Four Things I Learned Reading The Way of the Writer by Charles Johnson


My wife and I were at Barnes and Noble to return a book we’d received three or four copies of as gifts. I meandered through the aisles on the hunt for a new addition to my ever-growing collection of books. What should catch my eye, but Charles Johnson’s The Way of the Writer. It drew me in as I fanned its pages for the first time, landing on a spreadsheet in its middle, but more on that in a moment.

I tossed the book onto the stack of dozens like it when we got home. I figured I’d get to it months down the road, but my curiosity got the best of me. Within a few hours I found myself kicking back with it in one hand a pen in the other.

Johnson approaches the art of writing in much the same style as Stephen King in On Writing. The Way of the Writer serves as part memoir and part instruction manual on the craft of writing. Instead of coming from the perspective of a famous novelist, it flows from the pen of an academic. Johnson has much to share even in the early pages of this work. I’d like to share four of my biggest takeaways with you here.

1. Writer’s Notebook - When someone mentions something two or three times it's important. Johnson refers to his writer’s notebook at least a dozen times throughout the book. On its third appearance, he explains that it is a “collection of images, ideas, scraps of language, character sketches, overheard conversation, and so forth.”

I find this to be such a plain and excellent idea, that I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t thought of it sooner. Of course, a writer should be writing down what pops into their mind at all points of the day. Relying on memory alone isn't enough. I’ve carried a notebook with me for some time now but writing down bits of overheard conversation hadn't crossed my mind. I’ll have to be more diligent in my eavesdropping moving forward. I can't think of a better way to train my ear for true and real uses of language.

2. Quotes Spreadsheet - I landed on page fifty-two while first flipping the book’s pages. It contains a spreadsheet of what the American Book Review once considered the top 100 first lines found in novels. I thought it was a gathering of quotes and lines from various books upon first discovery. It wasn't but that didn't stop me from running with the idea. I created a spreadsheet for collecting everything I’ve underlined, copied and enjoyed in pieces of writing. Below is a smattering of entries so far in my reading of The Way of the Writer:   

  • To the degree, then, that I believe the health of a culture can be measured by the performance of those who speak and write its language. If that thesis is credible, then perhaps we should be worried by the coarseness, vulgarity, and at times obscenity that we encounter so often today in American speech.
  • The problem, as I see it, with vulgarity is that it is unexpressive, a failure to reveal things in a fresh way. Rather than liberate our perception, vulgarity calcifies it.
  • 90 percent of good writing is rewriting.
  • Writing well is the same thing as thinking well, and that means we want our final literary product—story, novel, or essay—to exhibit our best thought, best feeling, and best technique.
  • I write, first and foremost, in order to discover and clarify things for myself. (And that's why I write a lot; there are countless subjects I want to explore in this vast, mysterious universe we inhabit.) If I couldn't do that, then I wouldn't write.
  • Most of the ideas expressed by writers today are not new. Far too many writers are simply unaware that an idea they believe is original was actually thought and expressed—and presented with eloquence and sophistication—more than two thousand years before they were born. Writing well is thinking well. That necessarily involves knowing—and caring about—the best thoughts of others.

3. Interviewing Idea - “At the end of 2010,” Johnson said, “the poet E. Ethelbert Miller, who was recently inducted into the Washington, DC, Hall of Fame for his contributions to literature and public life, presented me with a proposal that at first glance might have seemed preposterous. He asked if he could interview me for an entire year.” What an incredible idea! Think of all you could learn about an individual, their work, and view of the world. It is a project boiling over with possibilities to take a deep dive into another’s world. I’m not 100% sure how I’m going to use this spark of inspiration, but it will at the very least involve an interview or two.

4. New Words - “A literary work is first and foremost,” Johnson said, “a performance of language” Fewer words from his pen have rung truer halfway through The Way of the Writer, than these. Johnson’s love for ornate language is on full display throughout his writing. On at least three different occasions, I’ve had to pause and research terms he’s used. Words like oeuvre are opportunities to learn and play with parcels of language I haven’t encountered.

