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On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction

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On Writing Well has been praised for its sound advice, its clarity, and its warmth of style. It is a book for anybody who wants to learn how to write, whether about people or places, science and technology, business, sports, the arts, or about yourself. Its principles and insights have made it a cherished resource for several generations of writers and students. The text warns against common errors in structure,  Read more...
Abstract: On Writing Well has been praised for its sound advice, its clarity, and its warmth of style. It is a book for anybody who wants to learn how to write, whether about people or places, science and technology, business, sports, the arts, or about yourself. Its principles and insights have made it a cherished resource for several generations of writers and students. The text warns against common errors in structure, style, and diction, and explains the fundamentals of conducting interviews and writing travel, scientific, sports, critical, and humorous articles
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30th Anniversary Edition



William Zinsser





PART I Principles

1 The Transaction

2 Simplicity

3 Clutter

4 Style

5 The Audience

6 Words

7 Usage

PART II Methods

8 Unity

9 The Lead and the Ending

10 Bits & Pieces


11 Nonfiction as Literature

12 Writing About People: The Interview

13 Writing About Places: The Travel Article

14 Writing About Yourself: The Memoir

15 Science and Technology

16 Business Writing: Writing in Your Job

17 Sports

18 Writing About the Arts: Critics and Columnists

19 Humor

PART IV Attitudes

20 The Sound of Your Voice

21 Enjoyment, Fear and Confidence

22 The Tyranny of the Final Product

23 A Writer’s Decisions

24 Writing Family History and Memoir

25 Write as Well as You Can








One of the pictures hanging in my office in mid-Manhattan is a photograph of the writer E. B. White. It was taken by Jill Krementz when White was 77 years old, at his home in North Brooklin, Maine. A white-haired man is sitting on a plain wooden bench at a plain wooden table—three boards nailed to four legs—in a small boathouse. The window is open to a view across the water. White is typing on a manual typewriter, and the only other objects are an ashtray and a nail keg. The keg, I don’t have to be told, is his wastebasket.

Many people from many corners of my life—writers and aspiring writers, students and former students—have seen that picture. They come to talk through a writing problem or to catch me up on their lives. But usually it doesn’t take more than a few minutes for their eye to be drawn to the old man sitting at the typewriter. What gets their attention is the simplicity of the process. White has everything he needs: a writing implement, a piece of paper, and a receptacle for all the sentences that didn’t come out the way he wanted them to.

Since th; en writing has gone electronic. Computers have replaced the typewriter, the delete key has replaced the wastebasket, and various other keys insert, move and rearrange whole chunks of text. But nothing has replaced the writer. He or she is still stuck with the same old job of saying something that other people will want to read. That’s the point of the photograph, and it’s still the point—30 years later—of this book.

I first wrote On Writing Well in an outbuilding in Connecticut that was as small and as crude as White’s boathouse. My tools were a dangling lightbulb, an Underwood standard typewriter, a ream of yellow copy paper and a wire wastebasket. I had then been teaching my nonfiction writing course at Yale for five years, and I wanted to use the summer of 1975 to try to put the course into a book.

E. B. White, as it happened, was very much on my mind. I had long considered him my model as a writer. His was the seemingly effortless style—achieved, I knew, with great effort—that I wanted to emulate, and whenever I began a new project I would first read some White to get his cadences into my ear. But now I also had a pedagogical interest: White was the reigning champ of the arena I was trying to enter. The Elements of Style, his updating of the book that had most influenced him, written in 1919 by his English professor at Cornell, William Strunk Jr., was the dominant how-to manual for writers. Tough competition.

Instead of competing with the Strunk & White book I decided to complement it. The Elements of Style was a book of pointers and admonitions: do this, don’t do that. What it didn’t address was how to apply those principles to the various forms that nonfiction writing and journalism can take. That’s what I taught in my course, and it’s what I would teach in my book: how to write about people and places, science and technology, history and medicine, business and education, sports and the arts and everything else under the sun that’s waiting to be written about.

So On Writing Well was born, in 1976, and it’s now in its third generation of readers, its sales well over a million. Today I often meet young newspaper reporters who were given the book by the editor who hired them, just as those editors were first given the book by the editor who hired them. I also often meet gray-haired matrons who remember being assigned the book in college and not finding it the horrible medicine they expected. Sometimes they bring that early edition for me to sign, its sentences highlighted in yellow. They apologize for the mess. I love the mess.

As America has steadily changed in 30 years, so has the book. I’ve revised it six times to keep pace with new social trends (more interest in memoir, business, science and sports), new literary trends (more women writing nonfiction), new demographic patterns (more writers from other cultural traditions), new technologies (the computer) and new words and usages. I’ve also incorporated lessons I learned by continuing to wrestle with the craft myself, writing books on subjects I hadn’t tried before: baseball and music and American history. My purpose is to make myself and my experience available. If readers connect with my book it’s because they don’t think they’re hearing from an English professor. They’re hearing from a working writer.

My concerns as a teacher have also shifted. I’m more interested in the intangibles that produce good writing—confidence, enjoyment, intention, integrity—and I’ve written new chapters on those values. Since the 1990s I’ve also taught an adult course on memoir and family history at the New School. My students are men and women who want to use writing to try to understand who they are and what heritage they were born into. Year after year their stories take me deeply into their lives and into their yearning to leave a record of what they have done and thought and felt. Half the people in America, it seems, are writing a memoir.

The bad news is that most of them are paralyzed by the size of the task. How can they even begin to impose a coherent shape on the past—that vast sprawl of half-remembered people and events and emotions? Many are near despair. To offer some help and comfort I wrote a book in 2004 called Writing About Your Life. It’s a memoir of various events in my own life, but it’s also a teaching book: along the way I explain the writing decisions I made. They are the same decisions that confront every writer going in search of his or her past: matters of selection, reduction, organization and tone. Now, for this seventh edition, I’ve put the lessons I learned into a new chapter called “Writing Family History and Memoir.”

When I first wrote On Writing Well, the readers I had in mind were a small segment of the population: students, writers, editors, teachers and people who wanted to learn how to write. I had no inkling of the electronic marvels that would soon revolutionize the act of writing. First came the word processor, in the 1980s, which made the computer an everyday tool for people who had never thought of themselves as writers. Then came the Internet and e-mail, in the 1990s, which continued the revolution. Today everybody in the world is writing to everybody else, making instant contact across every border and across every time zone. Bloggers are saturating the globe.

On one level the new torrent is good news. Any invention that reduces the fear of writing is up there with air-conditioning and the lightbulb. But, as always, there’s a catch. Nobody told all the new computer writers that the essence of writing is rewriting. Just because they’re writing fluently doesn’t mean they’re writing well.

That condition was first revealed with the arrival of the word processor. Two opposite things happened: good writers got better and bad writers got worse. Good writers welcomed the gift of being able to fuss endlessly with their sentences—pruning and revising and reshaping—without the drudgery of retyping. Bad writers became even more verbose because writing was suddenly so easy and their sentences looked so pretty on the screen. How could such beautiful sentences not be perfect?

E-mail is an impromptu medium, not conducive to slowing down or looking back. It’s ideal for the never-ending upkeep of daily life. If the writing is disorderly, no real harm is done. But e-mail is also where much of the world’s business is now conducted. Millions of e-mail messages every day give people the information they need to do their job, and a badly written message can do a lot of damage. So can a badly written Web site. The new age, for all its electronic wizardry, is still writing-based.

On Writing Well is a craft book, and its principles haven’t changed since it was written 30 years ago. I don’t know what still newer marvels will make writing twice as easy in the next 30 years. But I do know they won’t make writing twice as good. That will still require plain old hard thinking—what E. B. White was doing in his boathouse—and the plain old tools of the English language.

William Zinsser

April 2006




The Transaction

A school in Connecticut once held “a day devoted to the arts,” and I was asked if I would come and talk about writing as a vocation. When I arrived I found that a second speaker had been invited—Dr. Brock (as I’ll call him), a surgeon who had recently begun to write and had sold some stories to magazines. He was going to talk about writing as an avocation. That made us a panel, and we sat down to face a crowd of students and teachers and parents, all eager to learn the secrets of our glamorous work.

Dr. Brock was dressed in a bright red jacket, looking vaguely bohemian, as authors are supposed to look, and the first question went to him. What was it like to be a writer?

He said it was tremendous fun. Coming home from an arduous day at the hospital, he would go straight to his yellow pad and write his tensions away. The words just flowed. It was easy. I then said that writing wasn’t easy and wasn’t fun. It was hard and lonely, and the words seldom just flowed.

Next Dr. Brock was asked if it was important to rewrite. Absolutely not, he said. “Let it all hang out,” he told us, and whatever form the sentences take will reflect the writer at his most natural. I then said that rewriting is the essence of writing. I pointed out that professional writers rewrite their sentences over and over and then rewrite what they have rewritten.

“What do you do on days when it isn’t going well?” Dr. Brock was asked. He said he just stopped writing and put the work aside for a day when it would go better. I then said that the professional writer must establish a daily schedule and stick to it. I said that writing is a craft, not an art, and that the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself. He is also going broke.

“What if you’re feeling depressed or unhappy?” a student asked. “Won’t that affect your writing?”

Probably it will, Dr. Brock replied. Go fishing. Take a walk. Probably it won’t, I said. If your job is to write every day, you learn to do it like any other job.

A student asked if we found it useful to circulate in the literary world. Dr. Brock said he was greatly enjoying his new life as a man of letters, and he told several stories of being taken to lunch by his publisher and his agent at Manhattan restaurants where writers and editors gather. I said that professional writers are solitary drudges who seldom see other writers.

“Do you put symbolism in your writing?” a student asked me.

“Not if I can help it,” I replied. I have an unbroken record of missing the deeper meaning in any story, play or movie, and as for dance and mime, I have never had any idea of what is being conveyed.

