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Reviews: Books about Writing
Book Reviews:
   Conventional Book Reviews   (standard commentary/review of book) 
  Knothole Book Reviews   (a "knothole review" is "not whole"-- 
       the concept is to give insights into an author's style, craft, and knowledge through selected excerpts.) 
 Writing to Learn 
William Zinsser
New York: Harper & Row, 1993

I read this book for its subject matter and for its dazzling bibliography and found that it serves as a pedagogical complement to his earlier work, On Writing Well. Zinsser reiterates what many college writing instructors have known for years: writing is not conducted solely in the humanities, but across the entire curriculum. He believes strongly in what many of us learned in elementary school: “writing is learned by imitation.” And Zinsser wants us to learn “from the best.”

In Writing to Learn, Zinsser warns against obscurity in writing and uncovers its main habitat—Academia. The author concludes that, “Actually, a simple style is the result of harder thinking and harder work than they are willing or able to do.” Ouch!  Zinsser must practice what he preaches in allowing the writing process to take its many faceted forms. Otherwise, where would we be without Shakespeare or Jane Austin or James Joyce (who wrote in a dense, stream of consciousness style)?

The book is divided into two sections. Part I is a riveting memoir of a writer, editor and teacher of writing. Here, Zinsser sets out to explore how writing is related to learning, as articulated in the title and in the thesis of his book. To do this, he visited Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota in order to examine how writing across the curriculum was conducted. Zinsser introduces us to faculty members such as Naola Van Orden who challenges her chemistry students to synthesize information from the textbook to the real world of chemistry: A manager in a pet store has to analyze the water in a customer’s pond whose fish are dying. The manager then needs to write a letter to the customer explaining the cause of, and the chemical cure that will rid the pond of its lethal materials. Van Orden explains her rationale: “I believe that writing is an effective means of improving thinking . . . Writing improves self-esteem because mentally processed ideas then belong to the writer and not just to the teacher or the textbook author.”

Part II is a stellar collection featuring a brilliant cast of geniuses such as Einstein on physics, Darwin on zoology, and in more modern times, Rachel Carson on oceanography. In this second half of the book Zinsser quotes from the marvelous writing in disciplines outside of English.  For instance, he quotes Margaret Mead in Growing Up in New Guinea:  “…in Manus there is neither heaven nor hell; there are simply two levels of existence.”  His admiration of Mead comes from his recognition of her “…objectivity…detail and respect.” 

 Zinsser pans for gold and certainly mines it in this section. Writing to Learn is an informative and enlightening journey into writing clearly, about any subject, and how to use writing as a means of learning.

I couldn’t agree more with Zinsser’s own words: “…what a pleasure it is to be in the company of a writer with enthusiasm for his subject … if we care about the writer we’ll follow him into subjects that we could have sworn we never wanted to know about.”  Many readers will undoubtedly follow this gifted writer into his future books.   #

--reviewed by Fran Pelham
(used by permission)

The Zinsser Bookshelf

In addition to Writing to Learn (reviewed above), there is On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction (“The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction”) which is also a boon to writers of fiction. Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir  is one of the best memoir-writing books, with chapters by Russell Baker, Frank McCourt, Annie Dillard, Toni Morrison, and five others. Speaking of Journalism is another title. It’s highly recommended that writers check out William Zinsser to find out the range of this master. His writing is an example of what he teaches about the art. #

--comments by Gloria T. Delamar