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by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

October 2008

"A reader has a short attention span. You have to get hold of him and tell him what you mean."

"The secret of good writing," William Zissner wrote in his classic book on writing nonfiction, On Writing Well, "is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components."

Zissner is right! A reader has a short attention span. You have to get hold of him and tell him what you mean. In fact, a good question to ask yourself before and while you're writing is "What do I mean?" When you figure that out, just put it down simply, without trying for some high tone. The reader will stick with you for awhile if you try for self-importance. He may blame himself for not being smart enough to understand you, but only for a few pages. Then he'll put your writing down and never go back to it.

A great example of self-important writing is this government memo presented to F.D.R. in 1942:

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

"Tell them," F.D.R. translated, "that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to pull down the shades."

"The worst offenders
are the unnecessary phrases"


"Beware of the word that is no better long than short," Zissner warns us. Here's a sample list. The simple word is in parentheses.

Assistance (help), numerous (many), facilitate (ease), individual (man or woman), remainder (rest), referred to as (called)".

The worst offenders are the unnecessary phrases:

I might add, It should be pointed out, It is interesting to note, due to the fact that, until such time as, for the purpose of. Nix a bit, or sort of, or in a sense. Either declare or delete.

Most adverbs could be axed.

Smile happily, for example. Is there any other way to smile? Yawning tiredly, is yet another soporific combo. Writers are often most comfortable writing in the first person. It's more natural to their thinking process. But sometimes, especially in business or politics, the speaker or writer doesn't want anything to be pinned on him. Here's a particularly fine example of huh? What is he saying? Who is saying it? Assessing a crisis in Poland in 1884, our defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger said, "There's continued ground for serious concern and the situation remains serious. The longer it remains serious, the more grounds there are for serious concern."

"Zissner thinks that unity is the hallmark of good writing: unity of pronoun, of tense, and mood."



Zissner thinks that unity is the hallmark of good writing: unity of pronoun, of tense, and mood. You might want to have a casual tone or a sense of urgency or humor or formality depending on your subject matter. But of course, you might write a humorous article about a funeral or a formal one about your dog swallowing a rubber ball. But don't begin a travel story with a hilarious story of how you got locked in the bathroom on your flight and then go straight into a travelogue or a guidebook of the city in which you landed. Know what kind of article you're writing, the tone you want, and stay with it.

Pay close attention to your first lines. Craft and re-craft them if you have to. Rewrite terrific first lines in a notebook or keep them on file in your computer.

Here's one from a New Yorker article, Imperishable Maxwell by John Updike:

"To those who knew him, William Maxwell as a person–soft-spoken yet incisive, moist-eyed yet dry-voiced, witty yet infallibly tactful–threatened to overshadow Maxwell as a writer."

This first sentence draws you in by introducing you to someone you feel sure you would want to know after the specific and quirky person being written about.

"The thing about writing is that you, the writer, will probably be the one to read it most often before it gets to press."



Here's another from by Michael Kimmelman from A Caricaturist, but No Funny Stuff Here in The New York Times Arts section. (I guess you realize by now that I'm a New Yorker.)

"It means coming to terms with the past.: Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a German mouthful."

Now I just have to know what that word means and I bet you do, too. But Kmmelman is clever enough not to come right out and define it. Instead he gives you examples and you have to infer that this word means guilt over the past.

Endings are just as important. A reader (well this one anyway) feels deflated or sometimes enraged when I've taken a scenic trip with an article and at the end, I'm dropped off in a vacant lot.

Woody Allen had a topnotch closer to one of his comic routines. "I'm obsessed by the fact that my mother genuinely resembles Woody Allen."

The thing about writing is that you, the writer, will probably be the one to read it most often before it gets to press, so it's merely self-defense to do it as well as you can, and then revise to make it even better.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro




Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s novel, Miriam the Medium, was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award and is currently selling in Holland, Belgium, and the U.K. She’s published essays in NYT (Lives) and Newsweek-My Turn, and in many anthologies such as It’s a Boy (Seal Press, 2005), The Imperfect Mom (Broadway Books, 2006) About What Was Lost (Plume Books, 2007,) For Keeps, (Seal Press, 2007.) Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in many literary magazines such as The Iowa Review, Negative Capability, Moment, and in many anthologies such as Father (Pocket Books, 2000). The short story from that collection, "The Wild Russian," will be reprinted for educational testing purposes nationwide. She currently teaches "Writing the Personal Essay" at UCLA on-line and is a book critic for Kirkus. She can be reached at http://www.miriamthemedium.com/ or at her blog: http://rochellejewelshapiro.blogspot.com/