Review: On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Few things are worse than reading a boring book. Your eyes begin to droop, your head nods and frustration builds. Each time you set it down, it becomes harder to pick up again. These are the books you either sludge through, or stop reading altogether.

“Writing,” Zinsser said, “is an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper, and it will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity.” Writers who fail to hold your attention, fail to come along for the ride. They remain distant, cold and impersonal. Ornate language and generalities hide them from view and you pay the price.

When I first picked up On Writing Well, I had low expectations. It was lauded as a must read for any aspiring writer, so I ordered it on Amazon. Books on writing however, sounded as though they would be unimaginative and dull. I pictured every English teacher or professor I’d ever had and assumed they would catalog the rules of grammar and syntax, consisting of half-hearted advice from half-hearted authors looking to make a buck. I never in my wildest imaginings, thought a book on writing would become one of my favorite reads.

“It’s far easier,” Zinsser said, “to bury Caesar than to praise him—and that goes for Cleopatra, too. But to say why you think a play is good, in words that don’t sound banal, is one of the hardest chores in the business.” That is where I find myself at this junction in our journey together. I find Zinsser’s work to be excellent, exciting and helpful, but grasp for the right words to convey why.

Often, we aren’t sure why we like one movie and not another, or why we enjoyed seeing this play instead of that one—at least that’s where I regularly find myself. In large measure it comes down to taste. I have a taste for Zinsser’s style, and an enjoyment for his use of language. Rather than tell you his book isn’t boring, I’d like to show you Zinsser in his own words. You’ll be in the best position to determine if his way of approaching the task of writing suits your interests far better than I can guess. In short, you'll be the judge if you find it boring.

“A white haired man,” Zinsser describes, “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.” This opening scene describes a photograph of E.B. White, that used to hang in Zinsser’s office. Students and writers alike gazed at that image throughout his career. “What gets their attention,” Zinsser said, “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.”

Writing is a simple task. You sit down, and put on paper the ideas and thoughts swirling in your mind. Nothing could be more straightforward, and yet few things are more difficult. You get paralyzed by the size of the task. It is enormous in its appearance. You want to say something valuable, something important, something people will like. You’re so wrapped up in the finished product, you can’t get going.      

“Computers,” Zinsser continues, “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 want to read.” For all the advances time and invention have produced, our world remains writing based.

Your tools are good thinking and the English language. How you use them is largely a matter of personal preference, but you can’t produce quality writing without putting both to work in service of your goal. “There isn’t a ‘right’ way,” Zinsser explains, “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 like to get up early and write, others prefer to stay up late. Some require silence, while others prefer music. Each writer’s approach is unique and personal. “It’s a question,” Zinsser explains, “of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.”  

“The essence of writing,” Zinsser said, “is rewriting.” Clarity and strength are achieved by tinkering with words, sentences and paragraphs until they are just right. The bulk of Zinsser’s book walks you through how to do just that no matter the subject before you. “Good writing is good writing,” Zinsser asserts, “whatever form it takes and whatever we call it.”

10 Favorite Quotes

“Clear thinking becomes clear writing: one can't exist without the other.”

“Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it's where the game is won or lost.”

“Eliminate every such fact that is a known attribute: don't tell us that the sea had waves and the sand was white. Find details that are significant.”

“So when you write about a place, try to draw the best out of it. But if the process should work in reverse, let it draw the best out of you.”

“No wonder you tighten; you are so busy thinking of your awesome responsibility to the finished article that you can't start.”

“My commodity as a writer, whatever I'm writing about, is me. And your commodity is you. Don't alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page, a voice that's enjoyable not only in its musical line but in its avoidance of sounds that would cheapen its tone: breeziness and condescension and cliches.”