“I love symbols!” Dr. Brock exclaimed, and he described with gusto the joys of weaving them through his work.

So the morning went, and it was a revelation to all of us. At the end Dr. Brock told me he was enormously interested in my answers—it had never occurred to him that writing could be hard. I told him I was just as interested in his answers—it had never occurred to me that writing could be easy. Maybe I should take up surgery on the side.

As for the students, anyone might think we left them bewildered. But in fact we gave them a broader glimpse of the writing process than if only one of us had talked. For there isn’t any “right” way to do such personal work. There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of methods, and any method that helps you to say what you want to say is the right method for you. Some people write by day, others by night. Some people need silence, others turn on the radio. Some write by hand, some by computer, some by talking into a tape recorder. Some people write their first draft in one long burst and then revise; others can’t write the second paragraph until they have fiddled endlessly with the first.

But all of them are vulnerable and all of them are tense. They are driven by a compulsion to put some part of themselves on paper, and yet they don’t just write what comes naturally. They sit down to commit an act of literature, and the self who emerges on paper is far stiffer than the person who sat down to write. The problem is to find the real man or woman behind the tension.

Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is. I often find myself reading with interest about a topic I never thought would interest me—some scientific quest, perhaps. What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field. How was he drawn into it? What emotional baggage did he bring along? How did it change his life? It’s not necessary to want to spend a year alone at Walden Pond to become involved with a writer who did.

This is the personal transaction that’s at the heart of good nonfiction writing. Out of it come two of the most important qualities that this book will go in search of: humanity and warmth. Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to “personalize” the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.

Can such principles be taught? Maybe not. But most of them can be learned.



Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.

Who can understand the clotted language of everyday American commerce: the memo, the corporation report, the business letter, the notice from the bank explaining its latest “simplified” statement? What member of an insurance or medical plan can decipher the brochure explaining his costs and benefits? What father or mother can put together a child’s toy from the instructions on the box? Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important. The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating experiencing considerable precipitation wouldn’t think of saying it may rain. The sentence is too simple—there must be something wrong with it.

But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.

During the 1960s the president of my university wrote a letter to mollify the alumni after a spell of campus unrest. “You are probably aware,” he began, “that we have been experiencing very considerable potentially explosive expressions of dissatisfaction on issues only partially related.” He meant that the students had been hassling them about different things. I was far more upset by the president’s English than by the students’ potentially explosive expressions of dissatisfaction. I would have preferred the presidential approach taken by Franklin D. Roosevelt when he tried to convert into English his own government’s memos, such as this blackout order of 1942:

Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination.

“Tell them,” Roosevelt said, “that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something across the windows.”

Simplify, simplify. Thoreau said it, as we are so often reminded, and no American writer more consistently practiced what he preached. Open Walden to any page and you will find a man saying in a plain and orderly way what is on his mind:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

How can the rest of us achieve such enviable freedom from clutter? The answer is to clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English. He may get away with it for a paragraph or two, but soon the reader will be lost, and there’s no sin so grave, for the reader will not easily be lured back.

Who is this elusive creature, the reader? The reader is someone with an attention span of about 30 seconds—a person assailed by many forces competing for attention. At one time those forces were relatively few: newspapers, magazines, radio, spouse, children, pets. Today they also include a galaxy of electronic devices for receiving entertainment and information—television, VCRs, DVDs, CDs, video games, the Internet, e-mail, cell phones, BlackBerries, iPods—as well as a fitness program, a pool, a lawn and that most potent of competitors, sleep. The man or woman snoozing in a chair with a magazine or a book is a person who was being given too much unnecessary trouble by the writer.

It won’t do to say that the reader is too dumb or too lazy to keep pace with the train of thought. If the reader is lost, it’s usually because the writer hasn’t been careful enough. That carelessness can take any number of forms. Perhaps a sentence is so excessively cluttered that the reader, hacking through the verbiage, simply doesn’t know what it means. Perhaps a sentence has been so shoddily constructed that the reader could read it in several ways. Perhaps the writer has switched pronouns in midsentence, or has switched tenses, so the reader loses track of who is talking or when the action took place. Perhaps Sentence B is not a logical sequel to Sentence A; the writer, in whose head the connection is clear, hasn’t bothered to provide the missing link. Perhaps the writer has used a word incorrectly by not taking the trouble to look it up.

Faced with such obstacles, readers are at first tenacious. They blame themselves—they obviously missed something, and they go back over the mystifying sentence, or over the whole paragraph, piecing it out like an ancient rune, making guesses and moving on. But they won’t do that for long. The writer is making them work too hard, and they will look for one who is better at the craft.

Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they don’t know. Then they must look at what they have written and ask: have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time? If it’s not, some fuzz has worked its way into the machinery. The clear writer is someone clearheaded enough to see this stuff for what it is: fuzz.

I don’t mean that some people are born clearheaded and are therefore natural writers, whereas others are naturally fuzzy and will never write well. Thinking clearly is a conscious act that writers must force on themselves, as if they were working on any other project that requires logic: making a shopping list or doing an algebra problem. Good writing doesn’t come naturally, though most people seem to think it does. Professional writers are constantly bearded by people who say they’d like to “try a little writing sometime”—meaning when they retire from their real profession, like insurance or real estate, which is hard. Or they say, “I could write a book about that.” I doubt it.

Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.

Two pages of the final manuscript of this chapter from the First Edition of On Writing Well. Although they look like a first draft, they had already been rewritten and retyped—like almost every other page—four or five times. With each rewrite I try to make what I have written tighter, stronger and more precise, eliminating every element that’s not doing useful work. Then I go over it once more, reading it aloud, and am always amazed at how much clutter can still be cut. (In later editions I eliminated the sexist pronoun “he” denoting “the writer” and “the reader.”)



Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds—the writer is always slightly behind. New varieties sprout overnight, and by noon they are part of American speech. Consider what President Nixon’s aide John Dean accomplished in just one day of testimony on television during the Watergate hearings. The next day everyone in America was saying “at this point in time” instead of “now.”

Consider all the prepositions that are draped onto verbs that don’t need any help. We no longer head committees. We head them up. We don’t face problems anymore. We face up to them when we can free up a few minutes. A small detail, you may say—not worth bothering about. It is worth bothering about. Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there. “Up” in “free up” shouldn’t be there. Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose.

Take the adjective “personal,” as in “a personal friend of mine,” “his personal feeling” or “her personal physician.” It’s typical of hundreds of words that can be eliminated. The personal friend has come into the language to distinguish him or her from the business friend, thereby debasing both language and friendship. Someone’s feeling is that person’s personal feeling—that’s what “his” means. As for the personal physician, that’s the man or woman summoned to the dressing room of a stricken actress so she won’t have to be treated by the impersonal physician assigned to the theater. Someday I’d like to see that person identified as “her doctor.” Physicians are physicians, friends are friends. The rest is clutter.

Clutter is the laborious phrase that has pushed out the short word that means the same thing. Even before John Dean, people and businesses had stopped saying “now.” They were saying “currently” (“all our operators are currently assisting other customers”), or “at the present time,” or “presently” (which means “soon”). Yet the idea can always be expressed by “now” to mean the immediate moment (“Now I can see him”), or by “today” to mean the historical present (“Today prices are high”), or simply by the verb “to be” (“It is raining”). There’s no need to say, “At the present time we are experiencing precipitation.”

“Experiencing” is one of the worst clutterers. Even your dentist will ask if you are experiencing any pain. If he had his own kid in the chair he would say, “Does it hurt?” He would, in short, be himself. By using a more pompous phrase in his professional role he not only sounds more important; he blunts the painful edge of truth. It’s the language of the flight attendant demonstrating the oxygen mask that will drop down if the plane should run out of air. “In the unlikely possibility that the aircraft should experience such an eventuality,” she begins—a phrase so oxygen-depriving in itself that we are prepared for any disaster.

Clutter is the ponderous euphemism that turns a slum into a depressed socioeconomic area, garbage collectors into waste-disposal personnel and the town dump into the volume reduction unit. I think of Bill Mauldin’s cartoon of two hoboes riding a freight car. One of them says, “I started as a simple bum, but now I’m hard-core unemployed.” Clutter is political correctness gone amok. I saw an ad for a boys’ camp designed to provide “individual attention for the minimally exceptional.”

Clutter is the official language used by corporations to hide their mistakes. When the Digital Equipment Corporation eliminated 3,000 jobs its statement didn’t mention layoffs; those were “involuntary methodologies.” When an Air Force missile crashed, it “impacted with the ground prematurely.” When General Motors had a plant shutdown, that was a “volume-related production-schedule adjustment.” Companies that go belly-up have “a negative cash-flow position.”

Clutter is the language of the Pentagon calling an invasion a “reinforced protective reaction strike” and justifying its vast budgets on the need for “counterforce deterrence.” As George Orwell pointed out in “Politics and the English Language,” an essay written in 1946 but often cited during the wars in Cambodia, Vietnam and Iraq, “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.... Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” Orwell’s warning that clutter is not just a nuisance but a deadly tool has come true in the recent decades of American military adventurism. It was during George W. Bush’s presidency that “civilian casualties” in Iraq became “collateral damage.”

Verbal camouflage reached new heights during General Alexander Haig’s tenure as President Reagan’s secretary of state. Before Haig nobody had thought of saying “at this juncture of maturization” to mean “now.” He told the American people that terrorism could be fought with “meaningful sanctionary teeth” and that intermediate nuclear missiles were “at the vortex of cruciality.” As for any worries that the public might harbor, his message was “leave it to Al,” though what he actually said was: “We must push this to a lower decibel of public fixation. I don’t think there’s much of a learning curve to be achieved in this area of content.”

