Have heroes. Imitate and quote them often. Most of all don’t be afraid to do so publicly. What’s the point in having a hero after all, if they don’t inspire you.
A few literary heroes come to mind each time I write, especially when I run into problems. Their words bubble to surface with the help I require when I need them most. William Zinsser has been one such author this past year. Rare has been the writing session when his words and advice haven’t been a welcomed breath of fresh guidance and tender rebuke rendered at the proper time.
Seventy pages into his classic On Writing Well you’ll find these simple truths that now reside on the wall by my desk. There they admonish me to remove from my writing, that which doesn’t belong.
Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw: “a bit,” “a little,” “sort of,” “kind of,” “rather,” “quite,” “very,” “too,” “pretty much,” “in a sense,” and dozens more. They dilute your style and your persuasiveness.
Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.
Don’t say you weren’t too happy because the hotel was pretty expensive. Say you weren’t happy because the hotel was expensive. Don’t tell us you were quite fortunate. How fortunate is that? Don’t describe an event as rather spectacular or very awesome. Words like “spectacular” and “awesome” don’t submit to measurement. “Very” is a useful word to achieve emphasis, but far more often it’s clutter. There’s no need to call someone very methodical. Either he is methodical or he isn’t.
The large point is one of authority. Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of the reader’s trust. Readers want a writer who believes in himself and in what he is saying. Don’t diminish that belief. Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.
Few words as adequately address the use of qualifiers. Zinsser is candid in his feelings, clear in his thoughts and encouraging in his challenge. I’ll go the rest of my days attempting to heed them.