Writing (and maybe speaking) is Learned by Imitation – Insight from the late, truly great, William Zinsser

When I was in elementary school, we had to memorize some poems, and then recite them to the class. In other words, we “performed,” in what was a very young version of “oral interpretation,” works our teacher deemed as worthy of memorizing.

To this day, I can quote in its entirety:

I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;…

I now lead some “oral interpretation” exercises in some of my speech classes. My students todays do not even know these works. Not only do they not know The Arrow and the Song by Longfellow, they do not even know Casey at the Bat. How can you get to college and not know Casey at the Bat?!

In Writing WellAnyway, I thought of all this as I read through some of the essays of William Zinsser after his recent death. Zinsser is best known for his indispensable book, On Writing Well, but you can also read a number of his essays at this The American Scholar link:

Here’s an excerpt from Zinsser’s essay Looking for a Model:

Writing is learned by imitation; we all need models. “I’d like to write like that,” we think at various moments in our journey, mentioning an author whose style we want to emulate. But our best models may be men and women writing in fields different from our own. When I wrote On Writing Well, in 1974, I took as my model a book that had nothing to do with writing or the English language.

He then tells how he found and used a specific book as a model for his own writing:

The book I chose was American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, by the composer Alec Wilder.

And… I recently heard a portion of an interview conducted by KERA’s Krys Boyd, with:

Jon Macks, a writer for The Tonight Show With Jay Leno for more than 20 years. His new book is Monologue: What Makes America Laugh Before Bed (Blue Rider Press).

(Listen to her interview here). One of the ideas from Mr. Macks was this. (I’m paraphrasing):

When a person is starting in comedy, a good practice is to get the actual words of successful comedians, and practice delivering those words.

So, here’s the point. I think William Zinsser and Jon Macks were/are on to something. Writing, and speaking, is “learned by imitation.” You take the actual words of a successful writer or speaker, and practice with those words. Learn how to communicate by imitating masters. And then, after a while, you discover your own style, your own voice, and someday, people may imitate you…

When I teach speaking, I teach the value of, the absolute necessity of, vocal variety and verbal punch. This is the “never speak in a monotone” issue.

Where did I learn to speak with vocal variety and verbal punch? I think I learned it from reading Scripture aloud in twenty years of preaching. I always felt that it was an art, and a responsibility, to read scripture aloud in the most effective way. Those were not my words, but they needed to be communicated just right – as they were intended to be understood.

And, in the process, I think I developed a skill that has been of value in all of my years of speaking , both while I was a preacher, and after I left and started my “second” career.

Learn from masters; imitate well; practice in their words. Then, develop your own style, your own voice.

Seems like a smart path to follow to me…


William Zinsser
William Zinsser

It is worth your time to read the New York Times obituary of William Zinsser. An excerpt:

Mark Singer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, took Mr. Zinsser’s course at Yale and has reread his book several times. “The first lesson he taught was what to leave out,” Mr. Singer said. “He was a demon about clutter.”…

Christopher Buckley, the political satirist, said in an interview that he sensed Mr. Zinsser perched on his shoulder like a parrot when he sat down to write. The parrot always says to look for needless verbiage.
“It might not be an exaggeration to say that millions of words have been cut,” Mr. Buckley said. “Doubtless, Bill would say, ‘I think you missed a few.’ ”


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