I could go on quoting examples from various fields—every profession has its growing arsenal of jargon to throw dust in the eyes of the populace. But the list would be tedious. The point of raising it now is to serve notice that clutter is the enemy. Beware, then, of the long word that’s no better than the short word: “assistance” (help), “numerous” (many), “facilitate” (ease), “individual” (man or woman), “remainder” (rest), “initial” (first), “implement” (do), “sufficient” (enough), “attempt” (try), “referred to as” (called) and hundreds more. Beware of all the slippery new fad words: paradigm and parameter, prioritize and potentialize. They are all weeds that will smother what you write. Don’t dialogue with someone you can talk to. Don’t interface with anybody.

Just as insidious are all the word clusters with which we explain how we propose to go about our explaining: “I might add,” “It should be pointed out,” “It is interesting to note.” If you might add, add it. If it should be pointed out, point it out. If it is interesting to note, make it interesting; are we not all stupefied by what follows when someone says, “This will interest you”? Don’t inflate what needs no inflating: “with the possible exception of” (except), “due to the fact that” (because), “he totally lacked the ability to” (he couldn’t), “until such time as” (until), “for the purpose of” (for).

Is there any way to recognize clutter at a glance? Here’s a device my students at Yale found helpful. I would put brackets around every component in a piece of writing that wasn’t doing useful work. Often just one word got bracketed: the unnecessary preposition appended to a verb (“order up”), or the adverb that carries the same meaning as the verb (“smile happily”), or the adjective that states a known fact (“tall skyscraper”). Often my brackets surrounded the little qualifiers that weaken any sentence they inhabit (“a bit,” “sort of”), or phrases like “in a sense,” which don’t mean anything. Sometimes my brackets surrounded an entire sentence—the one that essentially repeats what the previous sentence said, or that says something readers don’t need to know or can figure out for themselves. Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.

My reason for bracketing the students’ superfluous words, instead of crossing them out, was to avoid violating their sacred prose. I wanted to leave the sentence intact for them to analyze. I was saying, “I may be wrong, but I think this can be deleted and the meaning won’t be affected. But you decide. Read the sentence without the bracketed material and see if it works.” In the early weeks of the term I handed back papers that were festooned with brackets. Entire paragraphs were bracketed. But soon the students learned to put mental brackets around their own clutter, and by the end of the term their papers were almost clean. Today many of those students are professional writers, and they tell me, “I still see your brackets—they’re following me through life.”

You can develop the same eye. Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful?

Simplify, simplify.



So much for early warnings about the bloated monsters that lie in ambush for the writer trying to put together a clean English sentence.

“But,” you may say, “if I eliminate everything you think is clutter and if I strip every sentence to its barest bones, will there be anything left of me?” The question is a fair one; simplicity carried to an extreme might seem to point to a style little more sophisticated than “Dick likes Jane” and “See Spot run.”

I’ll answer the question first on the level of carpentry. Then I’ll get to the larger issue of who the writer is and how to preserve his or her identity.

Few people realize how badly they write. Nobody has shown them how much excess or murkiness has crept into their style and how it obstructs what they are trying to say. If you give me an eight-page article and I tell you to cut it to four pages, you’ll howl and say it can’t be done. Then you’ll go home and do it, and it will be much better. After that comes the hard part: cutting it to three.

The point is that you have to strip your writing down before you can build it back up. You must know what the essential tools are and what job they were designed to do. Extending the metaphor of carpentry, it’s first necessary to be able to saw wood neatly and to drive nails. Later you can bevel the edges or add elegant finials, if that’s your taste. But you can never forget that you are practicing a craft that’s based on certain principles. If the nails are weak, your house will collapse. If your verbs are weak and your syntax is rickety, your sentences will fall apart.

I’ll admit that certain nonfiction writers, like Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer, have built some remarkable houses. But these are writers who spent years learning their craft, and when at last they raised their fanciful turrets and hanging gardens, to the surprise of all of us who never dreamed of such ornamentation, they knew what they were doing. Nobody becomes Tom Wolfe overnight, not even Tom Wolfe.

First, then, learn to hammer the nails, and if what you build is sturdy and serviceable, take satisfaction in its plain strength.

But you will be impatient to find a “style”—to embellish the plain words so that readers will recognize you as someone special. You will reach for gaudy similes and tinseled adjectives, as if “style” were something you could buy at the style store and drape onto your words in bright decorator colors. (Decorator colors are the colors that decorators come in.) There is no style store; style is organic to the person doing the writing, as much a part of him as his hair, or, if he is bald, his lack of it. Trying to add style is like adding a toupee. At first glance the formerly bald man looks young and even handsome. But at second glance—and with a toupee there’s always a second glance—he doesn’t look quite right. The problem is not that he doesn’t look well groomed; he does, and we can only admire the wigmaker’s skill. The point is that he doesn’t look like himself.

This is the problem of writers who set out deliberately to garnish their prose. You lose whatever it is that makes you unique. The reader will notice if you are putting on airs. Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself.

No rule, however, is harder to follow. It requires writers to do two things that by their metabolism are impossible. They must relax, and they must have confidence.

Telling a writer to relax is like telling a man to relax while being examined for a hernia, and as for confidence, see how stiffly he sits, glaring at the screen that awaits his words. See how often he gets up to look for something to eat or drink. A writer will do anything to avoid the act of writing. I can testify from my newspaper days that the number of trips to the water cooler per reporter-hour far exceeds the body’s need for fluids.

What can be done to put the writer out of these miseries? Unfortunately, no cure has been found. I can only offer the consoling thought that you are not alone. Some days will go better than others. Some will go so badly that you’ll despair of ever writing again. We have all had many of those days and will have many more.

Still, it would be nice to keep the bad days to a minimum, which brings me back to the problem of trying to relax.

Assume that you are the writer sitting down to write. You think your article must be of a certain length or it won’t seem important. You think how august it will look in print. You think of all the people who will read it. You think that it must have the solid weight of authority. You think that its style must dazzle. No wonder you tighten; you are so busy thinking of your awesome responsibility to the finished article that you can’t even start. Yet you vow to be worthy of the task, and, casting about for grand phrases that wouldn’t occur to you if you weren’t trying so hard to make an impression, you plunge in.

Paragraph 1 is a disaster—a tissue of generalities that seem to have come out of a machine. No person could have written them. Paragraph 2 isn’t much better. But Paragraph 3 begins to have a somewhat human quality, and by Paragraph 4 you begin to sound like yourself. You’ve started to relax. It’s amazing how often an editor can throw away the first three or four paragraphs of an article, or even the first few pages, and start with the paragraph where the writer begins to sound like himself or herself. Not only are those first paragraphs impersonal and ornate; they don’t say anything—they are a self-conscious attempt at a fancy prologue. What I’m always looking for as an editor is a sentence that says something like “I’ll never forget the day when I …” I think, “Aha! A person!”

Writers are obviously at their most natural when they write in the first person. Writing is an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper, and it will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity. Therefore I urge people to write in the first person: to use “I” and “me” and “we” and “us.” They put up a fight.

“Who am I to say what I think?” they ask. “Or what I feel?”

“Who are you not to say what you think?” I tell them. “There’s only one you. Nobody else thinks or feels in exactly the same way.”

“But nobody cares about my opinions,” they say. “It would make me feel conspicuous.”

“They’ll care if you tell them something interesting,” I say, “and tell them in words that come naturally.”

Nevertheless, getting writers to use “I” is seldom easy. They think they must earn the right to reveal their emotions or their thoughts. Or that it’s egotistical. Or that it’s undignified—a fear that afflicts the academic world. Hence the professorial use of “one” (“One finds oneself not wholly in accord with Dr. Maltby’s view of the human condition”), or of the impersonal “it is” (“It is to be hoped that Professor Felt’s monograph will find the wider audience it most assuredly deserves”). I don’t want to meet “one”—he’s a boring guy. I want a professor with a passion for his subject to tell me why it fascinates him.

I realize that there are vast regions of writing where “I” isn’t allowed. Newspapers don’t want “I” in their news stories; many magazines don’t want it in their articles; businesses and institutions don’t want it in the reports they send so profusely into the American home; colleges don’t want “I” in their term papers or dissertations, and English teachers discourage any first-person pronoun except the literary “we” (“We see in Melville’s symbolic use of the white whale …”). Many of those prohibitions are valid; newspaper articles should consist of news, reported objectively. I also sympathize with teachers who don’t want to give students an easy escape into opinion—“I think Hamlet was stupid”—before they have grappled with the discipline of assessing a work on its merits and on external sources. “I” can be a self-indulgence and a cop-out.

Still, we have become a society fearful of revealing who we are. The institutions that seek our support by sending us their brochures sound remarkably alike, though surely all of them—hospitals, schools, libraries, museums, zoos—were founded and are still sustained by men and women with different dreams and visions. Where are these people? It’s hard to glimpse them among all the impersonal passive sentences that say “initiatives were undertaken” and “priorities have been identified.”

Even when “I” isn’t permitted, it’s still possible to convey a sense of I-ness. The political columnist James Reston didn’t use “I” in his columns; yet I had a good idea of what kind of person he was, and I could say the same of many other essayists and reporters. Good writers are visible just behind their words. If you aren’t allowed to use “I,” at least think “I” while you write, or write the first draft in the first person and then take the “I”s out. It will warm up your impersonal style.

Style is tied to the psyche, and writing has deep psychological roots. The reasons why we express ourselves as we do, or fail to express ourselves because of “writer’s block,” are partly buried in the subconscious mind. There are as many kinds of writer’s block as there are kinds of writers, and I have no intention of trying to untangle them. This is a short book, and my name isn’t Sigmund Freud.

But I’ve also noticed a new reason for avoiding “I”: Americans are unwilling to go out on a limb. A generation ago our leaders told us where they stood and what they believed. Today they perform strenuous verbal feats to escape that fate. Watch them wriggle through TV interviews without committing themselves. I remember President Ford assuring a group of visiting businessmen that his fiscal policies would work. He said: “We see nothing but increasingly brighter clouds every month.” I took this to mean that the clouds were still fairly dark. Ford’s sentence was just vague enough to say nothing and still sedate his constituents.