“Find the best writers in the fields that interest you and read their work aloud. Get their voice and their taste into your ear—their attitude toward language. Don't worry that by imitating them you'll lose your own voice and your own identity. Soon enough you will shed those skins and become who you are supposed to become.”

“Moral: any time you can tell a story in the form of a quest or a pilgrimage you'll be ahead of the game. Readers bearing their own associations will do some of your work for you.”

“Be yourself and your readers will follow you anywhere. Try to commit an act of writing and your readers will jump overboard to get away. Your product is you. The crucial transaction in memoir and personal history is the transaction between you and your remembered experiences and emotions.”

I keep On Writing Well within arms reach of my desk. Whenever I begin a new project, I pull it down, flip through its pages and in so doing find the help I need to finish my task. It serves as both an inspiration and a resource regardless of the project before me.

"All the pieces of paper," Zinsser said, "that circulate through your office each day are forms of writing. Take them seriously." Much of what I do each day involves writing. As much as we live in a digital world, it remains a world comprised of words. The introduction of newer and newer technology only serves to increase the speed at which I am expected to perform the task of putting thoughts on paper. "Clear thinking," Zinsser said, "becomes clear writing: one can't exist without the other." Zinsser helps me accomplish both. He settles my mind, and gives me direction as I attempt to write.  

Whether you have a blog, and idea for a book or simply desire to improve the quality of the emails you send, On Writing Well has something for you. “Banality,” Zinsser points out, “is the enemy of good writing: the challenge is to not write like everybody else.” Zinsser’s book will help you improve your writing and develop a style all your own.


Cade's Cluttered Desk

Cade sat alone on the porch sipping his coffee as light crept over the horizon. The branches of nearby trees swayed to and fro as a gentle breeze swept past. It was the dawn of a new day and a chill was in the air. Cade began each day in a similar fashion. It was his routine, and he was if anything a creature of habit.

He woke at 5am on the dot, made a pot of coffee and sat on the front porch reading his bible. As soon as the sun came up, he would refill his coffee cup for the second time and go for a walk. Cade would take at least two walks each day, morning and evening. When the mood hit him just right, he’d even mix in a short afternoon walk after lunch. It was his special time to be alone with his thoughts.  

He kept a small notebook tucked into his back pocket, just in case inspiration struck—and it usually did. Cade’s desk was littered with notes and thoughts that hit him while lost in the wilds of nature. One day he would be mulling over some problem of life and the next enthralled with the wonders of creation. His notes were just as scattered in subject as they were in position.

He didn’t know what to do with this ever growing assortment of words. He had too much of an emotional attachment to discard them, and yet little clue how to put them to use. Every day when he returned from his walk, he’d place his new notes on top of the desk, or in a drawer and turn his attention to other things. The result was a tangled mess of observations, thoughts and ideas gathering dust on an old man’s desk.

One day, the phone rang. It was his buddy Scott who like Cade, had an ever mounting collection of little notes. Scott didn’t know what to do with his anymore than Cade did, but that morning genius had hit him. “What if?” How many lives have turned on that little phrase. Two magic words, soaked with power. The power to change destinations and rewrite destinies. When Cade heard the phrase, his heart leapt. It was the opportunity he’d been waiting for and now it had arrived.

The next morning Cade sat down at his desk, after his first walk of the day, and began to organize the scattered bits of paper covering its top. Soon he found himself pulling out his typewriter and pounding out new ones. He did this day after day, for months on end. Just when his wife would think he was done, he’d refill his cup, and return to the keyboard. His fingers danced across the keys with the precision and ease of a concert pianist as he composed page after page until at last he was finished with his task.

What had been percolating in his heart for years on end, came pouring out and he loved it. He had found an outlet and taken the first step forward. He had something to say, and it didn’t matter if anyone else ever saw it. He needed to do the work. For far too long, Cade had ignored the gentle nudge prodding him from within. “Write,” it whispered in his ear. He’d ignored that voice for year after year until, at long last it got his attention.