me he wanted to see if he could write for a new medium and continue producing reviews and columns, which he had done so successfully his entire life. He not only succeeded—he excelled.

“We started, and it took me a while to figure out what a good blog should be,” Zinsser says. “It had to be more timely; it had to be tighter. But I learned a lot by doing it. At the end, I heard from a tremendous number of new readers who were very bright, another big surprise. I have a whole new readership… It was very satisfying that I was able to convert my life‑long skills as a writer, regardless of the technology, to the new technology, and write a blog starting at the age of 89 that won the prize as the best blog of the year.”

I discuss with Zinsser the increased emphasis on video and multimedia in journalism 2.0, and that today’s editors require reporters to do a bit of everything. I ask Zinsser if he thinks the public is losing something by placing an increasingly heavy emphasis on these areas.

“Of course, we are losing something, which is an appreciation of the written word. That’s a rather odd thing to say since it’s been going on as the main prop since the King James Bible.”

Zinsser also fears  what he calls an “epidemic of lost logic.”

“That’s because most people in the world now get their information from multiple sources, many of them visual images that are flickering on a screen. They are not arranged in any order. They’re coming at us from every direction. They’re coming through their wrists. They’re coming through their ears. They’re coming through God-knows-whatever other wires.”

Zinsser’s words take me back to my days as a student at Brandeis University. I’m in one of Prof. Michael Socolow’s journalism courses, and I’m learning about Edward R. Murrow’s famous “Wires and Lights in a Box Speech.”

This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference.

I press Zinsser for advice on how I should conduct my class, especially if I aim to educate marketable journalists.

“I would say to anybody teaching journalism or any kind of writing, the job is to teach them how to put one declarative sentence after another—and it always will be,” Zinsser says, noting that the same holds true whether one is speaking into a video camera or using any other piece of technology to disseminate information.

After Zinsser and I part ways, I review my notes and smile at one of his remarks.

“Get the darn story written as simply and as clearly and as warmly as possible.”

Sage advice.

As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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