What is good writing?

William Zinsser, co-author of what many regard as the definitive writing bible, On Writing Well, gives a talk every August to the incoming international students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

“I can’t imagine how hard it must be,” he admits, “to learn to write comfortably in a second—or third or fourth—language. I don’t think I could do it, and I admire your grace in taking on that difficult task. Much of the anxiety that I see in foreign students could be avoided if certain principles of writing good English — which nobody ever told them — were explained in advance.”

English, he explains, is not as musical as Spanish, or Italian, or French, or as ornamental as Arabic, or as vibrant as some of the native languages of his students. But English is plain and it’s strong. It has a huge vocabulary of words that have precise shades of meaning; there’s no subject, however technical or complex, that can’t be made clear to any reader in good English — if it’s used right. And the best way to ‘get it right’, says Zinsser, is by imitation.

We all need models. Bach needed a model; Picasso needed a model. Make a point of reading writers who are doing the kind of writing you want to do. Study their articles clinically. Try to figure out how they put their words and sentences together. That’s how I learned to write, not from a writing course.

Zinsser has 4 basic principles of writing good English: clarity, simplicity, brevity and humanity. Read the full article at The American Scholar …