This is a recent blog entry from "Zinsser on Friday," a weekly posting on our website by the author of On Writing Well. To read other postings by William Zinsser, go to theamericanscholar.org.
"WE WANT YOU TO come to our school and talk to our students about writing," said the voice on the phone, introducing himself as the chairman of the school's English department. I asked what he had in mind. "We'd like you to give our students some tips that will make them better writers," he said.
Tips! The ugly little word hung in the air, exuding its aroma of illicit information. Bookies live on tips delivered, horseplayers on tips received, investors on stock tips, preferably hot, and taxpayers on tips about how to avoid taxes. College-bound students pay for tips on how to pass the SAT test.
The tip is presumed to be based on inside knowledge, giving its recipient an edge in outwitting life's cruel odds, and never has the tip-dispensing industry been so alive and well, plying us in magazines and books and on television programs with maxims of salvation. Golf tips (keep your left arm straight), tennis tips (bend your knees), cooking tips (preheat the oven), gardening tips (buy a trowel), parenting tips (listen to your child), sex tips (take off your socks).
"I don't do tips," I told the man calling from the school's English department. It's not that I don't have any; On Writing Well is full of what might be called tips. But that's not the point of the book. It's a book of craft principles that add up to what it means to be a writer.
Tips can make...