Later administrations brought no relief. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, assessing a Polish crisis in 1984, said: “There’s continuing ground for serious concern and the situation remains serious. The longer it remains serious, the more ground there is for serious concern.” The first President Bush, questioned about his stand on assault rifles, said: “There are various groups that think you can ban certain kinds of guns. I am not in that mode. I am in the mode of being deeply concerned.”

But my all-time champ is Elliot Richardson, who held four major cabinet positions in the 1970s. It’s hard to know where to begin picking from his trove of equivocal statements, but consider this one: “And yet, on balance, affirmative action has, I think, been a qualified success.” A 13-word sentence with five hedging words. I give it first prize as the most wishy-washy sentence in modern public discourse, though a rival would be his analysis of how to ease boredom among assembly-line workers: “And so, at last, I come to the one firm conviction that I mentioned at the beginning: it is that the subject is too new for final judgments.”

That’s a firm conviction? Leaders who bob and weave like aging boxers don’t inspire confidence—or deserve it. The same thing is true of writers. Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.


The Audience

Soon after you confront the matter of preserving your identity, another question will occur to you: “Who am I writing for?”

It’s a fundamental question, and it has a fundamental answer: You are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience—every reader is a different person. Don’t try to guess what sort of thing editors want to publish or what you think the country is in a mood to read. Editors and readers don’t know what they want to read until they read it. Besides, they’re always looking for something new.

Don’t worry about whether the reader will “get it” if you indulge a sudden impulse for humor. If it amuses you in the act of writing, put it in. (It can always be taken out, but only you can put it in.) You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for. If you lose the dullards back in the dust, you don’t want them anyway.

This may seem to be a paradox. Earlier I warned that the reader is an impatient bird, perched on the thin edge of distraction or sleep. Now I’m saying you must write for yourself and not be gnawed by worry over whether the reader is tagging along.

I’m talking about two different issues. One is craft, the other is attitude. The first is a question of mastering a precise skill. The second is a question of how you use that skill to express your personality.

In terms of craft, there’s no excuse for losing readers through sloppy workmanship. If they doze off in the middle of your article because you have been careless about a technical detail, the fault is yours. But on the larger issue of whether the reader likes you, or likes what you are saying or how you are saying it, or agrees with it, or feels an affinity for your sense of humor or your vision of life, don’t give him a moment’s worry. You are who you are, he is who he is, and either you’ll get along or you won’t.

Perhaps this still seems like a paradox. How can you think carefully about not losing the reader and still be carefree about his opinion? I assure you that they are separate processes.

First, work hard to master the tools. Simplify, prune and strive for order. Think of this as a mechanical act, and soon your sentences will become cleaner. The act will never become as mechanical as, say, shaving or shampooing; you will always have to think about the various ways in which the tools can be used. But at least your sentences will be grounded in solid principles, and your chances of losing the reader will be smaller.

Think of the other as a creative act: the expressing of who you are. Relax and say what you want to say. And since style is who you are, you only need to be true to yourself to find it gradually emerging from under the accumulated clutter and debris, growing more distinctive every day. Perhaps the style won’t solidify for years as your style, your voice. Just as it takes time to find yourself as a person, it takes time to find yourself as a stylist, and even then your style will change as you grow older.

But whatever your age, be yourself when you write. Many old men still write with the zest they had in their twenties or thirties; obviously their ideas are still young. Other old writers ramble and repeat themselves; their style is the tip-off that they have turned into garrulous bores. Many college students write as if they were desiccated alumni 30 years out. Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. If you’re not a person who says “indeed” or “moreover,” or who calls someone an individual (“he’s a fine individual”), please don’t write it.

Let’s look at a few writers to see the pleasure with which they put on paper their passions and their crotchets, not caring whether the reader shares them or not. The first excerpt is from “The Hen (An Appreciation),” written by E. B. White in 1944, at the height of World War II:

Chickens do not always enjoy an honorable position among city-bred people, although the egg, I notice, goes on and on. Right now the hen is in favor. The war has deified her and she is the darling of the home front, feted at conference tables, praised in every smoking car, her girlish ways and curious habits the topic of many an excited husbandryman to whom yesterday she was a stranger without honor or allure.

My own attachment to the hen dates from 1907, and I have been faithful to her in good times and bad. Ours has not always been an easy relationship to maintain. At first, as a boy in a carefully zoned suburb, I had neighbors and police to reckon with; my chickens had to be as closely guarded as an underground newspaper. Later, as a man in the country, I had my old friends in town to reckon with, most of whom regarded the hen as a comic prop straight out of vaudeville.... Their scorn only increased my devotion to the hen. I remained loyal, as a man would to a bride whom his family received with open ridicule. Now it is my turn to wear the smile, as I listen to the enthusiastic cackling of urbanites, who have suddenly taken up the hen socially and who fill the air with their newfound ecstasy and knowledge and the relative charms of the New Hampshire Red and the Laced Wyandotte. You would think, from their nervous cries of wonder and praise, that the hen was hatched yesterday in the suburbs of New York, instead of in the remote past in the jungles of India.

To a man who keeps hens, all poultry lore is exciting and endlessly fascinating. Every spring I settle down with my farm journal and read, with the same glazed expression on my face, the age-old story of how to prepare a brooder house....

There’s a man writing about a subject I have absolutely no interest in. Yet I enjoy this piece thoroughly. I like the simple beauty of its style. I like the rhythms, the unexpected but refreshing words (“deified,” “allure,” “cackling”), the specific details like the Laced Wyandotte and the brooder house. But mainly what I like is that this is a man telling me unabashedly about a love affair with poultry that goes back to 1907. It’s written with humanity and warmth, and after three paragraphs I know quite a lot about what sort of man this hen-lover is.

Or take a writer who is almost White’s opposite in terms of style, who relishes the opulent word for its opulence and doesn’t deify the simple sentence. Yet they are brothers in holding firm opinions and saying what they think. This is H. L. Mencken reporting on the notorious “Monkey Trial”—the trial of John Scopes, a young teacher who taught the theory of evolution in his Tennessee classroom—in the summer of 1925:

It was hot weather when they tried the infidel Scopes at Dayton, Tenn., but I went down there very willingly, for I was eager to see something of evangelical Christianity as a going concern. In the big cities of the Republic, despite the endless efforts of consecrated men, it is laid up with a wasting disease. The very Sunday-school superintendents, taking jazz from the stealthy radio, shake their fire-proof legs; their pupils, moving into adolescence, no longer respond to the proliferating hormones by enlisting for missionary service in Africa, but resort to necking instead. Even in Dayton, I found, though the mob was up to do execution on Scopes, there was a strong smell of antinomianism. The nine churches of the village were all half empty on Sunday, and weeds choked their yards. Only two or three of the resident pastors managed to sustain themselves by their ghostly science; the rest had to take orders for mail-order pantaloons or work in the adjacent strawberry fields; one, I heard, was a barber.... Exactly twelve minutes after I reached the village I was taken in tow by a Christian man and introduced to the favorite tipple of the Cumberland Range; half corn liquor and half Coca-Cola. It seemed a dreadful dose to me, but I found that the Dayton illuminati got it down with gusto, rubbing their tummies and rolling their eyes. They were all hot for Genesis, but their faces were too florid to belong to teetotalers, and when a pretty girl came tripping down the main street, they reached for the places where their neckties should have been with all the amorous enterprise of movie stars....

This is pure Mencken in its surging momentum and its irreverence. At almost any page where you open his books he is saying something sure to outrage the professed pieties of his countrymen. The sanctity in which Americans bathed their heroes, their churches and their edifying laws—especially Prohibition—was a well of hypocrisy for him that never dried up. Some of his heaviest ammunition he hurled at politicians and Presidents—his portrait of “The Archangel Woodrow” still scorches the pages—and as for Christian believers and clerical folk, they turn up unfailingly as mountebanks and boobs.

It may seem a miracle that Mencken could get away with such heresies in the 1920s, when hero worship was an American religion and the self-righteous wrath of the Bible Belt oozed from coast to coast. Not only did he get away with it; he was the most revered and influential journalist of his generation. The impact he made on subsequent writers of nonfiction is beyond measuring, and even now his topical pieces seem as fresh as if they were written yesterday.

The secret of his popularity—aside from his pyrotechnical use of the American language—was that he was writing for himself and didn’t give a damn what the reader might think. It wasn’t necessary to share his prejudices to enjoy seeing them expressed with such mirthful abandon. Mencken was never timid or evasive; he didn’t kowtow to the reader or curry anyone’s favor. It takes courage to be such a writer, but it is out of such courage that revered and influential journalists are born.

Moving forward to our own time, here’s an excerpt from How to Survive in Your Native Land, a book by James Herndon describing his experiences as a teacher in a California junior high school. Of all the earnest books on education that have sprouted in America, Herndon’s is—for me—the one that best captures how it really is in the classroom. His style is not quite like anybody else’s, but his voice is true. Here’s how the book starts:

I might as well begin with Piston. Piston was, as a matter of description, a red-headed medium-sized chubby eighth-grader; his definitive characteristic was, however, stubbornness. Without going into a lot of detail, it became clear right away that what Piston didn’t want to do, Piston didn’t do; what Piston wanted to do, Piston did.

It really wasn’t much of a problem. Piston wanted mainly to paint, draw monsters, scratch designs on mimeograph blanks and print them up, write an occasional horror story—some kids referred to him as The Ghoul—and when he didn’t want to do any of those, he wanted to roam the halls and on occasion (we heard) investigate the girls’ bathrooms.

