Writing to Learn

William Zinsser is an author every writer should read. His book On Writing Well is a classic that I revisit every few years as much for its style as its substance. And Writing to Learn is a text that challenges me as both a writer and a teacher.

William ZinsserZinsser was an intellectual magnate (if I may be permitted such a metaphor) of the twentieth century. He was educated both at Princeton and through his service in WWII, after which he taught and served at Yale. Zinsser was a thoughtful man of wide-ranging talents who found his voice writing simply. He passed in the spring of 2015, and he will be much missed.

I recently re-read Writing to Learn and found myself again challenged by it. The book was written in the late ‘80s in response to the Writing Across the Curriculum movement. Zinsser saw the movement as an attempt to make certain disciplines more accessible to antipathetic students.

My own experience has been different. I’ve seen WAC give English departments unwarranted power on some campuses. On others, it has put writing instruction into well-meaning but untaught hands. Zinsser’s interpretation no doubt arose from his faith in the English language and the power of careful writing as a path to clear thought.

Certainly, “all of us know this moment of finding out what we really want to say by trying in writing to say it” (Zinsser, William. Writing to Learn. NY: Harper & Row, 1988. 1st ed. p. 16). And there is a joy in approaching the craft of writing as a student that I too often neglect. Zinsser has inspired me to pay witness, and here is what I see:

1) Much of writing is not writing. I write in my garden. I write while I clean and play with my dogs and fold laundry. Reading is writing.

I don’t mean that I always have a pen handy. I rarely journal or even take notes. Instead I create the mental space, the soul space if you will, to write meaningfully and productively when the time comes. I fill myself with reflections on a whole variety of subjects, so that when I write, I overflow.

2) The process can be surprisingly fluid when I am disciplined. Hand in hand with the freedom to live life to the fullest walks the routine of sitting down to write. Writing brooks no interruption, not even from myself.

I will not pause to find the example, the quote, the graph, or the figure. I will follow my outline. And when my path is uncertain, I will map it more clearly. And how surprised I am to discover six pages of text emerge in a day’s work!

3) A breech birth can still stump me. One passage, poorly conceived, can vex me for days. An inexact metaphor haunts me. I continue to search for the connections I have failed to make.

And sometimes these “edge of the pale” moments can stop me from writing. I either have to wait it out or move on to another project altogether.

Zinsser reminds me that I approach these problems as both a student and a teacher. I write to learn, specifically, the problems we face as writers and the solutions we can implement. In all of my discoveries, I try to find the system, the way to codify the process, because there’s something to be said for writing to teach as well.

Yes, “all of us know this moment of finding out what we really want to say by trying in writing to say it.” But we also know the moment when we have a deadline to meet; we don’t fully understand our writing assignment, our subject, or its context; and we have to crank out the darn thing anyway. In those moments, we need to write with clarity.

Writing with clarity means we understand the stages of the writing process and we know where we are in those stages. We have tools for every stage, and we know when and how to implement them. We see when we are stuck, and we have strategies for getting ourselves unstuck.

Writing with clarity is, in some ways, the opposite of writing to learn. We get there by training, reading, and learning. We learn what our own best practices are and how to replicate those. We also learn what our own best practices are not and how to eliminate or overcome them.

They say you teach that which you most need to learn. If that is so, I must be a pretty terrible writer. I will take that if I have helped just one person get better. Remember that you can be a teacher too. Write to learn, observe your best and worst practices, and teach yourself.

NOTE: I previously wrote a three-part series called Writing to Learn exploring the ways that the four learning styles – visual, aural, read/write, and kinesthetic – can be used by writers. If you’re interested, here are the links to those posts:

Writing to Learn, Part I

Writing to Learn, Part II

Writing to Learn, Part III

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