WRITING TO LEARN by William Zinsser


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More artful writing on the art of writing well by the author of On Writing Well, Writing with a Word Processor, and nine other books. Part memoir, part handbook, this latest salvo in Zinsser's campaign for clear writing was inspired--he states in his Preface--by the trend in American colleges for including writing as an integral part of all disciplines: a move designed to teach students not only to write well, but to think clearly too, even about subjects anathema to them. And therein lies the appeal for Zinsser, who explains how, in prep school, he dropped out of chemistry class, unable to penetrate the ""icon"" of the Periodic Table. Can even ultrasymbolic chemistry be written about in a way that unveils its mysteries? Before we find out, Zinsser offers a light rundown on his own toiling in the trenches of pedagogical writting--time spent as editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine; a visit to a Minnesota college spearheading the ""writing across the curriculum"" trend--and a list of ""crotchets and convictions,"" concise writing advice (e.g., ""One way to take the mush out of concept nouns is to turn them into active verbs""). Then, the book's heart: a survey of varied disciplines (geology, ecology, astronomy, art criticism, biology, anthropology), each illuminated by examples of the best writing in the field. ""The Natural World,"" for example, receives a warm analysis of the clarities of Archie Carr's So Excellent a Fishe: A Natural History of Sea Turtles, Darwin, and Fabre. A separate chapter on math highlights writings by students at a Friends School (one tackles the problem of finding a number that has 13 factors by writing a story treating the problem as hard-boiled mystery). And then there's chemistry, which, too, succumbs to writing's charms as Zinsser quotes Primo Levi (""There are friendly metals and hostile metals. . ."") and examples from two college chemistry classes. Zinsser winds up with a look at music writing: Alec Wilder's, Virgil Thomson's, and his own. An elegant exposition of the thesis that to write is to learn, but also an excellent guidebook for nonfiction writers: witty, lucid, zesty, full of rich examples, and, in the tradition of Strunk and White, a model in its own right.

Pub Date: April 20th, 1988
Publisher: Harper & Row