We had minor confrontations. Once I wanted everyone to sit down and listen to what I had to say—something about the way they had been acting in the halls. I was letting them come and go freely and it was up to them (I planned to point out) not to raise hell so that I had to hear about it from other teachers. Sitting down was the issue—I was determined everyone was going to do it first, then I’d talk. Piston remained standing. I reordered. He paid no attention. I pointed out that I was talking to him. He indicated he heard me. I inquired then why in hell didn’t he sit down. He said he didn’t want to. I said I did want him to. He said that didn’t matter to him. I said do it anyway. He said why? I said because I said so. He said he wouldn’t. I said Look I want you to sit down and listen to what I’m going to say. He said he was listening. I’ll listen but I won’t sit down.

Well, that’s the way it goes sometimes in schools. You as teacher become obsessed with an issue—I was the injured party, conferring, as usual, unheard-of freedoms, and here they were as usual taking advantage. It ain’t pleasant coming in the teachers’ room for coffee and having to hear somebody say that so-and-so and so-and-so from your class were out in the halls without a pass and making faces and giving the finger to kids in my class during the most important part of my lesson about Egypt—and you ought to be allowed your tendentious speech, and most everyone will allow it, sit down for it, but occasionally someone wises you up by refusing to submit where it isn’t necessary.... How did any of us get into this? we ought to be asking ourselves.

Any writer who uses “ain’t” and “tendentious” in the same sentence, who quotes without using quotation marks, knows what he’s doing. This seemingly artless style, so full of art, is ideal for Herndon’s purpose. It avoids the pretentiousness that infects so much writing by people doing worthy work, and it allows for a rich vein of humor and common sense. Herndon sounds like a good teacher and a man whose company I would enjoy. But ultimately he is writing for himself: an audience of one.

“Who am I writing for?” The question that begins this chapter has irked some readers. They want me to say “Whom am I writing for?” But I can’t bring myself to say it. It’s just not me.



There is a kind of writing that might be called journalese, and it’s the death of freshness in anybody’s style. It’s the common currency of newspapers and of magazines like People—a mixture of cheap words, made-up words and clichés that have become so pervasive that a writer can hardly help using them. You must fight these phrases or you’ll sound like every hack. You’ll never make your mark as a writer unless you develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive. The English language is rich in strong and supple words. Take the time to root around and find the ones you want.

What is “journalese”? It’s a quilt of instant words patched together out of other parts of speech. Adjectives are used as nouns (“greats,” “notables”). Nouns are used as verbs (“to host”), or they are chopped off to form verbs (“enthuse,” “emote”), or they are padded to form verbs (“beef up,” “put teeth into”). This is a world where eminent people are “famed” and their associates are “staffers,” where the future is always “upcoming” and someone is forever “firing off” a note. Nobody in America has sent a note or a memo or a telegram in years. Famed diplomat Condoleezza Rice, who hosts foreign notables to beef up the morale of top State Department staffers, sits down and fires off a lot of notes. Notes that are fired off are always fired in anger and from a sitting position. What the weapon is I’ve never found out.

Here’s an article from a famed newsmagazine that is hard to match for fatigue:

Last February, Plainclothes Patrolman Frank Serpico knocked at the door of a suspected Brooklyn heroin pusher. When the door opened a crack, Serpico shouldered his way in only to be met by a .22-cal. pistol slug crashing into his face. Somehow he survived, although there are still buzzing fragments in his head, causing dizziness and permanent deafness in his left ear. Almost as painful is the suspicion that he may well have been set up for the shooting by other policemen. For Serpico, 35, has been waging a lonely, four-year war against the routine and endemic corruption that he and others claim is rife in the New York City police department. His efforts are now sending shock waves through the ranks of New York’s finest.... Though the impact of the commission’s upcoming report has yet to be felt, Serpico has little hope that …

The upcoming report has yet to be felt because it’s still upcoming, and as for the permanent deafness, it’s a little early to tell. And what makes those buzzing fragments buzz? By now only Serpico’s head should be buzzing. But apart from these lazinesses of logic, what makes the story so tired is the failure of the writer to reach for anything but the nearest cliché. “Shouldered his way,” “only to be met,” “crashing into his face,” “waging a lonely war,” “corruption that is rife,” “sending shock waves,” “New York’s finest”—these dreary phrases constitute writing at its most banal. We know just what to expect. No surprise awaits us in the form of an unusual word, an oblique look. We are in the hands of a hack, and we know it right away. We stop reading.

Don’t let yourself get in this position. The only way to avoid it is to care deeply about words. If you find yourself writing that someone recently enjoyed a spell of illness, or that a business has been enjoying a slump, ask yourself how much they enjoyed it. Notice the decisions that other writers make in their choice of words and be finicky about the ones you select from the vast supply. The race in writing is not to the swift but to the original.

Make a habit of reading what is being written today and what was written by earlier masters. Writing is learned by imitation. If anyone asked me how I learned to write, I’d say I learned by reading the men and women who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it. But cultivate the best models. Don’t assume that because an article is in a newspaper or a magazine it must be good. Sloppy editing is common in newspapers, often for lack of time, and writers who use clichés often work for editors who have seen so many clichés that they no longer even recognize them.

Also get in the habit of using dictionaries. My favorite for handy use is Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition, although, like all word freaks, I own bigger dictionaries that will reward me when I’m on some more specialized search. If you have any doubt of what a word means, look it up. Learn its etymology and notice what curious branches its original root has put forth. See if it has any meanings you didn’t know it had. Master the small gradations between words that seem to be synonyms. What’s the difference between “cajole,” “wheedle,” “blandish” and “coax”? Get yourself a dictionary of synonyms.

And don’t scorn that bulging grab bag Roget’s Thesaurus. It’s easy to regard the book as hilarious. Look up “villain,” for instance, and you’ll be awash in such rascality as only a lexicographer could conjure back from centuries of iniquity, obliquity, depravity, knavery, profligacy, frailty, flagrancy, infamy, immorality, corruption, wickedness, wrongdoing, backsliding and sin. You’ll find ruffians and riffraff, miscreants and malefactors, reprobates and rapscallions, hooligans and hoodlums, scamps and scapegraces, scoundrels and scalawags, jezebels and jades. You’ll find adjectives to fit them all (foul and fiendish, devilish and diabolical), and adverbs and verbs to describe how the wrongdoers do their wrong, and cross-references leading to still other thickets of venality and vice. Still, there’s no better friend to have around to nudge the memory than Roget. It saves you the time of rummaging in your brain—that network of overloaded grooves—to find the word that’s right on the tip of your tongue, where it doesn’t do you any good. The Thesaurus is to the writer what a rhyming dictionary is to the songwriter—a reminder of all the choices—and you should use it with gratitude. If, having found the scalawag and the scapegrace, you want to know how they differ, then go to the dictionary.

Also bear in mind, when you’re choosing words and stringing them together, how they sound. This may seem absurd: readers read with their eyes. But in fact they hear what they are reading far more than you realize. Therefore such matters as rhythm and alliteration are vital to every sentence. A typical example—maybe not the best, but undeniably the nearest—is the preceding paragraph. Obviously I enjoyed making a certain arrangement of my ruffians and riffraff, my hooligans and hoodlums, and my readers enjoyed it too—far more than if I had provided a mere list. They enjoyed not only the arrangement but the effort to entertain them. They weren’t enjoying it, however, with their eyes. They were hearing the words in their inner ear.

E. B. White makes the case cogently in The Elements of Style, a book every writer should read once a year, when he suggests trying to rearrange any phrase that has survived for a century or two, such as Thomas Paine’s “These are the times that try men’s souls”:

Times like these try men’s souls.

How trying it is to live in these times!

These are trying times for men’s souls.

Soulwise, these are trying times.

Paine’s phrase is like poetry and the other four are like oatmeal—which is the divine mystery of the creative process. Good writers of prose must be part poet, always listening to what they write. E. B. White is one of my favorite stylists because I’m conscious of being with a man who cares about the cadences and sonorities of the language. I relish (in my ear) the pattern his words make as they fall into a sentence. I try to surmise how in rewriting the sentence he reassembled it to end with a phrase that will momentarily linger, or how he chose one word over another because he was after a certain emotional weight. It’s the difference between, say, “serene” and “tranquil”—one so soft, the other strangely disturbing because of the unusual n and q.

Such considerations of sound and rhythm should go into everything you write. If all your sentences move at the same plodding gait, which even you recognize as deadly but don’t know how to cure, read them aloud. (I write entirely by ear and read everything aloud before letting it go out into the world.) You’ll begin to hear where the trouble lies. See if you can gain variety by reversing the order of a sentence, or by substituting a word that has freshness or oddity, or by altering the length of your sentences so they don’t all sound as if they came out of the same machine. An occasional short sentence can carry a tremendous punch. It stays in the reader’s ear.

Remember that words are the only tools you’ve got. Learn to use them with originality and care. And also remember: somebody out there is listening.



All this talk about good words and bad words brings us to a gray but important area called “usage.” What is good usage? What is good English? What newly minted words is it O.K. to use, and who is to be the judge? Is it O.K. to use “O.K.”?

Earlier I mentioned an incident of college students hassling the administration, and in the last chapter I described myself as a word freak. Here are two fairly recent arrivals. “Hassle” is both a verb and a noun, meaning to give somebody a hard time, or the act of being given a hard time, and anyone who has ever been hassled for not properly filling out Form 35-BX will agree that the word sounds exactly right. “Freak” means an enthusiast, and there’s no missing the aura of obsession that goes with calling someone a jazz freak, or a chess freak, or a sun freak, though it would probably be pushing my luck to describe a man who compulsively visits circus sideshows as a freak freak.

Anyway, I accept these two usages gladly. I don’t consider them slang, or put quotation marks around them to show that I’m mucking about in the argot of the youth culture and really know better. They’re good words and we need them But I won’t accept “notables” and “greats” and “upcoming” and many other newcomers. They are cheap words and we don’t need them.

