F ellow opinion columnist Bret Stephens (hey, what’s a Pulitzer between friends anyway?) recently used his column to offer a list of writing tips for the aspiring op-ed author, a “summertime service for readers of the editorial pages who may wish someday to write for them.”

The esteemed New York Times commentator’s list is a very short one, just 15 tips in all, but I found it interesting and instructive to compare his thoughts with some of the comparable advice that the late, great William Zinsser dispenses in his classic primer, On Writing Well. Stephens’s opening counsel is that “every sentence has to count in grabbing the reader’s attention, starting with the first,” since, as a wise editor once observed, “the easiest decision a reader can make is to stop reading.”

Personally, I find it more efficient to ensure that some readers never even start, warning them off with one of those dreaded “big words” or some abstruse cultural reference right at the outset. Why, I reason considerately, waste even a few precious moments of their time?

And Zinsser? He likewise writes that “your lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading. It must cajole him with freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humor, or surprise, or with an unusual idea or an interesting fact, or a question. Anything will do, as long as it nudges his curiosity and tugs at his sleeve.”

So, looking back at this column’s opening line, how did I fare? Well, there was that parenthetical bit of attempted humor (which in some parts, I hear, can get you up to a year in the slammer if convicted in the first degree). Now, it’s true that this one was even a bit more impenetrable than the usual aside appearing here, requiring the reader to (a) know that Bret Stephens has won a Pulitzer Prize and I haven’t; and (b) put that together with the feigned hubristic reference to my “fellow opinion columnist” to produce the desired “ha-ha” effect.

While all this would seem to indicate a very high level of respect for readers’ sophistication (which in fact I have), it’s actually based in larger part on yet another Zinsserism: “Don’t worry about whether the reader will ‘get it’ if you indulge in a sudden impulse for humor. If it amuses you in the act of writing, put it in. 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.” Most of the time, I really do enjoy writing; it falls to my editor to ensure that I don’t enjoy myself too much.

Elsewhere, Mr. Zinsser reiterates that “You are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience — every reader is a different person.” Mr. Stephens, on the other hand, suggests that it is for “a broad community of people that you must write,” and that the ideal reader is “a person of normal intelligence who will be happy to learn something from you, provided he can readily understand what you’re saying.” He thus advises against using “high-flown jargon…[or] an oleaginous adjective.” I can only assume he was chuckling to himself as he penned that last phrase.

Perhaps Zinsser and Stephens don’t disagree. The former is addressing nonfiction writers in general, while the latter is giving advice specifically to aspiring op-ed writers, whom he distinguishes from columnists. “A columnist is a generalist, often with an idiosyncratic style, who performs for his readers. An op-ed contributor is a specialist who seeks only to inform them.”

So it turns out that I’m no mere schreiber — I’m a “performance artist.” And if I start acting a little strange in print, that’s just my “idiosyncratic style” on display. William Zinsser seems to agree:

You must find some way to elevate your act of writing into an entertainment. Usually this means giving the reader an enjoyable surprise. Any number of methods will do the job: humor, anecdote, paradox, an unexpected quotation, a powerful fact, an outlandish detail, a circuitous approach, an elegant arrangement of words. These seeming amusements in fact become your “style.” When we say we like a writer’s style, what we mean is that we like his personality as he expresses it on paper.


Stephens says the aspiring writer ought to be ready to “sweat the small stuff. Read over each sentence — read it aloud — and ask yourself: Is this true? Can I defend every single word of it? Did I get the facts, quotes, dates and spellings exactly right? Yes, sometimes those spellings are hard: the president of Turkmenistan is Gurbanguly Malikguliyevich Berdymukhammedov.” (Mr. Stephens refers to the despotic leader of a country ranking just ahead of North Korea on human rights, and that really is his name, although I understand he allows his close friends to call him Gurby.)

Bill Zinsser, too, recommends that the writer “re-examine each sentence,” but his purposes are different. Rather than a mere fact-checking device, he sees it as an opportunity to ask, “Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging onto something useless just because you think it’s beautiful? Simplify, simplify.”

For him, “the two main virtues of writing are clarity and simplicity,” and the “secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components,” which “improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.”

REREADING WHAT YOU’VE WRITTEN then, is the indispensable prelude to rewriting. And rewriting, in turn, “is the essence of writing well — where the game is won or lost.”

But before the aspiring writer groans too loudly at the mere thought of a do-over, Zinsser clarifies that the rewriting he has in mind is not “writing one draft and then writing a different second version, and then a third. Most rewriting consists of reshaping and tightening and refining the raw material you wrote on your first try.” Stephens concurs: “If you want to write a successful 700-word op-ed, start with a longer draft, then cut and cut again.”

Mr. Zinsser acknowledges that we writers “have an emotional equity in our first draft; we can’t believe that it wasn’t born perfect. But the odds are close to 100% that it wasn’t. Most writers don’t initially say what they want to say, or say it as well as they could.” Unlike his students, who think of rewriting exercises as a punishment like extra homework, he views it as a gift, because writing is “an evolving process, not a product.”

On Writing Well also offers another, subtler reason to pause and take stock of what you’ve written: It’s that the “good writer of prose must be part poet, always listening to what he writes.” The writer must “bear in mind, when…choosing words and stringing them together, how they sound. This may seem absurd: readers read with their eyes. But in fact they hear what they are reading — in their inner ear — far more than you realize. Therefore, such matters as rhythm and alliteration are vital to every sentence.”

Considering that a good writer is part poet, part performer, part lexicographer and grammarian, and part linguistic surgeon (none of which roles even relate to the content of the writing), it’s no surprise that one thing on which both writers agree is the difficulty of this craft. Or, as Bill Zinsser put it, “If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things people do.” 

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 676. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com