Zinsser and the Reader

William Zinsser’s first edition of On Writing Well, a book delinieating the basics of non-fiction writing, was published in 1976 – which is to say before the arrival of inventions like mobile phones and social media, that changed the way people read and write.

Rather than ponder about who one’s audience might be, Zinsser states:

“You are writing for yourself,” (Zinsser, 2016). “Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience – there is no such audience. Every reader is different.”

Times have changed. Thirty years after Zinsser published his book, mobile phones dominate society. Everywhere one looks, people can be seen swiping on glass screens, scrolling through social media feeds. Does Zissner’s advice still hold?

Gary Vaynerchuk, the author of Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook, said, “Facebook wants users to see things that they find relevant, fun, and useful…Which means you’d better create content that’s relevant, fun, and useful, too (Vaynerchuk, 2013).”

Vaynerchuk’s advice is on point, and everyone who scrolls through their social media feeds see advertisements strategically placed to appear like normal posts.

One-out-of-five page views in the U.S. is on Facebook, and writers who understand Vaynerchuk’s advice write content targeted at cashing in on that traffic – if played correctly, the writer could attract many readers.

Although writers are writing to gain the eyes of the readers, I do not believe Zinsser’s advice to write for one’s self is obsolete.

“You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for,” he said. “If you lose the dullards back in the dust, you don’t want them anyway.”

Zinsser compared three writings in Chapter 5 – one by E.B. White in 1944 from “The Hen,” another from H.L. Mencken about the Monkey Trial, and another from James Herndon’s book, How to Survive in Your Native Land (Zinsser, 2016).”

White’s writing was described by Zinsser as “simple beauty” because of the rhythm and use of refreshing words. He also said he had no interest in reading about hens, but the piece was “written with humanity and warmth and after three paragraphs, I know quite a lot about what sort of a man this hen-lover is.”

When it came to Mencken’s writing, Zinsser said it was obvious that he was writing for himself because he did not “give a damn.” He also said Herndon was also writing for himself.

I write for an audience who subscribes to The Southampton Press and 27east.com. But that does not mean I have to be boring in how I write.

My one requirement is to provide the who, what, where, when, why and how of a story – having fun with the words and throwing in puns add life to my stories.

Without such tactics, the story would be read and forgotten.

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