Why is one word good and another word cheap? I can’t give you an answer, because usage has no fixed boundaries. Language is a fabric that changes from one week to another, adding new strands and dropping old ones, and even word freaks fight over what is allowable, often reaching their decision on a wholly subjective basis such as taste (“notables” is sleazy). Which still leaves the question of who our tastemakers are.

The question was confronted in the 1960s by the editors of a brand-new dictionary, The American Heritage Dictionary. They assembled a “Usage Panel” to help them appraise the new words and dubious constructions that had come knocking at the door. Which ones should be ushered in, which thrown out on their ear? The panel consisted of 104 men and women—mostly writers, poets, editors and teachers—who were known for caring about the language and trying to use it well. I was a member of the panel, and over the next few years I kept getting questionnaires. Would I accept “finalize” and “escalate”? How did I feel about “It’s me”? Would I allow “like” to be used as a conjunction—like so many people do? How about “mighty,” as in “mighty fine”?

We were told that in the dictionary our opinions would be tabulated in a separate “Usage Note,” so that readers could see how we voted. The questionnaire also left room for any comments we might feel impelled to make—an opportunity the panelists seized avidly, as we found when the dictionary was published and our comments were released to the press. Passions ran high. “Good God, no! Never!” cried Barbara W. Tuchman, asked about the verb “to author.” Scholarship hath no fury like that of a language purist faced with sludge, and I shared Tuchman’s vow that “author” should never be authorized, just as I agreed with Lewis Mumford that the adverb “good” should be “left as the exclusive property of Ernest Hemingway.”

But guardians of usage are doing only half their job if they merely keep the language from becoming sloppy. Any dolt can rule that the suffix “wise,” as in “healthwise,” is doltwise, or that being “rather unique” is no more possible than being rather pregnant. The other half of the job is to help the language grow by welcoming any immigrant that will bring strength or color. Therefore I was glad that 97 percent of us voted to admit “dropout,” which is clean and vivid, but that only 47 percent would accept “senior citizen,” which is typical of the pudgy new intruders from the land of sociology, where an illegal alien is now an undocumented resident. I’m glad we accepted “escalate,” the kind of verbal contraption I generally dislike but which the Vietnam war endowed with a precise meaning, complete with overtones of blunder.

I’m glad we took into full membership all sorts of robust words that previous dictionaries derided as “colloquial”: adjectives like “rambunctious,” verbs like “trigger” and “rile,” nouns like “shambles” and “tycoon” and “trek,” the latter approved by 78 percent to mean any difficult trip, as in “the commuter’s daily trek to Manhattan.” Originally it was a Cape Dutch word applied to the Boers’ arduous journey by ox wagon. But our panel evidently felt that the Manhattan commuter’s daily trek is no less arduous.

Still, 22 percent were unwilling to let “trek” slip into general usage. That was the virtue of revealing how our panel voted—it put our opinions on display, and writers in doubt can conduct themselves accordingly. Thus our 95 percent vote against “myself,” as in “He invited Mary and myself to dinner,” a word condemned as “prissy,” “horrible” and “a genteelism,” ought to warn off anyone who doesn’t want to be prissy, horrible or genteel. As Red Smith put it, “‘Myself’ is the refuge of idiots taught early that ‘me’ is a dirty word.”

On the other hand, only 66 percent of our panel rejected the verb “to contact,” once regarded as tacky, and only half opposed the split infinitive and the verbs “to fault” and “to bus.” So only 50 percent of your readers will fault you if you decide to voluntarily call your school board and to bus your children to another town. If you contact your school board you risk your reputation by another 16 percent. Our apparent rule of thumb was stated by Theodore M. Bernstein, author of the excellent The Careful Writer: “We should apply the test of convenience. Does the word fill a real need? If it does, let’s give it a franchise.”

All of this confirms what lexicographers have always known: that the laws of usage are relative, bending with the taste of the lawmaker. One of our panelists, Katherine Anne Porter, called “O.K.” a “detestable vulgarity” and claimed she had never spoken the word in her life, whereas I freely admit that I have spoken the word “O.K.” “Most,” as in “most everyone,” was scorned as “cute farmer talk” by Isaac Asimov and embraced as a “good English idiom” by Virgil Thomson. “Regime,” meaning any administration, as in “the Truman regime,” drew the approval of most everyone on the panel, as did “dynasty.” But they drew the wrath of Jacques Barzun, who said, “These are technical terms, you blasted non-historians!” Probably I gave my O.K. to “regime.” Now, chided by Barzun for imprecision, I think it looks like journalese. One of the words I railed against was “personality,” as in a “TV personality.” But now I wonder if it isn’t the only word for that vast swarm of people who are famous for being famous—and possibly nothing else. What did the Gabor sisters actually do?

In the end it comes down to what is “correct” usage. We have no king to establish the King’s English; we only have the President’s English, which we don’t want. Webster, long a defender of the faith, muddied the waters in 1961 with its permissive Third Edition, which argued that almost anything goes as long as somebody uses it, noting that “ain’t” is “used orally in most parts of the U.S. by many cultivated speakers.”

Just where Webster cultivated those speakers I ain’t sure. Nevertheless it’s true that the spoken language is looser than the written language, and The American Heritage Dictionary properly put its question to us in both forms. Often we allowed an oral idiom that we forbade in print as too informal, fully realizing, however, that “the pen must at length comply with the tongue,” as Samuel Johnson said, and that today’s spoken garbage may be tomorrow’s written gold. The growing acceptance of the split infinitive, or of the preposition at the end of a sentence, proves that formal syntax can’t hold the fort forever against a speaker’s more comfortable way of getting the same thing said—and it shouldn’t. I think a sentence is a fine thing to put a preposition at the end of.

Our panel recognized that correctness can even vary within a word. We voted heavily against “cohort” as a synonym for “colleague,” except when the tone was jocular. Thus a professor would not be among his cohorts at a faculty meeting, but they would abound at his college reunion, wearing funny hats. We rejected “too” as a synonym for “very,” as in “His health is not too good.” Whose health is? But we approved it in sardonic or humorous use, as in “He was not too happy when she ignored him.”

These may seem like picayune distinctions. They’re not. They are signals to the reader that you are sensitive to the shadings of usage. “Too” when substituted for “very” is clutter: “He didn’t feel too much like going shopping.” But the wry example in the previous paragraph is worthy of Ring Lardner. It adds a tinge of sarcasm that otherwise wouldn’t be there.

Luckily, a pattern emerged from the deliberations of our panel, and it offers a guideline that is still useful. We turned out to be liberal in accepting new words and phrases, but conservative in grammar.

It would be foolish to reject a word as perfect as “dropout,” or to pretend that countless words and phrases are not entering the gates of correct usage every day, borne on the winds of science and technology, business and sports and social change: “outsource,” “blog,” “laptop,” “mousepad,” “geek,” “boomer,” “Google,” “iPod,” “hedge fund,” “24/7,” “multi-tasking,” “slam dunk” and hundreds of others. Nor should we forget all the short words invented by the counterculture in the 1960s as a way of lashing back at the self-important verbiage of the Establishment: “trip,” “rap,” “crash,” “trash,” “funky,” “split,” “rip-off,” “vibes,” “downer,” “bummer.” If brevity is a prize, these were winners. The only trouble with accepting words that entered the language overnight is that they often leave just as abruptly. The “happenings” of the late 1960s no longer happen, “out of sight” is out of sight, and even “awesome” has begun to chill out. The writer who cares about usage must always know the quick from the dead.

As for the area where our Usage Panel was conservative, we upheld most of the classic distinctions in grammar—“can” and “may,” “fewer” and “less,” “eldest” and “oldest,” etc.—and decried the classic errors, insisting that “flout” still doesn’t mean “flaunt,” no matter how many writers flaunt their ignorance by flouting the rule, and that “fortuitous” still means “accidental,” “disinterested” still means “impartial,” and “infer” doesn’t mean “imply.” Here we were motivated by our love of the language’s beautiful precision. Incorrect usage will lose you the readers you would most like to win. Know the difference between a “reference” and an “allusion,” between “connive” and “conspire,” between “compare with” and “compare to.” If you must use “comprise,” use it right. It means “include”; dinner comprises meat, potatoes, salad and dessert.

“I choose always the grammatical form unless it sounds affected,” Marianne Moore explained, and that’s finally where our panel took its stand. We were not pedants, so hung up on correctness that we didn’t want the language to keep refreshing itself with phrases like “hung up.” But that didn’t mean we had to accept every atrocity that comes lumbering in.

Meanwhile the battle continues. Today I still receive ballots from The American Heritage Dictionary soliciting my opinion on new locutions: verbs like “definitize” (“Congress definitized a proposal”), nouns like “affordables,” colloquialisms like “the bottom line” and strays like “into” (“He’s into backgammon and she’s into jogging”).

It no longer takes a panel of experts to notice that jargon is flooding our daily life and language. President Carter signed an executive order directing that federal regulations be written “simply and clearly.” President Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, urged the nation’s lawyers to replace “a lot of legalese” with “small, old words that all people understand”—words like “right” and “wrong” and “justice.” Corporations have hired consultants to make their prose less opaque, and even the insurance industry is trying to rewrite its policies to tell us in less disastrous English what redress will be ours when disaster strikes. Whether these efforts will do much good I wouldn’t want to bet. Still, there’s comfort in the sight of so many watchdogs standing Canute-like on the beach, trying to hold back the tide. That’s where all careful writers ought to be—looking at every new piece of flotsam that washes up and asking “Do we need it?”

