Friday, November 06, 2009

Virtuous Advice

Here's a second passage from William Zinsser's On Writing Well. I think his advice illustrates the importance and practicality of the four derivative Objectivist virtues which, to me, are most central in living one's life (independence, productiveness, integrity and pride). (Set aside the fact that it's written in terms of competitiveness, the same ideas hold without that element.)
[...] We're all working with the same words and the same principles.

Where, then, is the edge? Ninety percent of the answer lies in the hard work of mastering the tools discussed in this book. Add a few points for such natural gifts as a good musical ear, a sense of rhythm and a feeling for words. But the final advantage is the same one that applies in every other competitive venture. If you would like to write better than everybody else, you have to want to write better than everybody else. You must take an obsessive pride in the smallest details of your craft. And you must be willing to defend what you've written against the various middlemen--editors, agents and publishers--whose sights may be different from yours, whose standards not as high. Too many writers are browbeaten into settling for less than their best.

I've always felt that my "style"--the careful projection onto paper of who I think I am--is my main marketable asset, the one possession that might set me apart from other writers. Therefore I never wanted anyone to tinker with it, and after I submit an article I protect it fiercely. Several magazine editors have told me I'm the only writer they know who cares what happens to his piece after he gets paid for it. Most writers won't argue with an editor because they don't want to annoy him; they're so grateful to be published that they agree to having their style--in other words, their personality--violated in public.

Yet to defend what you've written is a sign that you are alive. I'm a known crank on this issue--I fight over every semicolon. But editors put up with me because they can see that I'm serious. In fact, my crankiness has brought me more work than it has driven away. Editors with an unusual assignment often thought of me because they knew I would do it with unusual care. They also knew they would get the article on time and that it would be accurate. [...]


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