Hey, Kids! Remember Goldilocks and the Bears? What’s That All About?

By Jack Limpert

The American Scholar, the magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa academic society, has a website that posts often about the craft of writing, and the site’s big draw has been the essays of William Zinsser, a journalist-writer-teacher. Zinsser’s essays have been pulled together into a book, The Writer Who Stayed, with a foreword by Robert Wilson, editor of The American Scholar. 

Wilson says he asked Zinsser to do a weekly column about writing after seeing the text of a talk, “Writing English as a Second Language,” that Zinsser gave to an incoming class of international students at the Columbia J School. Zinsser asked “What is good writing?” and he described how writing in English is different than writing in Spanish, Arabic, or other languages.

He told the students, “I can’t imagine how hard it must be to learn to write comfortably in a second—or third or fourth—language. I don’t think I could do it, and I admire your grace in taking on that difficult task. Much of the anxiety that I see in foreign students could be avoided if certain principles of writing good English—which nobody ever told them—were explained in advance. So I asked if I could talk to all of you during orientation week and tell you some of the things my students have found helpful.”

He then delivers a wonderfully entertaining and helpful guide to good writing. A text of the talk belongs on a writer’s bookshelf next to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and the book of Zinsser’s essays.

Here, for those who learned to write for print to enjoy, is a passage from a Zinsser essay, “Content Management: In Praise of Long-Form Journalism,” that’s in the book:

“As a teacher of writing I don’t fret about the new technology. What worries me is the new terminology. In recent years I’ve tutored students at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism whose writing is disorganized almost beyond human help, but they seldom mention ‘writing’ as what they came to the school to learn. They are here to study ‘new media,’ or ‘digital media,’ or ‘electronic journalism,’ or ‘videography,’ or some other glamorous new skill. Garbed in so much fancy labeling, they forget that journalism is just plain old content management. They return from a reporting assignment with a million notes and a million quotes and no idea what the story is about.

“The reason, I assume—and I don’t expect a Nobel Prize for this deduction—is that people now get their information mainly from random images on a screen and from random messages in their ears, and it no longer occurs to them that writing is linear and sequential; sentence B must follow sentence A. Every year student writing is a little more disheveled; I’m witnessing the slow death of logical thought. So is every English teacher in America.

“‘As a journalist,’ I tell my despairing students, ‘you are finally in the storytelling business.’ We all are. It’s the oldest form of human communication, from the caveman to the crib, endlessly riveting. Goldilocks wakes up from her nap and sees three bears at the foot of her bed. What’s that all about? What happens next? We want to know and we always will.

“Writers! Never forget to tell us what’s up with the bears. Manage that content.”

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