I remember the first time somebody asked me, “How does that impact you?” I always thought “impact” was a noun, except in dentistry. Then I began to meet “de-impact,” usually in connection with programs to de-impact the effects of some adversity. Nouns now turn overnight into verbs. We target goals and we access facts. Train conductors announce that the train won’t platform. A sign on an airport door tells me that the door is alarmed. Companies are downsizing. It’s part of an ongoing effort to grow the business. “Ongoing” is a jargon word whose main use is to raise morale. We face our daily job with more zest if the boss tells us it’s an ongoing project; we give more willingly to institutions if they have targeted our funds for ongoing needs. Otherwise we might fall prey to disincentivization.

I could go on; I have enough examples to fill a book, but it’s not a book I would want anyone to read. We’re still left with the question: What is good usage? One helpful approach is to try to separate usage from jargon.

I would say, for example, that “prioritize” is jargon—a pompous new verb that sounds more important than “rank”—and that “bottom line” is usage, a metaphor borrowed from the world of bookkeeping that conveys an image we can picture. As every businessman knows, the bottom line is the one that matters. If someone says, “The bottom line is that we just can’t work together,” we know what he means. I don’t much like the phrase, but the bottom line is that it’s here to stay.

New usages also arrive with new political events. Just as Vietnam gave us “escalate,” Watergate gave us a whole lexicon of words connoting obstruction and deceit, including “deep-six,” “launder,” “enemies list” and other “gate”-suffix scandals (“Irangate”). It’s a fitting irony that under Richard Nixon “launder” became a dirty word. Today when we hear that someone laundered his funds to hide the origin of the money and the route it took, the word has a precise meaning. It’s short, it’s vivid, and we need it. I accept “launder” and “stonewall”; I don’t accept “prioritize” and “disincentive.”

I would suggest a similar guideline for separating good English from technical English. It’s the difference between, say, “printout” and “input.” A printout is a specific object that a computer emits. Before the advent of computers it wasn’t needed; now it is. But it has stayed where it belongs. Not so with “input,” which was coined to describe the information that’s fed to a computer. Our input is sought on every subject, from diets to philosophical discourse (“I’d like your input on whether God really exists”).

I don’t want to give somebody my input and get his feedback, though I’d be glad to offer my ideas and hear what he thinks of them. Good usage, to me, consists of using good words if they already exist—as they almost always do—to express myself clearly and simply to someone else. You might say it’s how I verbalize the interpersonal.





You learn to write by writing. It’s a truism, but what makes it a truism is that it’s true. The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.

If you went to work for a newspaper that required you to write two or three articles every day, you would be a better writer after six months. You wouldn’t necessarily be writing well; your style might still be full of clutter and clichés. But you would be exercising your powers of putting the English language on paper, gaining confidence and identifying the most common problems.

All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem. It may be a problem of where to obtain the facts or how to organize the material. It may be a problem of approach or attitude, tone or style. Whatever it is, it has to be confronted and solved. Sometimes you will despair of finding the right solution—or any solution. You’ll think, “If I live to be ninety I’ll never get out of this mess.” I’ve often thought it myself. But when I finally do solve the problem it’s because I’m like a surgeon removing his 500th appendix; I’ve been there before.

Unity is the anchor of good writing. So, first, get your unities straight. Unity not only keeps the reader from straggling off in all directions; it satisfies your readers’ subconscious need for order and reassures them that all is well at the helm. Therefore choose from among the many variables and stick to your choice.

One choice is unity of pronoun. Are you going to write in the first person, as a participant, or in the third person, as an observer? Or even in the second person, that darling of sportswriters hung up on Hemingway? (“You knew this had to be the most spine-tingling clash of giants you’d ever seen from a pressbox seat, and you weren’t just some green kid who was still wet behind the ears.”)

Unity of tense is another choice. Most people write mainly in the past tense (“I went up to Boston the other day”), but some people write agreeably in the present (“I’m sitting in the dining car of the Yankee Limited and we’re pulling into Boston”). What is not agreeable is to switch back and forth. I’m not saying you can’t use more than one tense; the whole purpose of tenses is to enable a writer to deal with time in its various gradations, from the past to the hypothetical future (“When I telephoned my mother from the Boston station, I realized that if I had written to tell her I would be coming she would have waited for me”). But you must choose the tense in which you are principally going to address the reader, no matter how many glances you may take backward or forward along the way.

Another choice is unity of mood. You might want to talk to the reader in the casual voice that The New Yorker has strenuously refined. Or you might want to approach the reader with a certain formality to describe a serious event or to present a set of important facts. Both tones are acceptable. In fact, any tone is acceptable. But don’t mix two or three.

Such fatal mixtures are common in writers who haven’t learned control. Travel writing is a conspicuous example. “My wife, Ann, and I had always wanted to visit Hong Kong,” the writer begins, his blood astir with reminiscence, “and one day last spring we found ourselves looking at an airline poster and I said, ‘Let’s go!’ The kids were grown up,” he continues, and he proceeds to describe in genial detail how he and his wife stopped off in Hawaii and had such a comical time changing their money at the Hong Kong airport and finding their hotel. Fine. He is a real person taking us along on a real trip, and we can identify with him and Ann.

Suddenly he turns into a travel brochure. “Hong Kong affords many fascinating experiences to the curious sightseer,” he writes. “One can ride the picturesque ferry from Kowloon and gawk at the myriad sampans as they scuttle across the teeming harbor, or take a day’s trip to browse in the alleys of fabled Macao with its colorful history as a den of smuggling and intrigue. You will want to take the quaint funicular that climbs …” Then we get back to him and Ann and their efforts to eat at Chinese restaurants, and again all is well. Everyone is interested in food, and we are being told about a personal adventure.

Then suddenly the writer is a guidebook: “To enter Hong Kong it is necessary to have a valid passport, but no visa is required. You should definitely be immunized against hepatitis and you would also be well advised to consult your physician with regard to a possible inoculation for typhoid. The climate in Hong Kong is seasonable except in July and August when …” Our writer is gone, and so is Ann, and so—very soon—are we.

It’s not that the scuttling sampans and the hepatitis shots shouldn’t be included. What annoys us is that the writer never decided what kind of article he wanted to write or how he wanted to approach us. He comes at us in many guises, depending on what kind of material he is trying to purvey. Instead of controlling his material, his material is controlling him. That wouldn’t happen if he took time to establish certain unities.

Therefore ask yourself some basic questions before you start. For example: “In what capacity am I going to address the reader?” (Reporter? Provider of information? Average man or woman?) “What pronoun and tense am I going to use?” “What style?” (Impersonal reportorial? Personal but formal? Personal and casual?) “What attitude am I going to take toward the material?” (Involved? Detached? Judgmental? Ironic? Amused?) “How much do I want to cover?” “What one point do I want to make?”

The last two questions are especially important. Most nonfiction writers have a definitiveness complex. They feel that they are under some obligation—to the subject, to their honor, to the gods of writing—to make their article the last word. It’s a commendable impulse, but there is no last word. What you think is definitive today will turn undefinitive by tonight, and writers who doggedly pursue every last fact will find themselves pursuing the rainbow and never settling down to write. Nobody can write a book or an article “about” something. Tolstoy couldn’t write a book about war and peace, or Melville a book about whaling. They made certain reductive decisions about time and place and about individual characters in that time and place—one man pursuing one whale. Every writing project must be reduced before you start to write.

Therefore think small. Decide what corner of your subject you’re going to bite off, and be content to cover it well and stop. This is also a matter of energy and morale. An unwieldy writing task is a drain on your enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is the force that keeps you going and keeps the reader in your grip. When your zest begins to ebb, the reader is the first person to know it.

As for what point you want to make, every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before. Not two thoughts, or five—just one. So decide what single point you want to leave in the reader’s mind. It will not only give you a better idea of what route you should follow and what destination you hope to reach; it will affect your decision about tone and attitude. Some points are best made by earnestness, some by dry understatement, some by humor.

Once you have your unities decided, there’s no material you can’t work into your frame. If the tourist in Hong Kong had chosen to write solely in the conversational vein about what he and Ann did, he would have found a natural way to weave into his narrative whatever he wanted to tell us about the Kowloon ferry and the local weather. His personality and purpose would have been intact, and his article would have held together.

Now it often happens that you’ll make these prior decisions and then discover that they weren’t the right ones. The material begins to lead you in an unexpected direction, where you are more comfortable writing in a different tone. That’s normal—the act of writing generates some cluster of thoughts or memories that you didn’t anticipate. Don’t fight such a current if it feels right. Trust your material if it’s taking you into terrain you didn’t intend to enter but where the vibrations are good. Adjust your style accordingly and proceed to whatever destination you reach. Don’t become the prisoner of a preconceived plan. Writing is no respecter of blueprints.

If this happens, the second part of your article will be badly out of joint with the first. But at least you know which part is truest to your instincts. Then it’s just a matter of making repairs. Go back to the beginning and rewrite it so that your mood and your style are consistent from start to finish.

There’s nothing in such a method to be ashamed of. Scissors and paste—or their equivalent on a computer—are honorable writers’ tools. Just remember that all the unities must be fitted into the edifice you finally put together, however backwardly they may be assembled, or it will soon come tumbling down.


The Lead and the Ending

The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the “lead.”

How long should the lead be? One or two paragraphs? Four or five? There’s no pat answer. Some leads hook the reader with just a few well-baited sentences; others amble on for several pages, exerting a slow but steady pull. Every article poses a different problem, and the only valid test is: does it work? Your lead may not be the best of all possible leads, but if it does the job it’s supposed to do, be thankful and proceed.

Sometimes the length may depend on the audience you’re writing for. Readers of a literary review expect its writers to start somewhat discursively, and they will stick with those writers for the pleasure of wondering where they will emerge as they move in leisurely circles toward the eventual point. But I urge you not to count on the reader to stick around. Readers want to know—very soon—what’s in it for them.

Therefore your lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading. It must cajole him with freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humor, or surprise, or with an unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question. Anything will do, as long as it nudges his curiosity and tugs at his sleeve.

Next the lead must do some real work. It must provide hard details that tell the reader why the piece was written and why he ought to read it. But don’t dwell on the reason. Coax the reader a little more; keep him inquisitive.

Continue to build. Every paragraph should amplify the one that preceded it. Give more thought to adding solid detail and less to entertaining the reader. But take special care with the last sentence of each paragraph—it’s the crucial springboard to the next paragraph. Try to give that sentence an extra twist of humor or surprise, like the periodic “snapper” in the routine of a stand-up comic. Make the reader smile and you’ve got him for at least one more paragraph.

Let’s look at a few leads that vary in pace but are alike in maintaining pressure. I’ll start with two columns of my own that first appeared in Life and Look—magazines which, judging by the comments of readers, found their consumers mainly in barbershops, hairdressing salons, airplanes and doctors’ offices (“I was getting a haircut the other day and I saw your article”). I mention this as a reminder that far more periodical reading is done under the dryer than under the reading lamp, so there isn’t much time for the writer to fool around.

The first is the lead of a piece called “Block That Chickenfurter”:

I’ve often wondered what goes into a hot dog. Now I know and I wish I didn’t.

Two very short sentences. But it would be hard not to continue to the second paragraph:

My trouble began when the Department of Agriculture published the hot dog’s ingredients—everything that may legally qualify—because it was asked by the poultry industry to relax the conditions under which the ingredients might also include chicken. In other words, can a chickenfurter find happiness in the land of the frank?

One sentence that explains the incident that the column is based on. Then a snapper to restore the easygoing tone.

Judging by the 1,066 mainly hostile answers that the Department got when it sent out a questionnaire on this point, the very thought is unthinkable. The public mood was most felicitously caught by the woman who replied: “I don’t eat feather meat of no kind.”

Another fact and another smile. Whenever you’re lucky enough to get a quotation as funny as that one, find a way to use it. The article then specifies what the Department of Agriculture says may go into a hot dog—a list that includes “the edible part of the muscle of cattle, sheep, swine or goats, in the diaphragm, in the heart or in the esophagus … [but not including] the muscle found in the lips, snout or ears.”

From there it progresses—not without an involuntary reflex around the esophagus—into an account of the controversy between the poultry interests and the frankfurter interests, which in turn leads to the point that Americans will eat anything that even remotely resembles a hot dog. Implicit at the end is the larger point that Americans don’t know, or care, what goes into the food they eat. The style of the article has remained casual and touched with humor. But its content turns out to be more serious than readers expected when they were drawn into it by a whimsical lead.

A slower lead, luring the reader more with curiosity than with humor, introduced a piece called “Thank God for Nuts”:

By any reasonable standard, nobody would want to look twice—or even once—at the piece of slippery elm bark from Clear Lake, Wisc., birthplace of pitcher Burleigh Grimes, that is on display at the National Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. As the label explains, it is the kind of bark Grimes chewed during games “to increase saliva for throwing the spitball. When wet, the ball sailed to the plate in deceptive fashion.” This would seem to be one of the least interesting facts available in America today.

But baseball fans can’t be judged by any reasonable standard. We are obsessed by the minutiae of the game and nagged for the rest of our lives by the memory of players we once saw play. No item is therefore too trivial that puts us back in touch with them. I am just old enough to remember Burleigh Grimes and his well-moistened pitches sailing deceptively to the plate, and when I found his bark I studied it as intently as if I had come upon the Rosetta Stone. “So that’s how he did it,” I thought, peering at the odd botanical relic. “Slippery elm! I’ll be damned.”

This was only one of several hundred encounters I had with my own boyhood as I prowled through the Museum. Probably no other museum is so personal a pilgrimage to our past....

The reader is now safely hooked, and the hardest part of the writer’s job is over.

One reason for citing this lead is to note that salvation often lies not in the writer’s style but in some odd fact he or she was able to discover. I went up to Cooperstown and spent a whole afternoon in the museum, taking notes. Jostled everywhere by nostalgia, I gazed with reverence at Lou Gehrig’s locker and Bobby Thomson’s game-winning bat. I sat in a grandstand seat brought from the Polo Grounds, dug my unspiked soles into the home plate from Ebbets Field, and dutifully copied all the labels and captions that might be useful.

“These are the shoes that touched home plate as Ted finished his journey around the bases,” said a label identifying the shoes worn by Ted Williams when he famously hit a home run on his last time at bat. The shoes were in much better shape than the pair—rotted open at the sides—that belonged to Walter Johnson. But the caption provided exactly the kind of justifying fact a baseball nut would want. “My feet must be comfortable when I’m out there a-pitching,” the great Walter said.

The museum closed at five and I returned to my motel secure in my memories and my research. But instinct told me to go back the next morning for one more tour, and it was only then that I noticed Burleigh Grimes’s slippery elm bark, which struck me as an ideal lead. It still does.

One moral of this story is that you should always collect more material than you will use. Every article is strong in proportion to the surplus of details from which you can choose the few that will serve you best—if you don’t go on gathering facts forever. At some point you must stop researching and start writing.

Another moral is to look for your material everywhere, not just by reading the obvious sources and interviewing the obvious people. Look at signs and at billboards and at all the junk written along the American roadside. Read the labels on our packages and the instructions on our toys, the claims on our medicines and the graffiti on our walls. Read the fillers, so rich in self-esteem, that come spilling out of your monthly statement from the electric company and the telephone company and the bank. Read menus and catalogues and second-class mail. Nose about in obscure crannies of the newspaper, like the Sunday real estate section—you can tell the temper of a society by what patio accessories it wants. Our daily landscape is thick with absurd messages and portents. Notice them. They not only have social significance; they are often just quirky enough to make a lead that’s different from everybody else’s.

Speaking of everybody else’s lead, there are many categories I’d be glad never to see again. One is the future archaeologist: “When some future archaeologist stumbles on the remains of our civilization, what will he make of the jukebox?” I’m tired of him already and he’s not even here. I’m also tired of the visitor from Mars: “If a creature from Mars landed on our planet he would be amazed to see hordes of scantily clad earthlings lying on the sand barbecuing their skins.” I’m tired of the cute event that just happened to happen “one day not long ago” or on a conveniently recent Saturday afternoon: “One day not long ago a small button-nosed boy was walking with his dog, Terry, in a field outside Paramus, N.J., when he saw something that looked strangely like a balloon rising out of the ground.” And I’m very tired of the have-in-common lead: “What did Joseph Stalin, Douglas MacArthur, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Sherwood Anderson, Jorge Luis Borges and Akira Kurosawa have in common? They all loved Westerns.” Let’s retire the future archaeologist and the man from Mars and the button-nosed boy. Try to give your lead a freshness of perception or detail.

Consider this lead, by Joan Didion, on a piece called “7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38”:

Seven Thousand Romaine Street is in that part of Los Angeles familiar to admirers of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett: the underside of Hollywood, south of Sunset Boulevard, a middle-class slum of “model studios” and warehouses and two-family bungalows. Because Paramount and Columbia and Desilu and the Samuel Goldwyn studios are nearby, many of the people who live around here have some tenuous connection with the motion-picture industry. They once processed fan photographs, say, or knew Jean Harlow’s manicurist. 7000 Romaine looks itself like a faded movie exterior, a pastel building with chipped art moderne detailing, the windows now either boarded or paned with chicken-wire glass and, at the entrance, among the dusty oleander, a rubber mat that reads WELCOME.

Actually no one is welcome, for 7000 Romaine belongs to Howard Hughes, and the door is locked. That the Hughes “communications center” should lie here in the dull sunlight of Hammett-Chandler country is one of those circumstances that satisfy one’s suspicion that life is indeed a scenario, for the Hughes empire has been in our time the only industrial complex in the world—involving, over the years, machinery manufacture, foreign oil-tool subsidiaries, a brewery, two airlines, immense real-estate holdings, a major motion-picture studio, and an electronics and missile operation—run by a man whose modus operandi most closely resembles that of a character in The Big Sleep.

As it happens, I live not far from 7000 Romaine, and I make a point of driving past it every now and then, I suppose in the same spirit that Arthurian scholars visit the Cornish coast. I am interested in the folklore of Howard Hughes....

What is pulling us into this article—toward, we hope, some glimpse of how Hughes operates, some hint of the riddle of the Sphinx—is the steady accumulation of facts that have pathos and faded glamour. Knowing Jean Harlow’s manicurist is such a minimal link to glory, the unwelcoming welcome mat such a queer relic of a golden age when Hollywood’s windows weren’t paned with chicken-wire glass and the roost was ruled by giants like Mayer and DeMille and Zanuck, who could actually be seen exercising their mighty power. We want to know more; we read on.

Another approach is to just tell a story. It’s such a simple solution, so obvious and unsophisticated, that we often forget that it’s available to us. But narrative is the oldest and most compelling method of holding someone’s attention; everybody wants to be told a story. Always look for ways to convey your information in narrative form. What follows is the lead of Edmund Wilson’s account of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the most astonishing relics of antiquity to turn up in modern times. Wilson doesn’t spend any time setting the stage. This is not the “breakfast-to-bed” format used by inexperienced writers, in which a fishing trip begins with the ringing of an alarm clock before daylight. Wilson starts right in—whap!—and we are caught:

At some point rather early in the spring of 1947, a Bedouin boy called Muhammed the Wolf was minding some goats near a cliff on the western shore of the Dead Sea. Climbing up after one that had strayed, he noticed a cave that he had not seen before, and he idly threw a stone into it. There was an unfamiliar sound of breakage. The boy was frightened and ran away. But he later came back with another boy, and together they explored the cave. Inside were several tall clay jars, among fragments of other jars. When they took off the bowl-like lids, a very bad smell arose, which came from dark oblong lumps that were found inside all the jars. When they got these lumps out of the cave, they saw that they were wrapped up in lengths of linen and coated with a blac